But Didn't We Have Fun? An Informal History of Baseball's Pioneer Era 1843-1870
by Peter Morris
Chapter: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | App 1
As I wrote in the previous entry, baseball was a great collections of different games that pitted batters against fielders and nothing really more. The game was one where the rules changed frequently even when played by the same players from one day to the next. The available fields dictated the play. The number of people attending dictated the play. It was largely the American game if one can allow for game to mean one of seemingly infinite manifestations. Also, it was more commonly referred to as town ball. Baseball was a named that arrived later when bases became commonly used.
On September 23, 1845, the Knickerbockers devised these rules:
Those are impressive rules and it is equally impressive that once these rules were made, the club basically was non-existent for about eight years. It is an interesting aspect of history how unlikely it is that these rules became the core standardization for baseball.1. Members must strictly observe the time agreed upon for exercise, and be punctual in their attendance.2. When assembled for exercise, the President, of 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 player's 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 base, 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 the match.7. If members appear after the game is commenced, they may be chosen in 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 and 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 on the pitcher.20. But one base allowed when a ball bounds out of the field when struck.
The things I find interesting:
1. The rules are to prevent time consuming altercations.
From my view, these rules are not about defining a game, but rather restricting argument. By entering into a contract (which is what this document is), everyone on the field agrees to these rules. I find it fascinating that one of the elements of our current game arose because of adults bickering with each other. Seven of the twenty rules are solely about how to administer the club. Only the remaining thirteen have to do with the game. It seems point of contention have been addressed. The rules detail who is allowed to play, giving priority to those who came up with the game; the basic rules (e.g. how long the game is, what is fair, what is an out); and a way to diffuse arguments (e.g. presence of an umpire). Major aspects of the game are not mentioned. There is no indication of the proper way to pitch a ball or which way you are allowed to run or even how scoring occurs. The negative space of these rules are just as interesting as what is explicit.
2. The elimination of soaking.
Most of the town ball games at the time used a somewhat softer ball (many report light tower shots as those going about 170 feet) that would be used to soak them (throw at them). The game was one where a ball was hit and then you chased down runners to get close to them in order to improve your ability to hit them before they got to a safe area. The game was built on speed and sure-handedness. If you eliminate soaking, then you free yourself to use a harder baseball. A harder baseball means that speed becomes less important as power can open up the field.
3. Establishing the concept of foul territory.
It is often interesting to hear about life in America in the early 1800s. That the burroughs of New York City were in fact separate distinct towns. Some things are just hard to envision. I once was walking through the Maryland Historical Society in Mt. Vernon in Baltimore. I was looking at a painting that was taken from an estate that was roughly where the Methodist church now stands in the square. The painting depicted a craggy rock and a tree on an uncovered hill overlooking the quaint little town that was Baltimore. Times have certainly changed as there are only a few places around there now where you can actually see the Harbor.
Those changing times also affected the game of baseball. As the towns grew into cities, the commons and the undeveloped sand lots grew smaller and smaller. Games like the Massachusetts game required a great deal of space as part of the strategy was to deflect a ball backwards away from the catcher in order to safely get to first. As the free spaces closed, it meant that the playing field needed to be narrowed. The creation of foul territory allowed baseball to be played in smaller open areas. Players could place home plate flush up against a boundary and not worry about balls being in play where roads or buildings lie. It permitted baseball to live on. It permitted the game to be played within the town square for a while longer which enable men to play before work or immediately after as transportation was not easy nor fast.
Another unintended consequence was how this affected the catcher. In the early days of the game, the two most athletic players where the pitcher and the catcher. These two players had to cover ground immediately in front and behind of the batter. With the creation of foul territory, the catcher no longer needed to quickly cover a great deal of range and be able to quickly get the ball near first or to prevent someone from going to second. It was the beginning of making the catcher a largely stationary position.
Chapter 3 will be focusing on how the game according to the Knickerbocker rules began to spread and how that changed the game for much of America.