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BASEBALL abounds with the kinds of questions that inquisitive young children love to ask and that their parents dread trying to answer: Why does the home team bat last? Why are the bases run counterclockwise? Why can't a player come back into a game as in other sports?
It is not entirely a cop-out to say, "Because that's the rule." In some cases, the closest we can come to the origins of these underlying rules and customs is that someone (we're not sure who) decided it should be that way (we're not sure why). But this chapter will, at the very least, try to illuminate the historical developments that helped make possible many of the things we take for granted when we watch a baseball game.
1.1 Clubs. Baseball teams are still often referred to as clubs, but the current meaning bears little relationship to the original one. Early baseball matches were contested by clubs, and when the term "team" first appeared in the mid-1860s it was an indication that the way the game was being played had changed for good.
The change in terminology is significant because clubs were such an integral element of nineteenth-century life. A club was a restricted group of people from similar backgrounds and wasprimarily social in nature. As Americans moved from the farms to the cities and began to lead less active lives, clubs began to experiment with sporting diversions to give their members much-needed exercise.
The Olympic Ball Club of Philadelphia was founded on July 4, 1833, playing what is now generally described as "town ball." The club survived long enough to celebrate its golden anniversary, though by 1860 it had switched to baseball. Rochester, New York, also had a club devoted to bat and ball games in the 1830s (Stephen Fox, Big Leagues, 168-172).
But the club that is generally credited with being the first baseball club is the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of New York City, because this club introduced so many of the elements of today's game. Formally organized on September 23, 1845, the Knickerbockers quickly adopted detailed rules for playing baseball and modified them over the next decade. Many of the rules they developed-two sides, nine players a side, base runners not being retired by being hit by a thrown ball-form the basis of today's game.
Just as important, the Knickerbockers wrote down their rules and arranged for them to be distributed. (The Olympic Ball Club had had a written constitution as early as 1837, which still survives and is reprinted in Dean Sullivan's Early Innings, pages 5-8. But the rules were all administrative in nature, so there is no reason to think that other clubs would have requested copies.) As will be explained in the next two entries, the Knickerbockers' rules were a vital step that made it possible for the game to spread.
1.2 Rules. Of course baseball has always had rules, right? Only in a limited sense. In the first half of the nineteenth century, bat and ball games were almost exclusively children's activities. Similar to hopscotch or tag or marbles, a game might be played on a particular day and in a particular place according to specific conventions, but the same rules wouldn't necessarily apply the next day or in the next county. Baseball in those days was truly "just a game."
The Knickerbockers adopted their first rules on September 13, 1845, which represented a significant step toward a more organized and formal game. Their rules were as follows:
1. Members must strictly observe the time agreed upon for exercise, and be punctual in their attendance.
2. When assembled for exercise, the President, or in his absence, the Vice-President, shall appoint an Umpire, who shall keep the game in a book provided for that purpose, and note all violations of the By-Laws and Rules during the time of exercise.
3. The presiding officer shall designate two members as Captains, who shall retire and make the match to be played, observing at the same time that the players opposite to each other should be as nearly equal as possible, the choice of sides to be then tossed for, and the first in hand to be decided in like manner.
4. The bases shall be from "home" to second base, forty-two paces; from first to third bases, forty-two paces, equidistant.
5. No stump match shall be played on a regular day of exercise.
6. If there should not be a sufficient number of members of the Club present at the time agreed upon to commence exercise, gentlemen not members may be chosen in to make up the match, which shall not be broken up to take in members that may afterwards appear; but in all cases, members shall have the preference, when present, at the making of a match.
7. If members appear after the game is commenced, they may be chosen if mutually agreed upon.
8. The game to consist of twenty-one counts, or aces; but at the conclusion an equal number of hands must be played.
9. The ball must be pitched, not thrown, for the bat.
10. A ball knocked out of the field, or outside the range of the first or third base, is foul.
11. Three balls being struck at and missed and the last one caught, is a hand out; if not caught is considered fair, and the striker bound to run.
12. If a ball be struck, or tipped, and caught, either flying or on the first bound, it is a hand out.
13. A player running the bases shall be out, if the ball is in the hands of an adversary on the base, or the runner is touched with it before he makes his base; it being understood, however, that in no instance is a ball to be thrown at him.
14. A player running who shall prevent an adversary from catching or getting the ball before making his base, is a hand out.
15. Three hands out, all out.
16. Players must take their strike in regular turn.
17. All disputes and differences relative to the game, to be decided by the Umpire, from which there is no appeal.
18. No ace or base can be made on a foul strike.
19. A runner cannot be put out in making one base, when a balk is made by the pitcher.
20. But one base allowed when a ball bounds out of the field when struck.
In mentioning the Knickerbockers, historians often stress the rules that are still part of today's game, such as Rule 15's establishment of three outs per inning and Rule 13's prohibition on throwing the ball at a base runner. Some sources even print only Rule 4 and the last thirteen rules, since these are the playing rules (see, for example, George L. Moreland, Balldom, 6).
While understandable, this emphasis is unfortunate because it creates a distorted portrait of the club. The Knickerbockers viewed these playing rules as very provisional and changed many of them in the ensuing years. The club's organizational rules were just as important-both to them and to the history of baseball-because they suggested a seriousness of purpose and a permanence that was essential in reinventing a child's game as an acceptable activity for adults.
1.3 Mass-circulated Rules. The Knickerbockers' rules appeared on December 6, 1856, in a publication called Porter's Spirit of the Times. This was an important step for a country that was still making the transition from oral communication to print. It enabled baseball to spread rapidly and also helped the game to make a valuable ally in the burgeoning American newspaper industry. Tom Melville has concluded that "baseball was the first game Americans learned principally from print," noting that town ball was "handed down from generation to generation orally" but that baseball was learned by reading "printed regulations" (Tom Melville, Early Baseball and the Rise of the National League, 18).
This process was directly responsible for the 1857 founding of the Franklin Base Ball Club of Detroit, which was likely the first club west of New York to use the Knickerbocker Rules. The December 13, 1856, issue of the New York Clipper included a copy of the rules. In an 1884 interview, founding club member Henry Starkey explained, "There was an old fiddler here in the city named Page.... He used to take the New York Clipper, and one day he showed me a copy in which there was quite a lengthy description of the new game of base ball.... There was quite a number of us who felt an interest in the game, and we came to the conclusion that the new way must be an improvement over the old. Anyway, we decided to try it, so I wrote to the Clipper for a copy of the new rules, and paid $1 for it. After we got the rules we organized a club-the first in Detroit" (Detroit Free Press, April 4, 1884).
1.4 Matches. Early clubs made a sharp distinction between informal games and matches, which were formal contests between two clubs. It was long believed that the first official match played under the Knickerbockers' rules took place on June 19, 1846, when the Knickerbockers were beaten at their own game by an informal group known as the New York Club, 23-1. But research by Melvin Adelman and Edward L. Widmer has established that two games had been played between the New York Ball Club and nine Brooklyn players the previous fall, on October 21 and 24, 1845 (Melvin L. Adelman, "The First Baseball Game, the First Newspaper References to Baseball, and the New York Club: A Note on the Early History of Baseball," Journal of Sport History, vol. 7, no. 3 [Winter 1980], 132-135). There is no proof that these games were played by the Knickerbockers' rules, but Frederick Ivor-Campbell concluded that "it is reasonable to suppose the games were played wholly under the rules that had been codified and formally adopted by the Knickerbockers just a month earlier" (Frederick Ivor-Campbell, "When Was the First Match Game Played by the Knickerbocker Rules?" Nineteenth Century Notes 93:4 [Fall 1993], 1). Contemporary newspaper accounts of both matches are reprinted in Dean Sullivan's Early Innings. Matches remained very rare for the next decade but then grew exponentially between 1855 and 1857.
1.5 Uniforms. On April 24, 1849, the Knickerbockers adopted a uniform of blue woolen pantaloons, a white flannel shirt, and a straw hat. Jimmy Wood said these choices were prompted by a previous game in which the players had found "that trousers impeded their movements and that the wearing of linen shirts was a handicap" (James Wood, as told to Frank G. Menke, "Baseball in By-Gone Days," syndicated column, Indiana [Pa.] Evening Gazette, August 14, 1916).
1.6 Nine Innings. The Knickerbockers' rules called for the game to be played until "21 counts, or aces" had been scored by one side. Playing until one side scored a predetermined number of runs continued to be the custom for the next decade. Nine innings was adopted as the length of the game on March 7, 1857, by the rules committee formed at the meeting that led to the creation of the game's first organizing body, the National Association of Base Ball Players. While the exact reasons for the choice of nine innings remain murky, researcher John Thorn believes there was general agreement that the number of players and innings should correspond. Thus the adoption of the nine-player game meant that nine would also become the number of innings.
1.7 Running Counterclockwise. In many of the forerunners of baseball, the bases were run clockwise. The reasons for the change are not known, but it's interesting to speculate on the consequences. Imagine how different baseball would be in a parallel universe in which the bases were run clockwise. With the extra edge in getting to first base, would all the greatest hitters in baseball history be right-handers? Would the left-handed pitcher, accordingly, be a rare bird? Would all the great defensive catchers, middle infielders, and third basemen be left-handers? Would players like Ozzie Smith and Luis Aparicio even have played in the major leagues?
Incidentally, softball incorporated a peculiar rule in 1908 by which the leadoff hitter could choose to run the bases clockwise or counterclockwise. The other base runners were then obliged to follow the leadoff hitter's cue (Lois Browne, Girls of Summer, 15).
1.8 Overrunning Bases. The rules of early baseball did not allow base runners to overrun bases, including first base, which had a number of important consequences. For example, the Brooklyn Eagle noted in 1865, "It is a noticeable fact this season thus far, that so many of the players overrun their bases and slip away from them. It has been found, upon investigation, to arise from the fact of their playing without spikes. Complaint is also made that shoes with spikes in, cannot be obtained. Every ball player should wear shoes with good spikes, that he can break up at short notice, and stop short, without slipping down" (Brooklyn Eagle, June 19, 1865).
Allowing runners to overrun bases was a hot topic for a number of years. Some observers contended that runners should be allowed to overrun any base while others argued for the status quo. Finally, before the 1871 season, a compromise was reached and runners were allowed to overrun first base only.
According to Jimmy Wood, the impetus for the rule change came from a surprising source. Baseball on ice (see 19.6) was popular in the 1860s, but players on the base paths "found it impossible to stop at bases after skating out a hit. Many of them were injured by skating into bases, their skates tripping them and sending them to the icy surface. To prevent further accidents the captains decided to permit players to overskate the bags without penalty of being touched out if they turned to the right on their way back to base. When summer baseball was resumed it was decided that the rule made for skater-players should be extended to the regular diamond" (James Wood, as told to Frank G. Menke, "Baseball in By-Gone Days," part 2, syndicated column, Marion [Ohio] Star, August 15, 1916). Although this explanation sounds farfetched, Wood was a star player of the era and was not known for fanciful tales, so his account must at least be considered.
The decision to let runners overrun first but not the other bases was one of those compromises that seems to have satisfied neither side. Supporters of allowing overrunning at all the bases were particularly outspoken, with Henry Chadwick declaring with his customary assurance: "This rule is confined to the first base, but it should have been applied to all, and no doubt the Amateur Convention will amend it to that effect" (New York Clipper, March 4, 1871). But that never happened.
In 1888 it was reported that the owners were tired of losing players to sliding injuries and were considering legalizing the overrunning of all bases (Brooklyn Eagle, November 9, 1888). The Lester Plan of 1892 called for runners to be allowed to run past second or third base, which gave Henry Chadwick the opportunity to reiterate his support (Sporting Life, November 12, 1892; Brooklyn Eagle, November 14, 1892). In 1894, John B. Foster of the Cleveland Leader advocated allowing runners to overrun second and third base in order to reduce the amount of spiking (quoted in the Brooklyn Eagle, November 7, 1894).
Others, however, preferred things as they were. One scribe complained that such a rule change would "kill some very exciting incidents. What is more interesting than to watch a runner and a fielder both jabbing at the base like a couple of bantams slugging a third party?" (Brooklyn Eagle, September 8, 1894). Whether this argument persuaded anyone or not is unclear, but for whatever reason the campaign to legalize the overrunning of second and third base never picked up enough steam to accomplish its aim.
As a result, what appears to have been a compromise when adopted in 1870 has been retained ever since. It has had far-reaching consequences, contributing to such developments as slides, the use of spikes, and the baseball player's own distinctive injury, the charley horse.
1.9 Pitchers Trying to Retire Batters. In many of the bat and ball games that were popular in the first half of the nineteenth century, the action was initiated by a "feeder" who tossed the ball to the batter without any thought of making it difficult to hit. Under the Knickerbockers' rules, the pitcher was initially still expected to simply toss hittable balls to the batter, but this soon changed. The identity of the first pitcher to seek a greater role is unknown, and indeed unknowable, but it can be safely said that the innovation occurred no later than the first great spurt of competitive play between 1855 and 1857. An 1856 account remarked that Knickerbockers' pitcher Richard F. Stevens "sends the ball with exceeding velocity, and he who strikes it fairly must be a fine batsman. It is questionable, however, whether his style of pitching is most successful, many believing a slow ball curving near the bat, to be the most effective" (Porter's Spirit of the Times, December 6, 1856; quoted by William Rankin, Sporting News, May 25, 1901). It is worth noting in passing that Stevens was a member of the family that owned the Elysian Fields on which the Knickerbockers played, which may have made batters reluctant to complain about this tactic! As will be noted in the introduction to Chapter 3 on pitching, rule makers tried everything they could think of to reduce the role of the pitcher, but without success.
Excerpted from A GAME OF INCHES by Peter Morris Copyright © 2006 by Peter Morris. Excerpted by permission.
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