October 6th, 2011

The Knickerbocker Rules—and the Long History of the One-Bounce Fielding Rule

With this twelfth of sixteen articles by scholars of baseball’s earliest period, a picture will begin to emerge of how the game first flowered in America. (For regular readers of the Our Game blog, my own contributions will be interspersed with these excerpts from Base Ball.) The article below, by Randall Brown, appears in print in a new special issue of the journal Base Ball.  The article below, by Larry McCray, appears in print in a new special issue of the journal Base Ball for which Larry served as guest editorHe is the founder of the invaluable Protoball Project, a website where many of the early game’s top scholars have shared their finds. He is also a panelist on Major League Baseball’s Origins Committee, which I chair.

These articles constitute only a portion of the complete special issue and appear courtesy of the publisher. Each article is keyed to the larger Protoball Chronology appearing at http://www.retrosheet.org/Protoball/; for example, the article below, indexed as 1845.1, reflects that it is the first Protoball entry for the year 1845.

1845.1 The Knickerbocker Rules—and the Long History of the One-Bounce Fielding Rule 

Larry McCray1

If a ball be struck, or tipped, and caught, either flying or on the first bound, it is a hand out.2

The famous Knickerbocker rules of 1845 may not be comprehensive enough to fully define a playable game, and may not even be baseball’s first written rules,3 but they did indeed survive, and they give us the first coherent picture of the roots of the New York game.

At first taken as evidence of the Knickerbocker Club’s knack for inventive genius, the 13 playing rules have recently been freshly reconsidered in an evolutionary context, and their reputation for originality has taken several hits.4 At this point, it appears that only three rules that endure today lack clear precedent in prior safe-haven ballgames.5 These are (1) the tag-out rule, which supplanted the “plugging” of base-runners to put them out6; (2) the characteristic “90-degree” territory defining fair hits; and (3) the three-out inning. The three-strike rule, for example, was already in use in predecessor games—as was the dropped-third strike rule that freed the batter who whiffed to run the bases. (Such familiar modern icons as the nine-inning game, the nine-player team and the ninety-foot basepath came along more than a decade later.)

It seems ironic, when discussing rule innovations, that what may have been early game’s most contentious rule (the issue remained unsettled for four decades) was perhaps actually the most ancient aspect of ballplay. The basic fly rule for putting batters out seems to have been a part of ballplaying since, at least, the earliest accounts of English stoolball and cricket, centuries ago.

What We Know About the Prehistory of the Bound Rule

The Knickerbocker Club’s rule 12, cited above, includes a provision that to baseball fans seems quaint, if not alien, today; a batter could be retired if a fair or foul hit is caught after it bounces once.

There has been, until recently, reasonable speculation that this provision was another Knickerbocker innovation, and why it appeared. Over time, the weight and dimension of the ball had been evolving toward that of the cricket ball, making it heavier—and, reportedly, harder. One might surmise, then, that a fielder’s hands might be better protected from pain and injury if he were afforded the option of letting the ball bounce once, and then to field it once it was “spent.” A closer look, however, reveals some evidence that the one-bounce rule was known even before the New York game took shape.

The bound rule actually has a solid place in ball sports—and not just in the children’s game of jacks and in assorted playground fungo games. It is seen today mostly in tennis and related sports like handball and squash and table tennis, where the objective is to return a ball before it bounces twice, an event that would abruptly add one to the opponent’s score. For many centuries the bound rule has been an essential part of the old form of tennis, played long before modern lawn tennis was invented (keeping the bound rule) in 1873. Very early forms of collegiate football in the United States, and rugby-rules football in England, also included rules that specified what a player could and could not do when catching a ball on the bound.7

But was the bound rule also part of earlier safe-haven ballgames? One baseball pioneer certainly thought so. Describing the rules set for the new Gotham Base Ball Club in 1837, William Wheaton wrote, a half-century later: “We abandoned the old rule of putting out on the first bound and confined it to fly catching.”8 (If true, of course, this means that the Knickerbocker Club had actually decided to reverse the Gotham Club’s decision, and had reverted to the bound rule.) A second pioneer agrees: Knickerbocker mainstay Doc Adams seems to have suggested that one reason that players still liked the bound rule in 1860 was that it was a familiar feature of their boyhood ballgames.9

The direct evidence on broad prior use of a bound rule is suggestive, but it is not overwhelming. We have, as yet, only two contemporary references to its use before 1845. The earliest, found by David Block in a poem on stool-ball published in 1733, seems to imply the fielder’s objective was “To seize the ball before it grounds / Or take it when it first rebounds.”10 The other reference is in a public challenge in June 1841 to play a wicket match near Hartford, Connecticut; it specifies, as the second of four playing rules, “the ball to be fairly caught flying or at the first bound.”11 The standard early surveys of games—including Willughby, Gutsmuths, Strutt, Clarke—do refer to batters being put out by means of caught balls, but none actually defines a “catch” as being made on the fly.

Several other references to pre–1845 use of the bound rule appear in retrospective accounts. Historian Harold Seymour associates the practice with the old-cat games (but does not give a source),12 and a recollection of such games around 1840 in Illinois recalls a one-bounce rule.13 The rule is remembered for ballgames played in the 1820s in New York State, and in 1840 in accounts from Georgia and North Carolina.14 In New England, one account attributes the bound rule to the traditional ballgame called base.15

After the New York game had emerged, the bound rule was employed for wicket in Rochester, town ball in Ohio, and in Philadelphia Town Ball.16 It seems quite plausible that these practices were retained from earlier years, although the post–1845 adoption of the Knickerbocker rule 12 is another possibility. And as late as 1857, the rules of the Olympic Club of Boston listed the feature as a short-handed “scrub” variant of its own (non–New York) game.17 One Indianapolis writer, musing on ancient varieties of ballplaying, wrote that “[b]ecause the fielders were so helpless, it appears that even catches on two bounds were considered outs in games between younger players.”18

So the bound rule certainly was known before 1845. Whether it was the dominant form for “caught out” rules in early safe-haven games is not yet clear. We might speculate about the purposes for specifying bound outs in predecessor games—both to protect the hands of young or inexperienced players, and to extend the effective range of fielders when too few players were available. But in those early days, balls were apparently lighter and softer, and thus hits were shorter and damage to hands was a lesser risk.

The Slow Demise of the Bound Rule19

While it was their own club’s original rule, by the mid–1850s some prominent members of the Knickerbocker Club wanted to eliminate the bound rule. In this cause they were to be joined by the energetic reformer Henry Chadwick, who would call this campaign “one of the toughest I had.”20

In preparation for the 1857 convention that would revamp baseball’s rules, each of 16 New York area clubs were asked to send representatives to meetings to consider draft rules prepared by the Knickerbocker Club, and this draft eliminated bound catches. It was reported that the delegates were “pretty evenly divided” on this provision,21 but a compromise was reached, and unanimity thereby was achieved. The bound rule stayed, but a provision was fashioned as a new inducement for fielders to make fly catches whenever they could22: Although baserunners could still, as before, scamper ahead on all hit balls put in flight, for bound catches, runners could keep the bases they had gained on the play. If those balls were caught on the fly, however, the runners now were returned, with safe passage, to their original bases (the modern tag-up rule was to come later).

Thus began a reform campaign that gained press support but that failed, time after time, at Association rules conventions. Despite derision by Chadwick and others that the bound rule was merely a “boy’s rule,” delegates repeatedly voted to retain it, their majority buoyed by the growing numbers of new and distant clubs that were obviously more comfortable with it.

Meanwhile, more and more of the elite urban clubs—following the lead of the Knickerbockers—adopted the fly rule on their own. The manly game of cricket, using a ball as heavy and hard as a baseball, had no bound rule, a fact not unnoticed by proud cricketers, and this may have been a factor in the conversion. (Even today, cricketers make long fly catches without benefit of fielding gloves, while in baseball and softball, barehanded catches are largely reserved for spectators.)

Eventually, in December 1864, a fly rule for fair hits was voted in, as a one-year experiment for 1865 that stuck. But for foul balls, the bound rule lived on, and for two more decades, fielders outside the lines had the convenient option of grabbing the ball on one bounce.23

Notes

1. This essay benefited from several email exchanges with Richard Hershberger in early 2011.

2. Knickerbocker Rule 12.

3. Writing in 1887, William Wheaton recalls writing a set of rules for the Gotham Base Ball Club in 1837. See Protoball entry 1837.1, which carries the Wheaton article.

4. Rule-by-rule reviews of the Knickerbocker playing standards have been presented in: Block, D. 2005. Baseball before We Knew It (pp. 80–93); Thorn, J. 2011. Baseball in the Garden of  Eden (pp. 71–77).

5. Whether the balk rule was originated by New York’s pioneer clubs has not been evaluated carefully at this time.

6. Actually, Wheaton wrote that this was “the first step we took” in laying out Gotham Club rules in 1837, eight years earlier. However, a tag rule that replaced plugging is not found in accounts of predecessor games, and may have been a New York modification.

7. See, e.g.: Gems, G., et al. 2008. Sports in American History (p. 138).

8. See Protoball entry 1837.1, which includes the full text of the Wheaton article.

9. Sunday Mercury, 1860. The cited observation was quoted from the report of the NABBP rules committee. Adams is not specifically named as author, but he chaired the committee.

10. Block 2005, 86, 111–118. The poem, “Stool Ball, Or the Easter Diversion,” is a detailed account of a holiday game that involved hitting but no pitching or baserunning.

11. See Protoball entry 1841.10; the original source is the Hartford Daily Courant of June 23, 1841.

12. Seymour, H. 1989. Baseball: The Early Years (p. 7).

13. Jones, A. 1970. Representative Recreation Activities (pp. 100–101).

14. See Protoball entries 1823c.12, 1840.24, and 1840c.33, respectively.

15. See Protoball entry 1750s.3.

16. See, respectively, Protoball entries 1850s.16 and 1850s.20, and Hershberger, R. 2007. “A Reconstruction of Philadelphia Town Ball,” Base Ball 1.2 (pp. 36–37).

17. See Protoball entry 1857.20. Massachusetts Base Ball, formally codified in the following year, specified the fly rule for match play.

18. “Old Baseball,” Indianapolis Sentinel: Apr. 3, 1887; cited in Morris, P. 2010. A Game of Inches (revised ed.) (p. 120).

19. A nuanced and recent overview of the controversy appears in Ryczek, W. 2009. Baseball’s First Inning (pp. 174–178).

20. Chadwick, H. 1868. The Game of Base Ball (p. 11).

21. “Out-door Sports. Base Ball Convention,” Porter’s Spirit of the Times: Mar. 7, 1857. Section 16 of the 1857 rules contains this provision.

22. There were already two competitive reasons for teams to prefer to try for fly catches. First, a fly catch reduces the time to return the ball to the infield, deterring advancing runners. Second, where playing surfaces were not well manicured, irregular bounces could prove uncatchable on the bound.

23. The shift in the vote may have been affected by the fact that membership in the NABBP had fallen off sharply. The number of member clubs fell from 62 in 1860 to 30 in 1864, according to Charles Peverelly in 1866. See Freyer and Rucker. 2005. Peverelly’s National Game (p. 117).

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