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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
What Does the Sergeant at Arms Do?
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
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In 1981, shortly after Howard Liebengood was elected the 27th Sergeant at Arms of the United States Senate, he realized he had no idea how to address incoming president-elect Ronald Reagan on a visit. “The thought struck me that I didn't know what to call the President-elect,'' Liebengood told The New York Times in November of that year. ''Do you call him 'President-elect,' 'Governor,' or what?” (He went with “Sir.”)

It would not be the first—or last—time someone wondered what, exactly, a Sergeant at Arms (SAA) should be doing. Both the House and the Senate have their own Sergeant at Arms, and their visibility is highest during the State of the Union address. For Donald Trump’s State of the Union on January 30, the 40th Senate SAA, Frank Larkin, will escort the senators to the House Chamber, while the 36th House of Representatives SAA, Paul Irving, will introduce the president (“Mister [or Madam] Speaker, the President of the United States!”). But the job's responsibilities extend far beyond being an emcee.

The Sergeants at Arms are also their respective houses’ chief law enforcement officers. Obliging law enforcement duties means supervising their respective wings of the Capitol and making sure security is tight. The SAA has the authority to find and retrieve errant senators and representatives, to arrest or detain anyone causing disruptions (even for crimes such as bribing representatives), and to control who accesses chambers.

In a sense, they act as the government’s bouncers.

Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin escorts China's president Xi Jinping
Senat Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin (L) escorts China's president Xi Jinping during a visit to Capitol Hill.
Astrid Riecken, Getty Images

This is not a ceremonial task. In 1988, Senate SAA Henry Giugni led a posse of Capitol police to find, arrest, and corral Republicans missing for a Senate vote. One of them, Republican Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon, had to be carried to the Senate floor to break the filibustering over a vote on senatorial campaign finance reform.

While manhandling wayward politicians sounds fun, it’s more likely the SAAs will be spending their time on administrative tasks. As protocol officer, visits to Congress by the president or other dignitaries have to be coordinated and escorts provided; as executive officer, they provide assistance to their houses of Congress, with the Senate SAA assisting Senate offices with computers, furniture, mail processing, and other logistical support. The two SAAs also alternate serving as chairman of the Capitol Police board.

Perhaps a better question than asking what they do is pondering how they have time to do it all.

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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Big Questions
What Makes a Cat's Tail Puff Up When It's Scared?
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Cats wear their emotions on their tails, not their sleeves. They tap their fluffy rear appendages during relaxing naps, thrash them while tense, and hold them stiff and aloft when they’re feeling aggressive, among other behaviors. And in some scary situations (like, say, being surprised by a cucumber), a cat’s tail will actually expand, puffing up to nearly twice its volume as its owner hisses, arches its back, and flattens its ears. What does a super-sized tail signify, and how does it occur naturally without help from hairspray?

Cats with puffed tails are “basically trying to make themselves look as big as possible, and that’s because they detect a threat in the environment," Dr. Mikel Delgado, a certified cat behavior consultant who studied animal behavior and human-pet relationships as a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Mental Floss. The “threat” in question can be as major as an approaching dog or as minor as an unexpected noise. Even if a cat isn't technically in any real danger, it's still biologically wired to spring to the offensive at a moment’s notice, as it's "not quite at the top of the food chain,” Delgado says. And a big tail is reflexive feline body language for “I’m big and scary, and you wouldn't want to mess with me,” she adds.

A cat’s tail puffs when muscles in its skin (where the hair base is) contract in response to hormone signals from the stress/fight or flight system, or sympathetic nervous system. Occasionally, the hairs on a cat’s back will also puff up along with the tail. That said, not all cats swell up when a startling situation strikes. “I’ve seen some cats that seem unflappable, and they never get poofed up,” Delgado says. “My cats get puffed up pretty easily.”

In addition to cats, other animals also experience piloerection, as this phenomenon is technically called. For example, “some birds puff up when they're encountering an enemy or a threat,” Delgado says. “I think it is a universal response among animals to try to get themselves out of a [potentially dangerous] situation. Really, the idea is that you don't have to fight because if you fight, you might lose an ear or you might get an injury that could be fatal. For most animals, they’re trying to figure out how to scare another animal off without actually going fisticuffs.” In other words, hiss softly, but carry a big tail.

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