Nine Innings, Nine Players, Ninety Feet, and Other Changes: The Recodification of Base Ball Rules in 1857
The article below, by Eric Miklich, appeared in print in a special issue of the journal Base Ball. Eric is Historian of the Vintage Base Ball Association and maintains an extensive website on nineteenth century baseball at http://www.19cbaseball.com. There one may view his compendium of baseball rules from 1845–1900. An active vintage-game ballplayer, he maintains a special interest in playing styles and playing fields from 1854–1884.
His article, like others from the special Protoball issue, appears courtesy of the publisher, McFarland and Company. Each article is keyed to the larger chronology appearing at Early Baseball Milestones at mlb.com. For example, the article below, indexed as 1857.1, reflects that it is the first entry for the year 1857. As the journal’s editor, I encourage you to consider subscribing. For details, see: http://www.mcfarlandbooks.com/?page_id=934.
1857.1, Nine Innings, Nine Players, Ninety Feet, and Other Changes: The Recodification of Base Ball Rules in 1857
The game shall consist of nine innings to each side. . . . In playing all matches, nine players from each club shall constitute a full field. . . . The bases must be . . . fastened on the four corners of a square whose sides are respectively thirty yards.
Although the Knickerbocker Club had laid down baseball’s earliest surviving rules in 1845, some of the game’s canonical features had not yet appeared as of 13 years later. Only when the rules underwent a fairly thorough revision in 1857 did baseball’s distinguishing dimensions—teams of nine playing nine innings on a field with 90-foot basepaths—enter its list of rules.
The Knickerbocker Club was content to play intramurally for many years, for its primary objectives were exercise and good fellowship, and rival clubs were not to be seen. Its initial list of 14 playing rules—while falling well short of comprehensiveness—sufficed for this period, with one rule added and another modified in 1848. By April 1854, three clubs—the Knickerbocker, the Gotham, and the Eagle—were playing interclub matches, and they added two new rules for those matches, thus introducing the force-play and specifying the size and weight of the baseball itself.
Just two years later, however, the nature of match play had changed materially. The number of clubs had increased nearly ten-fold, and the emphasis was rapidly shifting toward winning, and away from mere fellowship. In this new environment, there was evidently some agitation for a rethinking of the rules. In December 1856 the Knickerbockers publicly invited interested clubs to send three delegates each to a rules convention in early 1857 (16 clubs would be invited and 14 would participate). Knickerbocker Club members then set about proposing a new set of rules for the assembled delegates to consider.
What emerged from this convention looked like a fairly thorough overhaul. The 17 playing rules expanded to 28 rules (plus seven others that related to umpiring and player eligibility), with fewer than half of the 1854 rules remaining essentially unchanged. One scholar estimates that the total volume of text was three times that found in the 1854 rules.
Some major changes and their implications
A close reading identifies over 20 substantive additions to the rulebook in the 1857 version; a few of the more prominent of them are described below. In addition, for modern readers the terminology in the official rules was becoming more familiar. Section 9, for example, defines the results of crossing the plate as “runs,” and the prior terms “counts, or aces” are less conspicuous. “Innings” makes its debut in section 25, and the original term “hand” declines. Section 11 uses the simple term “out” in place of “hand lost.”
Nine Innings. The Knickerbocker draft rules proposed having games end after seven innings (with extra innings if needed), instead of at the end of whatever inning saw one or both clubs reach a score of 21 aces. Convention delegates, however, decided on a nine inning game, with Knickerbocker Louis F. Wadsworth advocating this outcome contrary to his own Club’s recommendation. The rationale for a choice of nine frames was evidently not recorded. We now know that in 1856 the average game (still played to 21 aces) had lasted only about 6 innings, and thus the 1857 convention was defining a game that was to be 50 percent longer. A good many of the 1856 games were suspended due to darkness, and longer contests would arguably make things worse; however, history has certainly proved the nine-inning decision to be both workable and durable.
Nine Players. While earlier rules had not specified the number of players on a team, it is generally believed that a custom had already evolved that match games required nine-player teams. If so, this new rule was simply conforming to de facto standards. (The Knickerbocker Club had voted in 1856 that, for its intramural games, the presence of seven Club members per team was sufficient. If they felt that the number of players and number of innings should be identical, as some suggest, they may have felt bound to recommend seven-inning games to preserve such symmetry. However, there is as yet no known evidence that they proposed seven-player teams to the 1857 convention to match the seven-inning idea.
Ninety Feet (30 yards). The original 1845 rules had prescribed an infield layout that separated the four bases by a little less than 30 “paces.” Only if we knew how clubs actually defined a pace, would we know whether the 1857 rule was a significant change. A three-foot pace would have dictated a baseline of nearly modern length. However, a pace was formally defined as 30 inches in those days, not 36 inches, and if that pace was used, the distance between bases was about 75 feet, and the 1857 rule would extend the distance by 20 percent, and affect rates of scoring. (If the length of a pace was left to the discretion or natural gait of the marker, as some have speculated, the distance will have varied from one match to another and from one marker to another.) It would be natural for the baselines to lengthen, over time, as the weight of balls increased, thus allowing for longer hits and longer throws. But whether they did lengthen in 1857 remains uncertain. In any event, there was apparently no controversy about this provision.
The Ball. The ball specified in section 1 of the new rules was measurably heavier, and its maximum size reduced, compared with the 1854 standards. The maximum circumference was reduced from 11 inches to 10.25 inches. (The laws of cricket at this time called for a maximum circumference of 9 inches for a ball weighing about the same as the baseball.)
Pitching Restriction. The 1854 stipulation was that the ball be “pitched, not thrown.” Section 6 of the new rules read that the ball be “pitched, not jerked or thrown.”
Pitcher Placement. The pitching distance was changed from 15 paces to 15 yards (section 5). The pitcher’s position was defined by a 12-foot line, and he was not restricted as to his point of delivery along that line. A nine-inch circular quoit placed at the center of the 12’ line gave umpires a way to see if pitchers were delivering balls illegally.
Base Advancement on Fly Outs and Bound Outs. The new rule 16 prohibited baserunners from advancing on fly outs, but said that they “shall have the privilege of returning” to their base. For outs effected via one-bounce catches, runners could still advance freely.
The Bat. Section 2 specified that the bat be made of wood and not exceed 2.5 inches in diameter; its length was not restricted.
Substitution. Under section 27, player substitution was disallowed “unless for reason of illness or injury.”
Runner Interference. Runners who intentionally interfered with fielders “shall be declared out.”
Three-Foot Baselines. Runners were to not to evade tags by running more than three feet out of a direct line between bases.
Ground Rules. Clubs are permitted to adopt ground rules particular to their playing areas.
Controversy and failed proposals
The Knickerbocker proposal eliminated the old bound-out rule; a batter was not out unless a fly ball was caught in the air. This change was narrowly voted down, reportedly due to concern about to hand injury to fielders. The fly rule would not be part of base ball until the 1865 season, eight years later. In a compromise adopted unanimously, however, runners were to be prevented from advancing on caught flies, giving fielders a new incentive to attempt catches on the fly. (Another suggested inducement, made in Porter’s Spirit of the Times, was to award the fielding team two outs for a fly catch and one out for a bound catch, while giving the batting team six outs per half inning.)
To help speed up play, Porter’s also endorsed the idea of called strikes to spur overly picky batters. The idea was not accepted, but did enter the rule book the following year.
The Knickerbockers also suggested, in vain, that flat bats be permitted.
Some overall patterns in the new rules and the defeated proposals
Clarity for New Players. Many of the 1857 rule changes appear to have been made in order to help new players and clubs understand details of the game better. A few examples are found in fuller descriptions of the balk (section 6), of fair and foul balls (section 8), what constituted a run (section 9), and of the five distinct the ways that outs are accomplished (sections 11–15.) These improvements must have been particularly valuable for those with little direct access to experienced players for advice.
Closing Revealed Loopholes. Several modifications appear to be intended to limit prior attempts to bend or exploit gaps discovered in the original rules. It was in order to limit such “sharp practices,” one might surmise, that the new section 6 proscribed “jerked” pitches, section 18 introduced the 3-foot baseline, section 21 prevented runners from impeding fielders, section 22 disallowed the use of players’ caps in fielding balls hit in play, and section 35 dictated that clubs that arrived more than 15 minutes late must forfeit the match.
The Shadow of Cricket? Some rules, and proposed rules, appear to be intended to reinforce baseball’s standing as a game suitable for adults. The new inducement to discourage the bound out in section 16 had that character. More generally, one can discern the shadow of cricket—a manly game indeed—behind several of the items that were raised for consideration: the fly rule proposal, the heavier and smaller ball, the notion of using flat bats, the move toward a fixed number of innings, and even in the appointment of a “committee to draft a code of laws” (not “rules”) for baseball.
1. From sections 26, 27, and 3, Rules and Regulations of the Game of Base Ball Adopted by the Base Ball Players of New York, January 1857.
2. See essay 1845.1, Larry McCray, “The Knickerbocker Rules—and the Long History of the One-Bounce Fielding Rule,” http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2011/10/06/the-knickerbocker-rules/.
3. Many essential rules were left implicit. Take one example, of many: say that you are a baserunner at second base, with first base occupied, and the batter hits a low liner to left field. Should you run, or stay at second, go half way to third, or what? The original rules give you no clue, except that if the fielding team manages to get the ball to a fielder touching third base before you can get there, you will be out. Maybe you should stay put: there is no force rule, and the written rules don’t even say you will be sanctioned if you end up sharing a base with the runner from first, if he decides to advance. Clearly something beyond the original 17 rules was required to actually play the game in 1845.
4. The notable changes in 1848 were that only at first base could a runner be retired by a fielder’s throwing the ball to a base before the runner arrived there, and that with two outs, a run could not score if the batter was “caught out.”
5. See Ivor-Campbell, F. “Knickerbocker Base Ball,” Base Ball 1.2, p. 59.
6. Ibid., 60.
7. It remains unclear that “aces” was uniformly or extensively used from 1845–1857; in fact, the Knickerbocker game books, as early as 1846, show “runs,” not aces as the units of scoring. See, e.g., Ivor-Campbell, 57 (illustration).
8. See essay 1856.4.
9. John Thorn, email correspondence, 2009.
10. “Out-Door Sports. Base Ball,” Porter’s Spirit of the Times: Mar. 7, 1857, p. 5.