The Making of Baseball’s Magna Carta
Something odd, unusual, unexpected, even—to one not inclined to superlatives—utterly amazing has just now turned up, some 160 years since it vanished. It is a document … or, rather, a trio of them … that together form the Magna Carta of Baseball, the Great Charter of Our Game. The manuscript rules of the game drafted by the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club for presentation to the first convention of New York vicinity clubs, which commenced on January 22, 1857, have emerged from the dark. No earlier baseball manuscript of this significance has ever come onto the open market. SCP Auctions will offer it in the coming weeks. I reproduce images of these improbable survivors with their gracious permission; I was afforded an advance look at them in the course of my consulting role on this single lot.
A favorite story sprang to mind as I began to contemplate the implications of this find, a Dead Sea Scrolls of Baseball that will keep scholars busy for years to come. Laurence Stallings was a prolific novelist, playwright, and screenwriter, whose battlefront experience in the Great War cost him a leg but led him to write “What Price Glory?”—a once famous book which became an even more celebrated film. In 1925 he was assigned by the New York World to cover a football game between the University of Illinois and Penn. Upon seeing Red Grange run for three touchdowns and 363 total yards in an upset of Penn, the great war correspondent tore at his hair while pacing the pressbox, muttering, “The story’s too big. I can’t write it.” That is the way I feel about this tale, even after working for nearly three decades on my book about the early game, Baseball in the Garden of Eden.
Once upon a time it was said that baseball began in 1839 with an Abner Doubleday brainstorm in Cooperstown; others later declared that story a fable while insisting it began in 1845 with Alexander Cartwright and the creation of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club (KBBC). Cartwright is credited, on his plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame, as having “set bases 90 feet apart” and “established 9 innings as a game and 9 players as [a] team.” Yet none of these aspects of the game were settled in 1856, when Daniel Lucius “Doc” Adams set to work, some seven years after Cartwright had left New York for Hawaii, never to return.
Recent scholarship has driven the origin date for baseball into the eighteenth century, in England and in America, but that was a primitive game whose details went unrecorded and, if recreated today, might not be recognizable as our national pastime. Baseball’s pioneer writer Henry Chadwick, who played the game on the Elysian Fields of Hoboken in the 1840s and wrote about it for half a century, frequently dated the real beginnings of the game not to 1840, when young men began to play ball at Madison Square in New York, or 1845, when the Knicks were formed … but to 1857.
“As usual,” he wrote in 1868, “with every thing imported, we do not possess it long before we endeavor to improve it, and as our old American edition of base ball, in vogue in New York some twenty-five years ago, was an improvement on Rounders, so is our present National game a great step in advance of the game of base ball as played in 1840 and up to 1857.”
Yes, 1857 was the year that baseball made its great leap forward, and these are the documents that reveal what it was like to be present at the creation. In that year the New York area clubs, in a convention called by the Knickerbockers, agreed to play by a new, improved set of rules that, for the first time, established:
- the base paths at 90 feet;
- the pitcher’s distance at 45 feet, later expanded twice but unchanged since 1893;
- the number of men to the side at nine;
- the duration of the game at nine innings, rather than first club to score 21 runs;
- constraints on betting and “revolving” (the practice by which a man could play for another club whenever he liked);
- and, copiously, more, not all of it addressed herein; there will be a great deal more to say, and not only by me, I expect.
The rudimentary Knickerbocker Rules of September 23, 1845 do not survive in manuscript form. They were 20 in number, and only 14 of those related to how the game was to be played. The rules were published, with only slight modification, in pamphlet form in 1848 and again, with minor modification, in 1854, by which time three clubs—the Knicks, the Gothams, and the Eagles—were playing by mutually agreed provisions. Yet there was still enough ambiguity in the rule set that baseball variants arose, even in KBBC games: On August 30, 1856 the Knickerbocker and Empire clubs played to a 21-21 tie in eight innings in a match at the Elysian Fields. While the Knicks positioned themselves as a conventional nine—three “fielders,” one catcher, three “basemen,” a pitcher, and a shortstop (Adams himself, the man who had invented the position at a time when games were generally played eight to the side)—their opponents, with an erratic pitcher presumably, elected to use no shortstop and placed two men behind the home plate.
The draft rules of 1856 were created by Adams, longtime KBBC president, as the “Laws of Base Ball.” William Henry Grenelle, who would be, like Adams, a Knickerbocker delegate to the convention, recorded a substantially different iteration as “Rules for Match Games of Base Ball.” This document addresses many issues about the playing grounds that were left to one side in the final KBBC document and in the regulations ultimately adopted in the convention.
These efforts, when combined and edited, were at last presented to New York area ball clubs on January 22, 1857 under Adams’ original title of “Laws of Base Ball”—with corrections penned in to the very last moment. One document (“Laws 1”) seems to have been drafted entirely by Adams, with the possibility that a fourth and final page went missing; while the handwriting in the other two (“Rules” and “Laws 2”) is demonstrably Grenelle’s, with pencil changes in another hand, likely that of Adams (I am not a forensic handwriting expert; this is my surmise).
When the Knickerbockers met among themselves on December 6, 1856, they resolved “to call a convention of the various base ball clubs of this city and vicinity.” The New York Herald, in reporting on this meeting, observed: “We understand the object of this convention is to promote additional interest in base ball playing, by the getting up of grand matches on a scale not heretofore attempted.” The anticipated outcome would be to inaugurate new clubs and to strengthen existing ones, by conforming the rules and making the game more “scientific” and difficult to play—“manly,” in the preferred term of the day, as was said of cricket—and thus of wider appeal. Children might play baseball along short basepaths and catch the ball on one bound to record an out, but grown men, well…
Adams did not prevail in his attempt to mandate the “fly game” for balls hit in fair territory, as delegates of new clubs were protective of their novitiates’ tender hands. The Knicks, however, played by this rule among themselves. Adams and the KBBC continued their fight for this “scientific” mode of play, succeeding at last in the 1864 convention’s adoption of the rule on a one-year trial basis which has endlessly extended to the present day. The one-bound rule stayed in place for foul balls, however, until finally eradicated in 1883.
The thought processes by which Adams and the Knickerbockers shaped the game to come may be hinted at in the discussion below, particularly, of the key imponderables in the Knickerbocker rules prior to that time: how to end a game (21 runs? mutual agreement? darkness?), and how to deter stalling, or “playing to a draw”; how many players to the side (common numbers ranged from eight to eleven for intrasquad games, though nine had become a de facto standard for “match play”—i.e., contests between clubs); and how to lay out the field (75-foot basepaths? 37.5-foot pitching distance?). Custom and practice evolved over the ensuing years, as more clubs were formed—and had to agree upon rules before a match could be played—but were not established in a uniform code until the momentous meetings of January 22 and February 25, 1857. (Another meeting, scheduled for February 3, was advertised in the press but no contemporary accounts of its activity survive.) The ball selected for a match game was often a subject of debate, for there was as yet no uniform standard; the same was true for the bats, which might be round at the barrel or flat.
The 1855 and 1856 campaigns had produced many new clubs and far more match games than before. These were the last year that games were played to 21 runs, and as the quality of play had improved, lower scores, closer contests, and more frequent draw games were prevalent. The need for a reimagining of the rules was, to some in the press and certainly to Adams and other progressive Knicks, like first baseman Louis F. Wadsworth, evident. A convention of eight clubs had been attempted in 1855 but the KBBC had declined to participate; without the prestige of the pioneer club, the venture died aborning.
In mid-1856, the Knickerbocker “old fogies,” who wished to narrow the number of contests with other clubs to those who also made their playing grounds in Hoboken, and to play games among themselves whenever possible, passed a resolution within the club to accept no outsiders for intramural matches if 14 men were present. Perhaps echoing this notion of seven men to the side forming an acceptable minimum, the Knicks instructed their delegate to the convention’s rules committee, Wadsworth, to support a new way to end a game: rather than first to 21 runs (in even innings)—the standard finish since 1845, whether in one inning or more—victory would now go to the club with more runs at the end of seven innings.
Following the disputes and ultimately resignations provoked by the rules dispute within the KBBC, word got out that the issues would soon widen to the entire baseball fraternity, at this point largely a New York and New Jersey affair. On October 11, 1856, Porter’s Spirit of the Times reported that, “It is said that a convention of all the Base Ball clubs of this city and suburbs will be held this fall, for the purpose of considering whether any and what amendments to the rules and laws governing this game should be made. The suggestion is worthy of improvement ….”
The KBBC sent three men to the convention: Adams, who was the other clubs’ choice to preside over the proceedings, Grenelle, and Wadsworth. In the document “Rules for Match Games of Base Ball,” the number of innings for completion of a game is originally specified at twelve (!), which is then edited to nine. In the Grenelle-scripted “Laws of Base Ball,” presented to the convention, the number of innings is noted as nine, but corrected in pencil to seven. In Adams’ handwritten draft, however, the number of innings had been nine.
Seven is the number of innings reported in Porter’s on February 28, 1857 as adopted by the convention … yet Wadsworth, after carrying out his mission as a KBBC member to advocate for seven innings, went rogue, enlisting the support of the other clubs to expand the game to nine innings. Had Adams’ preference for a longer game—twelve innings or nine—influenced Wadsworth? We cannot know.
Until the 1857 convention specified base paths of thirty yards, no one had thought to define the square (“diamond”) field by that distance. In an 1896 interview with The Sporting News, Adams recalled, “I presented the first draft of rules, prepared after much careful study of the matter, and it was in the main adopted. The distance between bases I fixed at 30 yards—the only previous determination of distance being ‘the bases shall be from home to second base 42 paces, from first to third base 42 paces equi-distant’—which was rather vague.” Scholars today, myself among them, believe that the pace, which at that time literally meant two and a half feet—producing baselines of 74.25 feet—was the distance intended by those who crafted the rules in 1845 for inexperienced players, for whom a cross-diamond throw at 126 feet (42 paces with three feet to the pace) would have been unimaginably hard. The notion of a pace could also have been flexibly defined: it may have been literally paced off by a man or a boy, producing variable distances. That Adams and Grenelle made a conceptual leap to define the field by its basepaths, rather than by the (fixed or variable) distance between home and second base, is indicated startlingly in the “Rules for Match Games of Base Ball” document.
On page 1, Section 1 it is written: “the bases shall be from “Home” to second base, forty-two yards; from first to third base, forty two yards [emphasis mine—jt], equi-distant….” This distance of 126 feet yields base paths of 89.1 feet. It is a small step, but one of simple genius, to make 90 feet (30 yards) the basic dimension, thus rendering the distance between home and second (and first and third) as 127.3 feet. So at some time between the 1856 creation of the “Rules for Match Games” and the January 22, 1857 presentation of the Adams/KBBC rules to the convention, baseball arrived at a key change.
In line with this change from paces to yards (or feet), Adams said, “The distance from home to pitcher’s base I made 45 feet.” In his “Laws of Base Ball,” Adams altered a key phrase that had left the pitching distance as either 15 or 16 yards: “The Pitcher must … have one foot in advance of and one foot behind the line at the time of delivering the Ball” became “The Pitcher must have neither foot in advance of the line at the time of delivering the Ball.” As the pitching distance could be measured from the front foot or the front of the box, it was thus set at 45 feet.
Great documents are the products of great men, whose contributions—or even their identities—are often erased from mainstream history. Until recently, that had been the fate of “Doc” Adams, who more than anyone shaped the primitive 1845 rules of the KBBC to become the game that would endure. While I have written about Adams and the early game for decades now, many of those reading about the dramatic find of these documents will ask, Who was Doc Adams? Who was William Henry Grenelle? Who was Louis F. Wadsworth?
I offer capsule bios below, and links to more extensive, richer treatments of Adams and Wadsworth particularly.
Doc Adams: Born in Mont Vernon, NH, he attended Amherst and Yale as an undergraduate and received his degree from Harvard Medical School in 1838. When he came to New York in the following year, he commenced to play ball “just for exercise” with some medical colleagues. Joining the Knicks in the month after their founding, he became the club’s president and headed the committee to review and modify its rules. Adams made the balls, oversaw production of the bats, and added the position of shortstop to what had originally been an eight-man game. Though he was an accomplished player, Adams’ pioneering contributions to the development of the game won for him, in 2015, his first year on the ballot, the most votes of any Veterans Committee candidate for the Baseball Hall of Fame.
With the rediscovery of his “Laws of Base Ball,” drafted for presentation to the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club and thence to the floor of the 1857 convention, we have tangible primary evidence of his genius. Adams left the KBBC in 1862 to practice medicine and become a bank president in Ridgefield, CT. He died in New Haven, CT in 1899.
Louis F. Wadsworth: Born in Connecticut in 1825, he graduated from Hartford’s Washington College (today called Trinity) in 1844, and commenced to play baseball with the Washingtons a.k.a Gothams in 1852. After a few years with the Knickerbockers (1854–57) he returned to the Gothams, following the ruckus over his support for nine innings during the convention. One of the veteran Knicks, in recalling some of his old teammates for the New York Sun in 1887, said: “I had almost forgotten the most important man on the team and that is Lew Wadsworth. He was the life of the club. Part of his club suit consisted of a white shirt on the back of which was stamped a black devil. It makes me laugh still when I recall how he used to go after a ball. His hands were very large and when he went for a ball they looked like the tongs of an oyster rake. He got there all the same and but few balls passed him.” Wadsworth’s time with the Knickerbockers, and his crucial role in affixing nine innings and nine men to the rules of baseball, are covered at length in Baseball in the Garden of Eden.
Widowed in 1883, he took to drink and lost a fortune estimated at $300,000 (perhaps $8 million in today’s terms). After some years of selling Sunday newspapers on the streets of Plainfield, NJ as his sole source of income, in 1898 he committed himself to the poorhouse. There he died in 1908, a solitary man with no family or visitors, and none cognizant of his role in developing the game. In his obituary it was written that “In the summer he was particularly interested in following the scores of the ball games of the big leagues, and of late years the game was the one great object of interest to him.”
William H. Grenelle: Elected to membership on June 14, 1850, he was a KBBC director in 1857. Grenelle joined Adams and Wadsworth on the Knick committee formed to arrange what became the 1857 convention. He also played at least one game for the Knickerbockers’ first nine in both 1857 and 1858 and represented the club at several later conventions of the organization that, beginning in 1858, was known as the National Association of Base Ball Players. Born in New York City in 1820, Grenelle worked as a Wall Street broker. For a time he was in partnership with fellow Knickerbockers William H. Talman, Edward A. Bibby, and Alexander H. Drummond, until the firm broke up in 1860. Grenelle died in Brooklyn in 1890, leaving a wife and several children, including Mary Hobart Grenelle Wilcox, whose lone daughter was Constance Grenelle Wilcox Pignatelli, of Madison, Connecticut.
It is through this last named Grenelle heir, the Knickerbocker’s granddaughter, that the documents survived. She was an author, a princess by marriage, an extremely interesting and accomplished woman whose story deserves a telling all its own … another day.
PDF of Adams’ draft (“Laws 1”): https://goo.gl/TAFfWn [cut and paste]
PDF of Grenelle’s scripted “Rules for Match Games of Base Ball” (“Rules”): https://goo.gl/UssqBo [cut and paste]
PDF of Grenelle’s scripted “Laws of Base Ball” (“Laws 2”), as presented to the convention: https://goo.gl/ovKmvM [cut and paste]
PDF of 1857 Rules and Regulations, Finally Adopted: https://goo.gl/7tBLTX [cut and paste]