25 September 2011

CDOBC: But Didn't We Have Fun? Chapter 4

For more about the book club and books on the agenda click here.

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

Chapter 4: How the Game was Played

As peculiar and momentous as it was to write down rules to a simple game, perhaps more interesting is how the rest of the game was played.  In today's environment, the rule book is dense.  What started as one sheet of paper has grown into a 130 page document.  This is also not entirely correct as the original rule book also included items that would eventually evolve into aspects of the collective bargaining agreement (CBA).  The CBA is 241 pages in length.  There are also a plethora of other documents that ownership uses to self-regulate, players use to self-regulate, umpires use to self-regulate, an MLB agreement with umpires, teams use to self-regulate, and so on and so on.  So, it could be seen that that single page has become a few thousands pages of rules and regulation.  What spurned that growth was what caused those initial rules to be put into place: arguments getting in the way of the game. 

Perhaps one of the more interesting parts of the early regulation of the game was the role of umpires.  Umpires were usually seated thirty feet from the plate under an umbrella with drink and food at his disposal.  They did not call balls or strikes (as there were no called pitches).  They never actively engaged themselves into the game.  Instead, they were largely ceremonious and were only involved in the game when there was a close play and the player yelled for a "judgement."  Typically, the umpire was a well known individual and a pillar of the community.  The umpire typically knew very little about the game.  His role was to make sure the spirit of fair play was maintained and that all participants were to remain gentlemanly in conduct.

A primary problem with this was that baseball was as much about winning as it was about having "fun."  Such a situation means that players began doing what they could to win without appearing to cross the line of being a gentleman.  One problem occurred as the conversion from rocks, stumps, and stakes to sand or sawdust bag bases occurred.  This combined with the emergence of better kept fields resulted in the strategy of sliding to decelerate quickly as well as to avoid a tag.  Crowds were often surprised by this technique and often assumed a player stumbled, rolled, and fortuitously avoided a tag.  Blowback against this technique and the way fields were maintained kept this to a minimum until professionalism occurred.

A second, and more prominent, issue was that pitchers were beginning to establish themselves as one of the more important defenders.  There were no called pitches, but pitchers would try to get batters to swing at bad pitches and not hit the ball so solidly.  In response to this, batters would merely wait until they found a pitch to their liking.  It was not unheard of for single innings to involve a hundred pitches.  Obviously, this would likely make the play less interesting as crowds would sit and wait for a dozen or so pitches before a batter would swing.  This largely took the umpire off his pampered life and into the fray behind the catcher for pitches to be called.

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