9/16/13 - the original rules of baseball

In today's selection -- in the late 1800s, the period when today's National and American Leagues were founded, the rules of baseball were very different than they are today. And though the ball was just as hard as today's, the pitcher was closer, and gloves and other forms of protection were much more limited:

"[In the late 1800s] playing professional baseball was anything but an easy life. The sport was filled with agony and injury. It was played bare-handed -- gloves for most of the fielders were not prevalent until the late 1880s -- which meant pain and frequent broken fingers. Catchers did have some minimal protection. They wore gloves on both hands with the fingers sheared off so that they could grip the ball, wore chest protectors, and had primitive wire face masks (dubbed 'bird cages'). But foul tips could smash through the wire of those masks or split catchers' fingers, sometimes exposing bloody bone and sinew. And the lack of shin guards led to agonizing bruises and injuries. ... When a man got injured, his pay often stopped no play, no pay. Rules did not permit substitutions during games except in the event of injuries or illnesses so acute that the player clearly could not go on. (The umpire decided whether that was the case, often provoking bitter arguments with managers.) As a result, men played in pain, sometimes aggravating their injuries. Careers tended to be short.

"Baseballs themselves were pricy items, and owners preferred to use only one per game, instead of the one-hundred-plus used today. They were as hard as modern baseballs, and the same size and weight, but had a rubber center rather than a cork one, which made them more difficult to drive for distance. (Even so, professional sluggers could knock them over the fence.) If fouled off into the crowd, or even out of the park, the balls had to be fetched and returned to the field. By the end of the game, as the sun set on parks without lights, the ball had become stained with dirt and tobacco juice, making it extremely difficult for a batter to see. Often, it was mushy; sometimes, the stitching -- which was black rather than red, and sewed closer together than on today's balls -- would come loose.

"Modern fans would find the early game different in other ways as well. For decades, foul balls caught on the bounce were outs. The National League eliminated the 'foul-bound catch' in 1883, but the American Association retained this play until June 1885, making for mad dashes into foul territory by the fielders. Batters had an advantage under the rules in being able to choose either a 'high' (between letters and belt) or 'low' (between belt and knees) pitch zone when they came to the plate, and the umpire had to adjust. Foul balls were not yet strikes, and skilled hitters, such as Arlie Latham, could foul off pitch after pitch, tiring the hurler without losing ground in the pitch count. But there was no rule yet giving a batter his base if he was hit by a pitch -- and competitive and hardhearted pitchers ruthlessly took advantage of that, driving batters off the plate and, not infrequently, stinging them with fastballs.

"Making all this scarier was how close pitchers seemed. The pitcher's mound had not yet been invented; pitchers worked in a level, rectangular, four-by-six-foot box with six-inch-square iron plates affixed to each corner, its front edge only fifty feet from home plate. Inside that box, pitchers could take a kind of run and hop to more swiftly propel the ball. Batters, wearing only cloth caps rather than today's protective helmets, had little time to react."


Edward Achorn


The Summer of Beer and Whiskey




Copyright 2013 by Edward Achorn


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