For better or worse, baseball holds fast to its traditions — as if the rules of America’s pastime were handed down to Abner Doubleday on Mt. Cooperstown by God himself.

But all traditions — no matter how long they have endured — began somewhere.

Indeed, a batter was once ruled out if the ball was caught after one bounce. It used to take eight called balls to earn a walk. And balls fouled off into the crowd were once dutifully returned.

"The ball was really a sacred object," said author and baseball historian Peter Morris. "The umpires would keep the ball in play until it was literally falling to pieces, and you couldn’t use it anymore. So the idea that a fan would keep it was just kind of ludicrous."

Morris said that as the 20th century dawned and baseball crowds swelled, fans became increasingly unwilling to part with game balls. Teams responded by hiring ushers and security personnel to retrieve them. There was the occasional incident, especially after 1920 when Major League Baseball changed the rules regarding balls, and mandated that fresh ones be used throughout the course of each game.

"When you’re rolling the ball out of play after a couple of at bats, but then you’re telling fans they can’t keep them, that doesn’t seem fair," said Morris.

In 1921, New York Giants ownership raised some eyebrows by ejecting Rueben Berman, a 31-year old businessman, from the Polo Grounds for refusing to return a foul ball. Making an example of a grown man is one thing, but how about an 11-year-old kid?

That kid, Robert Cotter, changed the trajectory of the game.

Holden resident Patrick Cotter said that as a kid in Philadelphia, his grandfather Robert “Toughie Reds” Cotter made a habit of spending summer afternoons taking in Phillies games, whether or not he had a ticket.

"He would sneak in by climbing up a drain pipe, then climbing under the gate while the guards were looking elsewhere," said Cotter.

On July 18, 1922, the 11-year-old Cotter snagged a foul ball and refused to give it up to security, who hauled him before the team’s business manager. When Cotter continued to hold his ground — and the ball — ownership saw a chance to establish a legal precedent, once and for all, that game balls — even foul balls — were team property.

"So he took him down to the precinct and insisted that he be arrested for larceny," said Cotter.

By the time Cotter’s mother arrived to bail out her son, the courthouse was closed, and young Robert Cotter spent the night in jail. At his arraignment the next morning, Judge Charles Lincoln Brown ruled in favor of Cotter and lambasted Phillies ownership.

In his ruling he stated that, “such an act on the part of a boy is merely proof that he is following his most natural impulses.” And he added, “it is a thing I would do myself.”

The incident turned into a full-blown PR nightmare, with big city papers, including the Boston Globe, picking up the story.

"His mother, Anne Cotter, she contacted newspapers and she pushed this story," said Patrick Cotter. "So, it wasn’t just “Toughie Reds” that was tough, it was Nana."

Morris said it didn’t take long for club owners across the league to adopt a new policy when it came to fans and foul balls.

"It was worth the expense," he explained. "Baseball was sort of realizing that if you make someone a fan as a kid then you get a lifelong fan. And there’s no better way then a special souvenir that kind of captures the essence of the game."

As for Robert “Toughie Reds” Cotter, the Phillies made amends in 1998, honoring him as their “fan of the century,” and presenting him with a fully sanctioned baseball signed by the entire team, including two men who would later figure into a bit of Red Sox history as well.

"In 1998, Curt Shilling and Terry Francona were Phillies," noted Cotter.

And while Patrick Cotter would love to see his grandfather someday enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame for his contribution to the game, he’ll settle for more folks simply knowing the story of the 11-year-old boy who endured a night in prison to help establish a beloved baseball tradition.

"You can go tell your son or daughter, when they bring their glove to the game, 'thank “Toughie Reds,”' Cotter chuckled.