July 20th, 2011

The Duel

Everything about baseball is borrowed, not invented—all of it comes from some other place—even though our national pastime is an undeniably unique collage. As I detailed in Baseball in the Garden of Eden, the 90-foot basepath was neither a stroke of genius nor a bit of divine intervention, even though pundits have long been fond of declaring that the game would have been radically different if some ingenious lad had chosen another distance. Batting averages would be higher today if the basepaths had been only a few feet shorter, they observe; pitchers would dominate if the basepaths had been a few feet longer, and so on. At one point in the 1890s when batting averages were soaring, Harry Wright seriously proposed increasing the basepaths to 93 feet.

Anyway, over lunch today I fell into one of my antiquarian reveries and got to thinking about why Doc Adams or Alex Cartwright or William R. Wheaton chose 15 paces as the pitching distance—why not 12 or 20 or any other number? Then I got to thinking about duels with pistols, and how Hamilton and Burr had fired at each other on Weehawken’s Heights in 1804, just spitting distance from the later Elysian Fields (and appallingly close to the site of today’s Alexander Hamilton rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike). What might the prescribed distance for a potentially fatal test of honor have been in 1845, when dueling (at least in the Northeast) was very nearly an archaism? Seeing as pitcher and batter are armed antagonists—one with a bat, the other with a ball, but each potentially deadly to the interests of the other—the metaphor just might be apt, I mused.

Bear with me as I descend into my nerdy rabbit hole.

Checking a standard work on the subject, Essai sur le duel, par le Comte de Chatauvillard (Paris, 1836), and straining my schoolboy French to its limit, I read on page 33 that Il y a plusieurs duels au pistolet; mais une règle, commune à tous, est que la distance la plus rapprochée doit être de quinze pas (“There are many duels with pistols, but one rule, common to all, was that the nearest distance should be fifteen paces….”). For fixed firing devices, the author allowed that the distance might be increased to as much as 33 paces.

While I have no, er, smoking gun to prove that baseball’s original pitching distance derived from the standard for pistol duels, such a deduction strikes me as plausible. Baseball’s field was not originally measured by its basepaths but by a distance from home to second base (and first to third bases) of 42 paces. In my book I argue that in the 1840s the pace would have been understood as either an imprecise measure, depending upon who was doing the pacing, or the classic Roman pace of 2.5 feet; the 3-foot pace would not be conventional until significantly later. Thus the Knickerbocker basepaths appear to have been closer to 75 feet than to 90; given the level of play by men new to the game, this stands to reason.

A schoolboy might wonder why that distance should be 42 paces rather than some other number. Douglas Adams proposed, in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, that the number 42 was The Ultimate Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything, but he declined to provide the question.

OK, back to the land of ancient baseball. It turns out that a square with sides of 42 paces (at the classic 2.5-foot measure, producing 105 feet or 35 yards) is a quarter-acre, very nearly on the button. An American or English statute square of a full acre is almost 4,900 square yards—with equal sides of 70 yards, which equates to 84 paces, or twice 42. In other words, this dimension would have been exceedingly familiar in America’s antebellum period.

Agriculture and everyday life also inspired the distance for the cricket pitch of 22 yards, which is precisely equal to an “Edmund Gunter chain,” as devised in 1620 and which distance was, according to John Nyren, precisely that of the cricket pitch as far back as 1682. The larger point is that playing-field measures derive from agrarian roots, and that these vestiges of the country survived in the city in its ball games, cricket and baseball, both of them vibrant anachronisms more popular than ever.

That’s my idle speculation for today.