A Brief History of the Pitching Distance

Kid Nichols grip

Kid Nichols grip

This issue comes up a lot with fans, especially those who know quite a lot about baseball history. A tweet this morning persuaded me (#AskTheHistorian) to dash off a reply longer than 140 characters.Fans will assume that because the pitching distance in was 50 feet in 1892 and 60’6″ one year later, the poor pitchers had to throw 10’6″ farther. Further, they assume, this “fact” explains the offensive explosion of 1894, when NL pitchers had an all-time-high ERA of 5.33, the league batted for an average of .309, and five men hit over .400–four of these in the Philadelphia outfield alone. Here’s the real story.

From 1845 to 1880 the pitching distance was 45 feet. The pitcher had to deliver the ball from behind a 12-foot line, at least until 1863. At that point a back another 12-foot line, 48 feet from home, was added, in effect creating the pitcher’s box. In many of the years that followed, the dimensions of the box changed, but until 1880 the front line stood at 45 feet. Now I repeat from an earlier post:

“[In the 1870s] baseballs were now being manufactured in mass, with deplorable quality control: The dead ball was, by midgame, often the mush ball. The fans no longer considered low scores so remarkable. National League bat­ting averages declined every year from 1877 to 1880, falling from .271 to an alarming .245. The number of strikeouts nearly tri­pled as pitchers perfected the curves and slants introduced only a decade before. The league ERA was 2.37. The fledgling circuit, which in those years included franchises in such marginal sites as Troy, Syracuse, Worcester, and Providence, was losing money and in big trouble.

“To the rescue came Harry Wright, the or­ganizer of the Cincinnati Red Stockings and ‘Father of Professional Baseball.’ He per­ceived the threat as early as 1877 when, in the Boston Red Stockings’ final exhibition contest, he had the pitcher’s box moved back 5 feet. The following year, in a September exhibition contest against Indianapolis, he arranged for the game to be played with: a walk awarded on six balls rather than the nine that then prevailed; every pitch count­ing as either a strike or a ball, thus elimi­nating the ‘warning’ call an umpire made when a batter watched a good pitch sail by; and complete elimination of restrictions on a pitcher’s delivery—he might throw any way he wished. In the winter prior to the 1880 season, Wright proposed a flat bat and a cork-centered lively ball. And in Decem­ber 1882, by which time most of the above proposals had been tried and some insti­tuted—the front of the pitcher’s box at 50 feet, the abolition of warning pitches, the walk awarded on seven balls, soon to be six—he proposed denying the batter the right to call for a high or low pitch and, most dramatically, a pitcher’s box of 56 feet—very much the pitching distance of today. (The pitching distance at that time was measured from home plate to the front of the box, or true point of delivery, while today’s distance is measured from the plate to the rubber, from which the pitcher’s front foot strides some 4 to 4.5 feet forward.) [NOTE: my friend Bill Deane has corrected me thus in a note below and, as usual, he is right: “It was actually only 4’3½” shorter, as the pre-1893 distance was measured from the center of the base instead of the rear point, as it is today. See the appropriate chapter in Baseball Myths (Scarecrow, 2012).”]

“Hitting revived briskly in 1881, the first year of the new 50-foot pitching distance, but soon slid back again. The rule makers continued their tinkering with the ball/strike count (raising the strike count to four for 1887–in effect raising it to former levels, since the old warning pitch had prevailed until 1880 and was granted with two strikes until 1881–and lowering the ball count to four by 1889); the length of the pitcher’s box (from 7 feet to 6 feet to, in the final adjustment before replacement by the rubber, 5.5 feet); the pitcher’s windup (banning the running start and, for 1885, the raised-leg windup); and, most important, the delivery itself.”

To recap: In 1892 the pitching distance was truly only four feet, 3-1/2 inches shorter than that of today, because before the introduction of the slab, from which the 60’6″ distance is taken, the pitcher threw from a box, the front of which was 50 feet from the plate. However, the back line was five and a half feet farther back. In that last year of the old distance, which had been in force since 1880, Amos Rusie, may have been, from the batter’s perspective, the fastest pitcher ever.

4 Comments

John, are you confident the pitching distance used before it was specified in the rules in the 1850s was 45 feet?

It was actually only 4’3½” shorter, as the pre-1893 distance was measured from the center of the base instead of the rear point, as it is today. See the appropriate chapter in Baseball Myths (Scarecrow, 2012).

Bob, no. Since the earlier specification may have been 15 paces, it could well have been 37.5 feet (if a pace is strictly constructed as the Roman pace of 2.5 feet, or, more accurately 29 inches). If the pace was merely an informal stepping-off measure, then it was variable with the stride of the pacer.

Bill, you are correct (dammit). I will adjust the text accordingly.

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