11 Little Quirks in Baseball's Early Rules

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Baseball has been part of American culture and consciousness since the mid-1700s. Even though it's a classic game, it's still showing signs of evolution. For instance, some of the rules of yore seem particularly quirky compared to the modern game.

1. In the earliest version of base ball—two words back then—games were not nine innings long. Instead, teams played until one side scored 21 runs, which, at the time, were called “aces.”

2. Before 1872, pitchers had to throw underhand. This was largely because their purpose wasn’t to get outs but to serve up pitches to be put in play. Batters would even request where they wanted a ball to be pitched for a better chance of making contact. Eventually, pitchers realized they could give their teams a competitive advantage if they made things a little less easy on the batter, and the rules caved to accommodate overhand motions.

3. Originally, a hitter wasn’t just out if the ball was caught in the air; he was also out if it was caught on the first bounce. If it sounds like this makes the game too easy for the outfielders, consider that using gloves didn't become the norm until the 1890s. This practice was so entrenched that after the Knickerboxers suggested changing it, it took several years of heated debate to get the rule changed. And even after it was changed for balls in play, it persisted for several decades when dealing with pop ups in foul territory.

4. Before there was a whole crew of umpires monitoring games, the home plate umpire was allowed to confer with spectators, who may have had a better view, before issuing a ruling.

5. At first, there was no such thing as a called strike. There were only swinging strikes. When the called strike idea was introduced, it came with some caveats—the first pitch couldn’t be a called strike and the umpire had to warn a batter that a certain pitch is liable to be called a strike before beginning to do so.

6. Similarly, only every third “unfair” pitch was called a ball. So while the rules dictated the batter take a base after three balls, in practice the pitcher got nine pitches out of the strike zone before surrendering a walk.

7. In the early days, outfielders could put out base runners not just by tagging but also by throwing the ball at them before they reached the base. The practice, known as “soaking,” “patching,” or “plugging,” was thought to be necessary to the manliness of the game.

8. What we now think of as the “umpire” was originally called the referee, who proceeded over the game along with two “umpires,” one from each team who made appeals on their players’ behalves.

9. In the mid-1800s, home plate was a circular base, 12 inches in diameter. At first it was made of iron painted white and later marble or stone.

10. For a time in the late 1800s, hitters were allowed to use bats that were flat on one side, like a paddle. This made swatting at balls easier but they had a tendency to splinter dangerously.

11. In the early 20th century, you couldn’t get credit for a walk-off home run if the go-ahead run was already on base. That is to say, the game ended as soon as the lead run scored for the home team in the ninth. So if your home team was down by one with men on second and third and you hit the ball over the fence, the game ended as soon as the runner on second scored and you would be credited with a double. Babe Ruth hit plenty of homers in his day, but the Sultan of Swat would tell you, he would have credit for even more if not for this rule.

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July 31, 2014 - 7:00pm
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