Spitters, Beanballs, and the Incredible Shrinking Strike Zone: The Stories Behind the Rules of Baseball

Spitters, Beanballs, and the Incredible Shrinking Strike Zone: The Stories Behind the Rules of Baseball

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781623684792
Publisher: Triumph Books
Publication date: 07/01/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 216
Sales rank: 441,445
File size: 23 MB
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About the Author

Glen Waggoner is a founding editor at ESPN the Magazine, where he worked for 16 years. He is the coauthor of Bobby Murcer’s autobiography A Yankee for Life, as well as My Life in & out of the Rough with John Daly and Clearing the Bases with Mike Schmidt. He was one of the founding fathers of Rotisserie League Baseball. He lives in New York City. Kathleen Moloney is a freelance writer and the coauthor of It’s Nobody’s Fault and Policewoman One. She lives in New York City. Hugh Howard is a historian, a lecturer, a writer, and the former vice president of the New York Times Book Company. He is the author of Mr. and Mrs. Madison’s War, The Painter’s Chair, and Thomas Jefferson, Architect. He lives in Columbia County, New York.

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Spitters, Beanballs, and the Incredible Shrinking Strike Zone

By Hugh Howard, Kathleen, Moloney, Glen Waggoner

Triumph Books

Copyright © 2000 Glen Waggoner, Kathleen Moloney, and Hugh Howard
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62368-479-2


Objectives of the Game

Depending on whom you believe, baseball is "a game of inches" (Branch Rickey), a "religion" (Hall of Fame umpire Bill Klem), or "A kid's game that grown-ups only tend to screw up" (Bob Lemon).

If you go by The Book, however, baseball is a game "between two teams of nine players each, under the direction of a manager, played on an enclosed field in accordance with these rules, under the jurisdiction of one or more umpires." Sounds simple enough, right? Well, even the simplest things can get confused. Not so many years ago, Angels center fielder Devon White was making a phone call in the clubhouse as the game got underway. The first pitch was thrown before right fielder Chili Davis was able to draw the umpires' attention to the fact that the Angels were fielding an eight-man defense. Davis blamed it on the umpires: "They're not only blind," Davis observed. "They're deaf, too." [1.01]

The Book next tells us the objective is to score more runs than your opponent and that the winner shall be the team with more runs at the game's conclusion. [1.02 and 1.03]

These rules are obvious enough even to a baseball novice. And for the purposes of the opening section of The Book, it's the whole story as far as the objectives of the game are concerned. The framers of the rules apparently decided that in The Book, the detailed discussion of the intricacies of playing the game should follow the specifications for its implements and the environs in which the game is to be played. Thus it is with the field and the equipment that this chapter is primarily concerned. So let us take you out to the ballpark.

The Playing Field

Talk of the field involves numbers and geometric precision. First comes 90 feet, the length of the sides of the infield square, along with 127 feet, 3 3/8 inches, the distance across the field from home to second and from first to third. The catcher's box, batter's box, and the "next batter's box" (colloquially, the on-deck circle), and the base lines must all be of a prescribed size and configuration. The Book also insists that the base lines and home plate be level (see diagrams 1 and 2). [1.04]

The Fences. While the infield specifications are non-negotiable, the rules regarding fence distances are more flexible. All fences must be a minimum of 250 feet from home plate, but it is said to be "preferable" for the foul lines and center field fences to be at a distance of at least 320 feet and 400 feet, respectively.

There is a legal concept known as the "grandfather clause" — an exception that allows for circumstances that existed before the passage of a particular law. In keeping with the legalistic tenor of The Book, we'll see some grandfathering here and there.

Grandfathering is a fine thing in the case of fences, since it has allowed for some older exceptions, one of them being Boston's beloved Fenway Park. Its right field line was a mere 302 feet. (The Green Monster in left that supposedly loomed so close was 315 feet away.) All parks built or remodeled after 1958 are obliged to have at least 325 feet down the lines and 400 feet in center. In practice, this has meant that as the antique fields are demolished one by one and new parks replace them, more and more fields are meeting the preferred specs.

Rules are rules, but there's always room for change when the game's gray heads convene. With a multi-year trend of improved pitching and decreased hitting at its peak, a number of moves were made in the late sixties to give the batter an edge. One was the innovation of the designated hitter (we'll see more about the DH in Chapter 6). Another was a short-lived minor league experiment in 1970 to angle the foul lines outward from the first- and third-base bags. The lines flared out an extra three degrees, a change that added roughly three percent to fair territory. Used in the Gulf Coast Rookie League, it didn't catch on, so today we still have the same geometry that Alexander Cartwright laid out in 1845, when he codified his rules for the Knickerbocker Club of New York.

One adjustment — not to the rules but within the rules — that has made it to the majors numerous times over the years is the old move-the-fences trick. It was put to use wholesale in 1969. Oakland Athletics owner Charlie Finley (he of the mule mascot, "Charlie O") moved his fences that year, as did the White Sox, Braves, Dodgers, and Phillies. Years earlier, when Bill Veeck was chief showman at Cleveland, he was said to have had his fenceposts located in sockets in the ground so that he could move them from game to game.

The prototypical fence-mender was Frank Lane, general manager of the White Sox in 1949. The previous year, the White Sox as a team hit a mere 55 homers, while pennant-winning Cleveland led the league with 155. Lane decided he had seen enough (that is, not enough), so he brought in the left and right field fences twenty-two feet.

Then in early June the Senators came to town. They'd hit a pathetic thirty-one as a team the previous year, but by the end of the three-game series with the Sox, fourteen round-trippers had been hit. The fences moved back, but legend has it that it wasn't the opposition's home-run output that led Lane to end his experiment. It was his own Floyd Baker, a man described in the press as a "notorious banjo hitter." Contrary to his billing, Baker hit one out that weekend — the only homer of his career. Lane reportedly screamed upon seeing Baker's ball leave the field, "Take [the fence] down! Throw the thing into Lake Michigan." That year Lane's White Sox hit forty-three homers, the least in the league. One upshot of Lane's move is that today a team may not move its fences or otherwise alter the playing field during the season.

Moving fences seems to have become something of a tradition at real estate-rich Comiskey Park. In 1981 the White Sox returned from spring training to a center field shortened from 445 to only 402 feet, and the center field distance at Comiskey has been changed in at least sixteen different seasons. In 1991 the White Sox ownership went their predecessors one better: they moved the club into an all-new Comiskey Park.

The Book also specifies that the imaginary line from home to second should be on an east-northeast axis, and that the lines on the field should be of "wet, unslaked lime" or of another suitable white material. [1.04]

The Plate and the Bases. Home plate and the base bags must fit certain specs, too. Home plate is beveled, and of the dimensions specified in Diagram 2. The bags must be fifteen inches square and three to five inches thick, made of canvas, and filled with soft material. All four bases must be in fair territory. [1.05 and 1.06]

The bases didn't start out being the bags they are today; originally they were wooden stakes, but largely because so many players were injured, they were substituted with other, less pointed objects. Flat stones were used for a while, and in 1840 sand-filled sacks came into existence in some areas. It was in 1877 that today's fifteen-inch-square, canvas-covered bases became the standard.

Home plate, too, was subject to certain changes over the years. For one, under Massachusetts rules, the batter's box (then called the "striker's box") was located midway between first base and the "fourth" base the runner crossed to score. In 1885 and 1886, home plate was allowed to be marble as well as "whitened rubber." For some years, it was a twelve-inch square, and it wasn't until 1900 that the present five-sided design was adopted.

Grass vs. Carpet

Given all these careful specifications, it is a little surprising that there is one not-so-small aspect of playing field design that isn't specified in The Book: namely, the material of which the "grass" is to be made.

Natural grass sufficed nicely for more than a century. Then, after the grass planted in the Astrodome for its grand opening in 1965 died, artificial nylon baseball turf made its debut. (The deceased natural grass was Tifway 419 Bermuda, for any horticulturalists out there.) The result was baseball on so-called "carpet." (More trivia? The first game played on Astroturf was played on April 8, 1966. And, yes, it is possible for rain to postpone even an indoor game: On June 15, 1976, an Astros game was rained out because of flooding — on the streets of Houston.)

Grass vs. carpet is a debate that rages among sports fans, players, and management alike. Does it cause injury? Probably, given that there is concrete beneath the carpet's underpadding, though artificial turf-related injuries seem less prevalent in baseball than in the National Football League. One study conducted after the Cincinnati Reds' arrival in carpeted Riverfront Stadium in 1970 reported an increase in abrasion and burn injuries, particularly to the palms and knees, but no notable change in the frequency of other injuries. No one believed it then — especially the guys with all kinds of leg problems caused, at least in part, by patrolling rock-hard outfields and sliding on the unforgiving surface. In the decades since, the superiority of grass has virtually been conceded. Consider the fact that of the new parks opened between 1990 and 1998, eight have grass surfaces, and only one has carpet.

Artificial turf has had an undeniable effect on the speed of the game. The ball gets through the infield faster, which has led the interior defenses to play deeper. If it gets through, an extra-base hit seems more likely on turf than on grass. As Tom Seaver said a few years ago, "Even hitters like Mike Schmidt of Philadelphia have begun to put turf to work, swinging for the gaps when they get a pitch that's unsuited to pulling for a possible home run. The current style of compact, golf-style swinging, taught by Charlie Lau and epitomized by George Brett of the Royals, is perfectly suited to artificial turf."

The Pitcher's Plate. The pitcher's mound is to be ten inches higher than home plate and the base lines, and is to have a pitch of one inch per foot for the first six feet from the point six inches from the rubber toward the plate.

The familiar pitcher's mound didn't get that way overnight. For much of the nineteenth century, pitchers were required to pitch from a "box," a rectangular space marked on the field. The box changed in size a number of times (at its largest, it was 4 by 12 feet, and it gradually shrank to 4 by 5 ½ feet in 1866 and 1887, respectively). It didn't have the familiar pitcher's rubber until 1890, and even after the rubber was added, the "box" remained until 1893. In 1895, the rubber, which had been twelve by four inches, was enlarged to its present size of twenty-four by six inches. [1.07]

The distance of the mound from home also changed, moving from forty-five feet to fifty and eventually to the present sixty feet, six inches. That distance is measured from the front edge of the rubber to the facing side of the plate.

History has it that the pitching speed of one Amos Wilson Rusie (alias "The Hoosier Thunderbolt") led to the rubber being moved back 10 ½ feet to its present distance for the 1894 season (it was moved from 45 to 50 in 1881). Apparently, the Thunderbolt (who won 243 games in a mere ten seasons and was named to the Hall of Fame) came by his nickname honestly. Connie Mack said he was the fastest pitcher he had ever seen.

The change to sixty feet, six inches didn't have much effect on Rusie, since he went 36–13 in 1894 and had a number of successful seasons thereafter. His career finally ended after the Giants traded him to Cincinnati (for one Christopher Matthewson) and he hurt his arm. He sustained his injury while experimenting with a pickoff move to first — without moving his feet.

The Bench. There are requirements for team benches, too. They have to be at least twenty-five feet from the base lines, and they're required to have roofs and walls at the back and ends. While The Book doesn't specifically prohibit it, there aren't supposed to be campfires in them, either. But Dizzy Dean and Pepper Martin once built a fire in front of their bench on a 110-degree day in St. Louis. They donned blankets and sat Indian-style before the fire. The public loved it. The umpire's reaction went unrecorded. [1.08]

The Ball

The baseball is to be spherical. It must be composed of a small cork core, followed by a layer of rubber, woolen, and cotton yarn, and covered with two strips of horsehide or cowhide tightly stitched together at the seams. Its weight is to be between 5 and 5 ¼ ounces avoirdupois; the circumference must be 9 to 9 ¼ inches. [1.09]

Baseball's first half-century saw many changes in the ball. In 1845, it weighed three ounces. That was increased to a range of 5 ½ to 6 ½ ounces for the 1854 season. The present specs for weight and circumference were established in 1872.

The Lively Ball. Officially, the ball hasn't changed very much since 1872. So how come Mark McGwire hit seventy homers and Sammy Sosa sixty-six during the 1998 season? The fact is the manufacture of the ball probably isn't the answer.

On the other hand, earlier changes did have an impact. In 1910 the rubber center was replaced with cork, and in 1926 the cork was cushioned. And in both instances, there was, quite legitimately, much talk of a livelier "rabbit ball," as the home run gradually came to be a commonplace event in that period (before that, league leaders had hit somewhere between eight and a dozen home runs).

But since then the only significant changes have been that during World War II synthetic rubber had to be used; in 1973 the place of manufacture was relocated to Haiti (the 108 stitches must be done by hand, and labor is cheaper there); and in 1974 cowhide (as well as horsehide) was authorized for use, since there wasn't enough horsehide available for the quarter-million-plus baseballs the majors require each year. The most meaningful impact of these last changes was that the cowhide ball seemed to explode more often, which led to a bulletin to the umpires from the league office. The umps were told that in the event a ball broke into more than one part during a play, the largest part of the core was to be used to complete the play.

Yet the baseball has been seen as a vehicle for change in the game, even though its changes, especially in recent years, do not explain the radical fluctuations in the delicate pitcher-hitter balance that are attributed to it. Several reported rebirths of the "lively ball," which was widely discussed in the seventies, are instructive.

Consider the opinion of Ted Williams, then manager of the Washington Senators, when he said in 1970, "I know the ball is souped up. [But] I asked [American League president] Joe Cronin about it and he said, 'Oh, no, the ball's the same.'" The skeptical Williams added, "Yeah, sure it's the same."

Asked what he thought, Charlie Lau, then coaching at Oakland, said, "I think we're using two balls." Then, blindfolded, he correctly identified which was the 1969 ball and which was the 1970 ball.

Another change seems to have taken place when the manufacturer changed. Albert Goodwill Spalding was a major league pitcher, manager, and very successful businessman. His namesake company, A. G. Spalding, of Chicopee, Massachusetts, was the exclusive supplier of major league baseballs for a century, beginning in 1877 with the National League and in 1901 for the junior league. (Though the American League ball carried the A. J. Reach Company name, Reach was a subsidiary of Spalding.) Then, in 1976, the Spalding company withdrew because it said it could no longer make the ball profitably. Into the breach stepped the Rawlings Sporting Goods Company of St. Louis, to supply the big leagues with the more than 700,000 balls it needs each season.

Come opening day, controversy ensued. Much as Williams and the rest had asserted a few years before, in 1977 the talk again was of a livelier ball. Scientific tests conducted by the University of Missouri revealed that the "coefficient of restitution" of the balls was up only 1.3 percent from 1976 (translation: "The ball's about the same, boys"). It was also true that Rawlings had been making balls for Spalding under contract off and on for half a dozen years. Still, lots of managers and pitchers complained about the "new" rabbit ball. It took philosopher George "The Boomer" Scott to put it all in perspective: "All the talk about the ball is a lot of bleep." (Credit the quote — and the expurgation — to the Boston Herald.)

As succinct and to the point as Scott's observation was, it doesn't quite explain why, by season's end, the American League home run total had soared to 2,013 from 1,122 the previous year. Even the addition of two expansion teams (Toronto and Seattle) couldn't account for that.

The (apparent) enlivening of the ball seems to be a cyclical thing, like the phases of the moon and managerial hirings and firings. In 1980 announcer Tony Kubek and others brought the subject up again, just as it has come and gone dozens of times over the years. While it is usually so much talk, talk, talk by sportswriters and ballplayers alike, we certainly have seen a number of happy-hitter seasons lately. In 1987, there were record numbers of homers hit, and in 1996, veteran manager Sparky Anderson took to calling an apparent rebirth of the lively-ball phenomenon "nitro ball." And talk of the lively ball grew loud again in 1998 with the record-breaking race between Sosa and McGwire.


Excerpted from Spitters, Beanballs, and the Incredible Shrinking Strike Zone by Hugh Howard, Kathleen, Moloney, Glen Waggoner. Copyright © 2000 Glen Waggoner, Kathleen Moloney, and Hugh Howard. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Note to the Reader,
1. Objectives of the Game,
2. Definition of Terms,
3. Game Preliminaries,
4. Starting and Ending the Game,
5. Putting the Ball in Play,
6. The Batter,
7. The Runner,
8. The Pitcher,
9. The Umpire,
10. The Official Scorer,
Major League Rule Changes: 1845 to 1989,
About the Authors,

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