According to baseball mythos, on a spring day in the year 1839, in the bucolic town of Cooperstown, New York, Abner Doubleday, who would later be a hero at the Battle of Gettysburg, sat down and composed the Rules of Baseball. He was said to have designed the diamond, indicated fielder positions, and wrote down the rules and the field regulations. The cynical truth is that Doubleday’s invention of baseball was an invention by baseball – the tale fit the public’s desire for a pastoral setting of the game which soon became known as our “National Pastime,” by a hero of the Civil War. Actually, Doubleday was nowhere near Cooperstown at that time, likely never visited the town, never mentioned baseball in his memoirs, and likely never held a baseball nor picked up a bat during his lifetime. The source of the Doubleday tale was a letter sent to the panel from elderly Abner Graves, who was five years old in 1839 when Doubleday was supposedly writing down his notes. Soon afterwards, Graves was convicted of murdering his wife and spent his final days in an asylum for the criminally insane. The dubious nature of the witnesses’ mental state did not deter the Lords of Baseball from stamping their seal of approval on the story.
If you have had a chance to visit Hoboken, New Jersey, you will have undoubtedly spotted the old Maxwell House Coffee Plant. Maxwell House closed down in the early 1990’s; if you visited the city before that time, you would have noticed the ubiquitous redolent smell of coffee throughout the city. Deep within the bowels of the plant lies what was once a ball field in a park called Elysian Fields. It was at that field that the first recorded baseball game took place. Alexander Joy Cartwright wrote down the rules and regulations of baseball, and assembled a squad called the New York Knickerbocker Base Ball Club. The first “official” game of baseball was played on June 19, 1846, under the New York Rules, between the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of New York City and the “New York Nine” at Elysian Fields in Hoboken New Jersey. For the record, the Knickerbockers were annihilated by the New York Nine, 23-1.
During approximately the next 60 years, there were frequent rules changes, as well as evolution of equipment. Initially, the ballplayers did not use gloves. The catchers, who played far in back of home plate, had a thin piece of leather for a glove. Pitchers had to throw underhand, from a distance of 50’. Batters could request whether they wanted the pitch low or high. At first you needed to get 9 balls to get a walk, with this number changing every several years. It took quite a few years for batters to be awarded first base when hit by a pitch. Prior to this, a pitcher could plunk a batter continuously until he had enough balls to achieve a walk. There are recorded instances of pitchers doing just that to legendary manager John McGraw, who was universally hated by all those who weren’t teammates. On one occasion, McGraw attacked the umpire, who was gleefully watching the action. Most baseball historians state that 1893 was the beginning of the modern era, as this was the year that the pitching mound was moved to its present location, 60’ 6” from home plate. The last major change in the rules came in 1903, when the American League adopted the Foul Strike Rule, against much opposition. Since that time, the only rule change that radically changed the nature of the game was the Designated Hitter Rule, which was adopted in 1973, exclusively in the American League.
The question remains – how and why did these changes in rules come about? Although the majority of the adjustments occurred as a result of experience over time, many of these changes were actually the result of the ingenuity, and at times, eccentricity, of ballplayers of the 19th century.
Perhaps the greatest showman and slugger of the 19th century was Michael “King” Kelly. Kelly could be said to be the Babe Ruth of his time. Some say that he was the prototype of the baseball standard hitter’s lament, Earnest Lawrence Thayer’s 1888 poem “Casey at the Bat”. Kelly was both known and loved for his antics on and off the field. He traveled with a Japanese manservant, as well as a pet monkey. A famous song of the period, “Slide Kelly, Slide” was a nationwide hit. Kelly is the first player who is credited with giving autographs. One day, while he was managing the Boston Beaneaters, Kelly observed a foul ball heading towards the bench. He realized that none of his players had a chance to make the catch. The rules at the time allowed for player substitutions at any time during the game; taking advantage of the situation, Kelly leapt off the bench, shouted out “Kelly now catching for Boston”, and caught the ball for an out. Shortly following this episode, a rule was adopted that allowed substitutions only during time outs.
Wee Willie Keeler, the ballplayer who “hit it where they ain’t”, had an uncanny ability to bunt almost any ball pitched to him. Keeler would bunt foul balls until he worked the pitcher for a walk. His unique abilities were the impetus for the rule change that made the third-strike foul bunt a strike out. Keeler also perfected the Baltimore Chop, in which he would chop the ball into the ground hard enough for it to bounce so high that he could reach first base before the throw to the bag. Keeler was also one of the first players who used the strategy of “hit and run”, although manager Tommy McCarthy was the first manager to make use of this strategy. McCarthy also popularized letting short fly balls drop in front of him, hoping to start a double play. Shortly after this became a common strategy, baseball implemented the infield fly rule.
Luther Taylor was a pitcher with the New York Giants for eight years in the 1890’s. Taylor was a deaf mute, and like all deaf ball players of that period, his moniker was “Dummy”. Taylor once convinced the umpire to stop a baseball game on a rainy day by wearing rain boots and carrying an umbrella onto the pitcher’s mound. Taylor is credited with helping to expand and make universal the use of sign language throughout the modern baseball infield, including the use of pitching signs.
Taylor’s manager, John McGraw, learned sign language in order to communicate with Taylor. On one occasion, Taylor and McGraw were laughing at and denigrating the umpire in sign language. The umpire suspected what was occurring, and threw them both out of the game.
There was another deaf mute of that period, whose name was William “Dummy” Hoy. Hoy was a superb outfielder. There are numerous accounts from the contemporary newspapers of that time listing his fielding exploits. On one occasion Hoy caught a ball after leaping astride a horse hitched to a buggy parked inside the stadium. The crowd responded by giving Hoy a standing ovation, wildly waving their hats and arms, which was the only way the outfielder could recognize their appreciation of his performance. Hoy was also a superb base stealer, swiping over 600 bases in his career. SAGNOF!
Most importantly, Hoy played a pioneering role in developing the intricate system of hand signals, used today throughout the entire world of baseball. Prior to Hoy, all umpires’ calls were shouted. While at bat, Hoy would ask his coach whether the call was a ball or strike. Oftentimes, the opposing pitcher would attempt to take advantage of Hoy’s confusion, by quick-pitching him. Around 1887, Hoy wrote out a request to his third base coach, asking him to raise his left arm to indicate a ball, and right arm a strike. Umpires found these signals to be so useful that they soon became S.O.P. Hoy was also responsible for introducing the “out” and “safe” signs, both of which are adapted from ASL.
Arlie Lathan was one of the most colorful ballplayers in the history of the game. He starred on Charley Comiskey’s St. Louis Browns squads of the 1880’s, known for their feisty and rowdy behavior. Arlie was the mischievous imp of baseball, and was nicknamed “The Freshest Man on Earth”, a popular song during that period,. (I guess you had to be there) due to his hilarious pranks and buffoonery. On one occasion, Arlie went into an apoplectic rage following a call by umpire Tim Hurst. Lathan slammed his glove to the ground, and kicked it towards Hurst. Hurst proceeded to kick it back to Arlie. Arlie again kicked it back to Hurst; Hurst kicked it back to Arlie. The two proceeded to kick the glove back and forth until the glove finally came to rest in the depths of center field.
During baseball’s infancy, each player used to take turns coaching 1st and 3rd base. Arlie had a knack for the job; he incorporated his own unique style by running up and down the third base line screaming like a banshee, and ululating like a lunatic in the middle of the pitcher’s wind-up. There was no rule at the time that disallowed such behavior. Because of his antics, the league established the coaching box in order to prevent Arlie and his imitators from this farcical yet quite effective conduct. Because of his obvious proficiency at the job, after his career was finished, Lathan would become baseball’s first full time third base coach. The characteristic chatter that goes on in the field, with constant encouragement to the pitcher and derogatory remarks to the batter that is part of the fabric of the game is also attributed to Latham.
Besides being a cut-up, Arlie was a heck of a ballplayer. His play in the 1887 season rates as one of the greatest offensive years in all of baseball’s history. That year Latham batted .316, with 198 hits, 45 walks, 129 stolen bases, scoring an unbelievable 163 runs. If you add up his hits and walks, he was on base 243 times, and scored 163 times, an incredible percentage. But Arlie was best known for his speed. The famous evangelist, Billy Sunday, was once a baseball player; in fact, in terms of base running ability, he was described by some pundits to be the equal of the immortal Ty Cobb. In 1885, a famous footrace took place between Lathan and Sunday – the preacher won by quite a few strides. Sunday later incorporated his baseball skills into his preaching, sliding onto the stage of the Sawdust Trail as if he were stealing a base.