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Why Do Baseball Pitchers Stand on a Mound?

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Why do baseball pitchers stand on a mound?

Charles Tips:

1884 was a banner year in professional baseball.

  • It was the first year pitchers could legally pitch overhand.
  • It was the season that set the stage for the World Series.
  • It was the year that baseball gloves made their debut.
  • Also, Charlie “Old Hoss” Radbourn set the most unassailable record in baseball that year with 62 (counting his post-season victories), 60 or 59 wins as a pitcher, according to various interpretations of the rules. And that was in a 112-game season.

Old Hoss’s Providence Grays won the National League with a record of 84 and 28 over the runner-up Boston Beaneaters at 73 and 38. They then swept the New York Metropolitans, champions of the American Association, three games to none at the Polo Grounds in a series billed by tabloids as the first “world championship” of baseball. Old Hoss recorded all three wins.

That’s Old Hoss Radbourn pictured above, I believe from the ’86 season after many of the Grays were acquired by the Beaneaters. As the picture hints, Radbourn held a second historical distinction, the first man photographed, not once but twice, unambiguously “shooting the finger.” He was a legendarily fierce competitor.

This was bare-knuckle, bare-hand baseball. There were no relief pitchers. In fact, the rules forbade substitutions for any player not pretty much totally incapacitated. You start the game, you finish the game, even if it went extra innings.

The changes that began in 1884, especially allowing overhand pitching, reverberated through baseball to produce the modern game. It soon led to the pitcher’s mound but a lot more besides.

Hello, Pitcher’s Box

Yes, Old Hoss pitched underhanded, though occasionally in 1884 overhanded, but think of the style of a Kent Tekulve, Dennis Eckersley, Dan Quisenberry, Chad Bradford, or Byung-Hyun Kim to get a better idea of what batters faced.

He, like all other pitchers of the day, pitched from a box using a run-up. The box was level with the field, 4-feet wide and 6-feet long. The front of the box was a mere 50 feet from the plate.

Bye-Bye, Upper Strike Zone

One of the curiosities of baseball is the strike zone.

Rule 2.00: The Strike Zone

The STRIKE ZONE is that area over home plate the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the kneecap. The Strike Zone shall be determined from the batter's stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball.

The rules clearly state to this day that the upper limit of the strike zone extends to the middle of the chest; yet, as every fan knows, umpires won’t call a strike much above the belt, if that. What gives?

What gives is that in 1884 there were two strike zones—upper and lower. On taking his turn at bat, a batter would inform the umpire (there was only one per game then, which also led to some interesting baseball rules) which zone to call, and the umpire would duly inform the pitcher. As overhand pitchers grew to dominate, the upper strike zone fell out of use.

Hello, Gloves

By 1884, protective masks had been around for some few umpires and catchers for a year or two. However, a hard-hit foul ball straight to the mask would often snap the fencing wire used to fashion these homemade affairs, lacerating the wearer’s face. They were not widely adopted.

1889 photo of the hands of retired bare-handed catcher Doug Allison.

But toward the latter part of the 1884 season, Grays’ second baseman Jack Farrell broke two fingers on his non-throwing hand, leading him to make a cushioned leather glove so that he could continue to play. Given that he was a star player on the championship team, beginning the following season, young players started imitating him, despite the derision of their teammates. Within a few seasons, mitts, gloves and proper chest protectors and masks for catchers and umpires were standard equipment.

Bye-Bye, Pitcher’s BoxHello, Mound

It was 1893 that the pitcher’s box was replaced by a pitcher’s rubber, an actual slab of rubber a foot wide, moved back to 60 and a half feet from the plate. The rubber could be on a mound raised above field level.

Overhand pitching had so come to dominate baseball that it was felt that the added distance together with the lack of run-up would re-balance offense and defense. Sure enough, the league batting average shot up 39 points in ’93 and another 29 points in ’94. But by 1904, the rules were changed to limit mound height to no more than 15 inches to counter the fact that some pitchers wanted the mound quite high.

It was not long before teams were gaming the discretion allowed for mound height. “Downhill” pitchers preferred the mound as tall as possible. Submariners, on the other hand, preferred level. The Yankees kept theirs level at all times, but other teams took to rebuilding their mound to favor the home team’s starter on a daily basis—no small undertaking. I believe it was the Cleveland Indians under GM Bill Veeck that finally provoked MLB in 1950 to implement a 15-inch rule—all mounds raised 15 inches above the playing field, period.

That, however, put a premium on the downhill pitching style of pitchers like Bob Feller and Don Gibson. Pretty soon, a generation of dominating downhillers had squelched offense again. Before the 1969 season, MLB lowered all mounds to 10 inches, a move that did get offenses going again, which in turn seemed to please the fans, leading seven years later to the last big rule change—the Designated Hitter in the American League only.

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Big Questions
Why is Friday the 13th Considered Unlucky?
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Today, people around the globe will feel uneasy about getting out of bed, leaving their homes, or going about their normal daily routines, all because of a superstition. These unfortunate folks suffer from “paraskavedekatriaphobia,” a common neurosis familiar to us all: the fear of Friday the 13th. But just where did this superstitious association come from, and how did it catch on?

The truth is that no one is absolutely sure where the idea that Friday the 13th is unlucky originated. Donald Dossey, the founder of the Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute in Asheville, North Carolina, suspects the fear can be traced back to a Norse myth about 12 gods who had a dinner at Valhalla—the fabled hall where legendary Norse heroes feasted for eternity after they died—that was interrupted by a 13th guest, the evil and mischievous god Loki. According to legend, Loki tricked Höðr (the blind god of winter and son of Odin, the supreme god in Norse mythology) into shooting his brother Baldr (the benevolent god of summer who was also a son of Odin) with a magical spear tipped with mistletoe—the only substance that could defeat him. Thus the number 13 was branded as unlucky because of the ominous period of mourning following the loss of such powerful gods by this unwanted 13th guest.

For whatever reason, among many cultures, the number 12 emerged throughout history as a "complete" number: There are 12 months in a year, 12 signs of the zodiac, 12 Gods of Olympus, 12 sons of Odin, 12 labors of Hercules, 12 Jyotirlingas or Hindu shrines where Shiva is worshipped, 12 successors of Muhammad in Shia Islam, and 12 tribes of Israel. In Christianity, Jesus was betrayed by one of his 12 Apostles—Judas—who was the 13th guest to arrive for the Last Supper. Surpassing the number 12 ostensibly unbalances the ideal nature of things; because it is seen as irregular and disrespectful of a sense of perfection, the number 13 bears the stigma of misfortune and bad luck we know today.

WHY FRIDAY?

Friday joins in the mix mostly because all of the early accounts of Jesus’s crucifixion agree that it took place on Friday—the standard day for crucifixions in Rome. As Chaucer noted in The Canterbury Tales, "And on a Friday fell all this mischance." Yet perpetuating Friday as an unlucky day in America came from the late 19th-century American tradition of holding all executions on Fridays; Friday the 13th became the unluckiest of days simply because it combined two distinct superstitions into one. According to the Oxford University Press Dictionary of Superstitions, the first reference to Friday the 13th itself wasn’t until 1913. (So despite actually occurring on Friday, October 13, 1307, the popular notion that the Friday the 13th stigma comes from the date on which the famed order of the Knights Templar were wiped out by King Philip of France is just a coincidence.)

The repercussions of these phobias reverberated through American culture, particularly in the 20th century. Most skyscrapers and hotels lack a 13th floor, which specifically comes from the tendency in the early 1900s for buildings in New York City to omit the unlucky number (though the Empire State Building has a 13th floor). Street addresses sometimes skip from 12 to 14, while airports may skip the 13th gate. Allegedly, the popular Friday the 13th films were so-named just to cash in on this menacing date recognition, not because the filmmakers actually believed the date to be unlucky.

So, is Friday the 13th actually unlucky? Despite centuries of superstitious behavior, it largely seems like psychological mumbo jumbo. (One 1993 study seemed to reveal that, statistically speaking, Friday the 13th is unlucky, but the study's authors told LiveScience that though the data was accurate, "the paper was just a bit of fun and not to be taken seriously." Other studies have shown no correlation between things like increased accidents or injuries and Friday the 13th.)

And Friday the 13th isn't a big deal in other cultures, which have their own unlucky days: Greeks and Spanish-speaking countries consider Tuesday the 13th to be the unluckiest day, while Italians steer clear of Friday the 17th. So today, try to rest a little easy—Friday the 13th may not be so unlucky after all.

Additional Source: 13: The Story of the World’s Most Popular Superstition.

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Big Questions
Why Do Ghosts Say ‘Boo’?
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People have screamed "boo," or at least some version of it, to startle others since the mid-16th century. (One of the earliest examples documented by the Oxford English Dictionary appeared in that 1560s poetic thriller, Smyth Whych that Forged Hym a New Dame.) But ghosts? They’ve only been yowling "boo" for less than two centuries.

The etymology of boo is uncertain. The OED compares it with the Latin boare or the Greek βοᾶν, meaning to “cry aloud, roar, [or] shout.” Older dictionaries suggest it could be an onomatopoeia mimicking the lowing of a cow.

Whatever the origins, the word had a slightly different shade of meaning a few hundred years ago: Boo (or, in the olden days, bo or bu) was not used to frighten others but to assert your presence. Take the traditional Scottish proverb “He can’t say bo to a goose,” which for centuries has been a slick way to call somebody timid or sheepish. Or consider the 1565 story Smyth Whych that Forged Hym a New Dame, in which an overconfident blacksmith tries to hammer a woman back into her youth, and the main character demands of his dying experiment: “Speke now, let me se / and say ones bo!”

Or, as Donatello would put it: “Speak, damn you, speak!”

But boo became scarier with time. After all, as the OED notes, the word is phonetically suited “to produce a loud and startling sound.” And by 1738, Gilbert Crokatt was writing in Presbyterian Eloquence Display’d that, “Boo is a Word that's used in the North of Scotland to frighten crying children.”

(We’re not here to question 250-year-old Scottish parenting techniques, but over at Slate, Forrest Wickman raises a good point: Why would anybody want to frighten a child who is already crying?)

In 18th century Scotland, bo, boo, and bu would latch onto plenty of words describing things that went bump in the night. According to the Dictionary of the Scots Language, the term bu-kow applied to hobgoblins and “anything frightful,” such as scarecrows. The word bogey, for “evil one,” would evolve into bogeyman. And there’s bu-man, or boo-man, a terrifying goblin that haunted man:

Kings, counsellors, and princes fair,

As weel's the common ploughman,

Hae maist their pleasures mix'd wi' care,

An' dread some muckle boo-man.

It was only a matter of time until ghosts got lumped into this creepy “muckle boo-man” crowd.

Which is too bad. Before the early 1800s, ghosts were believed to be eloquent, sometimes charming, and very often literary speakers. The spirits that appeared in the works of the Greek playwrights Euripides and Seneca held the important job of reciting the play’s prologue. The apparitions in Shakespeare’s plays conversed in the same swaying iambic pentameter as the living. But by the mid-1800s, more literary ghosts apparently lost interest in speaking in complete sentences. Take this articulate exchange with a specter from an 1863 Punch and Judy script.

Ghost: Boo-o-o-oh!

Punch: A-a-a-ah!

Ghost: Boo-o-o-o-oh!

Punch: Oh dear ! oh dear ! It wants’t me!

Ghost:  Boo-o-o-o-oh!

It’s no surprise that boo’s popularity rose in the mid-19th century. This was the age of spiritualism, a widespread cultural obsession with paranormal phenomena that sent scores of people flocking to mediums and clairvoyants in hopes of communicating with the dead. Serious scientists were sending electrical shocks through the bodies of corpses to see if reanimating the dead was possible; readers were engrossed in terrifying Gothic fiction (think Frankenstein, Zastrozzi, and The Vampyre); British police departments were reporting a heightened number of ghost sightings as graveyards were plagued by “ghost impersonators,” hoaxsters who camped out in cemeteries covered in white robes and pale chalk. It’s probably no coincidence that ghosts began to develop their own vocabulary—limited as it may be—during a period when everybody was curious about the goings-on within the spirit realm.

It may also help that boo was Scottish. Many of our Halloween traditions, such as the carving of jack-o’-lanterns, were carried overseas by Celtic immigrants. Scotland was a great exporter of people in the middle of the 1800s, and perhaps it’s thanks to the Scots-Irish diaspora that boo became every ghost’s go-to greeting.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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