10 Weird Rules From Early Baseball
Major League Baseball postseason officially kicks off Tuesday. Fans of the national pastime already know that the game is rich with sepia-toned tradition and history. But what a lot of fans don't know is that the game as it's played today is the result of more than a century of gradual evolution. The rules of baseball, in the late 19th and early 20th century, were in many cases radically different than what we see today.
One of the best resources for accurate information on the early days of baseball is author Peter Morris' 2006 book "A Game of Inches: The Stories Behind the Innovations That Shaped Baseball." Not content with repeating classic lore or received wisdom, Morris spent years researching old newspaper accounts and other documentation from the earliest incarnations of the game. Morris' scholarly book reveals a game that has been in constant flux for more than 150 years. Here are 10 crazy rules from the early days of baseball.
Honus Wagner, a baseball great from the beginning of the 20th century. Wikimedia Commons
Before rules were officially codified in 1857 by the game's first organizing body, The National Association of Base Ball Players, there was no tradition of playing nine innings in a game. Instead, teams played until a predetermined number of runs -- called "counts" or "aces" were scored by the winning team. Teams usually played to 21.
Part of the fun of sitting in the stands at a baseball game is the chance to snag a home run or foul ball as souvenir. Not so in the earliest days of the game. Baseballs were relatively expensive to obtain and baseball clubs guarded their balls carefully. In fact, it was commonplace for a single ball to be used for an entire game. If the ball was hit into the long grass or the bushes, play was suspended until the ball was recovered, with players from both teams fanning out to find the precious baseball.
Parents of young little leaguers in "coach pitch" games may be familiar with this one: In the mid-19th century, the pitcher was not expected to try to retire the batter at all. Instead, pitchers were referred to as "feeders" and given the duty of tossing nice, fat, hittable balls to the opposing team.
Umpires get a lot of grief in today's game, but in the earliest days of the baseball it was different. Umpires were usually prominent members of the community and sat somewhere in rough vicinity of the game, often under an umbrella. From a 1916 newspaper report in The Marion (Ohio) Star: "The old time umpires were accorded the utmost courtesy by the players. They were given easy chairs, placed near the home plate, provided with fans on hot days and their absolute comfort was uppermost in the minds of the players. The umpire always received the choicest bits of food and the largest glass of beer.
As officials tried to even out the balance between pitchers and hitters, various new rules were tested and discarded. In 1879, it took nine balls for the umpire to issue a walk, or a base-on-balls. The concept of the strike zone was terminally wobbly as well. Early batsmen were allowed to request that the pitch be thrown high or low, and the pitcher was required by the rules to deliver the pitch requested. Also, the hitter couldn't take his walks literally. If the batsman failed to run to first on a base-on-balls, he could be thrown out by the defense.
In the 1880s, a sequence of bizarre rules were introduced allowing the use of bats that were square or even flat on the business end, ostensibly allowed the batsman to "place" the ball in play. The bats never really worked out, principally because they had the nasty tendency to splinter into pieces on contact with the baseball.
The shortstop's infield position between second and third base is a relatively modern phenomenon. Initially, the shortstop was a kind of roving fourth outfielder whose chief duty was to relay balls from the outfield back to the infield. Keep in mind that in the early days of the game, baseball diamonds weren't usually fenced in. Any ball hit over the outfielder's head just kept on going.
In early baseball, a batsman was called out if the fielder caught the hit on the fly … or on the first bounce. The first bounce rule was so entrenched in the game, in fact, that it took more than five years of debate at the game's official annual convention to finally overturn it.
1882 New York Metropolitans stike a manly pose.Wikimedia Commons
Players were even more resistant to changing another early rule of the game, familiar to aficionados of playground kickball. In the mid-1800s, if you were an unfortunate baserunner in the game of baseball, you could be put out between bases by having the ball thrown directly at you. This particular manner of getting an out -- known as "patching," "plugging" or "soaking" -- was considered central to the manly spirit of the game.
In the very earliest days of the pastime that would later be called baseball, the game was literally played backwards. Bases were commonly run clockwise in these proto-baseball games, with the batter running toward what is now third base, after the ball was put into play. In fact, in some variations, the batsman could choose to run clockwise or counterclockwise, and subsequent hitters in the inning would be obliged to follow suit.