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May 19, 2011

The BP Wayback Machine

Baseball in 1864

by Clay Davenport

While looking toward the future with our comprehensive slate of current content, we'd also like to recognize our rich past by drawing upon our extensive online archive of work dating back to 1997. In an effort to highlight the best of what's gone before, we'll be bringing you a weekly blast from BP's past, introducing or re-introducing you to some of the most informative and entertaining authors who have passed through our virtual halls. If you have fond recollections of a BP piece that you'd like to nominate for re-exposure to a wider audience, send us your suggestion.

Revisit Clay's account of a trip back in time to baseball's formative years, which originally ran on October 26, 2006.

The e-mail was innocent enough.

16-Oct-06- Fall base ball returns to Baltimore this weekend with vintage base ball matches taking place this Saturday, October 21st on the fields at Carroll Park. The hometown Chesapeake and Potomac Base Ball Club, representing Baltimore; Washington, D.C.; and Northern Virginia (and founded by SABR members), takes on one of the finest new vintage base ball clubs in America in the Eclipse Base Ball Club of Elkton.

I'd been interested in seeing one of these for a while, in part to get a better feel for how the different rules of the past (the e-mail said they would be using 1864 rules) would make for different statistics. After my wife (a Baltimore native) let me know that Carroll Park was on the "near" side of Baltimore for us, meaning that it would only be a 30-minute or so trip, I was pretty well set to go.

I finally got around to looking through my library for a book that had rules of the 1860s in it, but I couldn't find the ones I had in mind, and so I just decided that I'd go and see what the rules were by watching. I was pretty certain that balls on one bounce were still being called outs, and that they weren't allowed to retire runners by throwing the ball right at them ("soaking"). There certainly wouldn't be any gloves, but beyond that I really didn't know what to expect. Saturday came and the weather was great for the middle of October, clear and sunny, if a touch cool. Traffic turned into a mini-nightmare thanks to some road construction I didn't know about, so by the time we had gone off the highway and worked our way through local streets to the park, the two teams had already started the first game.

It turned out I was right about the one-bounce and no-soaking rules, but there were plenty of others that caught me by surprise--some that I remembered after seeing them in action, and a few that I had never heard of. Some of the chatter was amusing, such as the oh-so-polite calls of "Well struck, sir!" that followed a nice hit. The first game sailed right along; the Elkton club was pretty clearly the better team and won handily, although I wasn't keeping track of the score. I was chatting throughout the game with another SABR member whose curiosity had been aroused by the same e-mail I had gotten. The first game over, we both went over to the exhibit of old bats that had been set up while the players took a short break.

A couple of minutes later, one of the players' wives came over. She said that, one, the person who was supposed to be their umpire hadn't come; two, she had overhead us talking and we clearly seemed to know what we were talking about; and so, three, would one of us like to umpire the second game? My first instinct was not to say no, but something more along the lines "Good God, you've got to be kidding get me away from here no no NO!" She persisted, though, and some disjointed part of my brain managed to tell me lips to say, in good Oriole tradition, "Why not?" After all, the previous game would not have been hard to umpire--mostly they just needed an unbiased arbiter to call fair or foul, safe or out--you know, I could do this.

So, out I went onto the field, where I got my first surprise: The captain of the Chesapeake team instructed me on the strike zone of the day. They hadn't been calling balls and strikes in the first game, and I had assumed they weren't going to do it in the second game either, but it turns out the only reason they didn't do it before was because they didn't have an umpire; now that they had me, they were.

So I gulped, and had them show me where the umpire of the day was supposed to stand. I already knew they didn't stand behind the catcher like they do today; without gloves or any other equipment, the catcher stood a good 10 feet behind the home base. The umpire's position was about 10 feet directly in front of the hitter, across the plate from him, where he'd see if he looked straight ahead instead of over his shoulder towards the pitcher. This made it very easy to call pitches either high or low, but almost impossible to judge inside or outside. It took a while to get going; there was an argument over the ball to be used for this game, which was slightly larger and only a little softer than today's baseball. An Elkton player thought the proffered baseball wasn't going to be able to stand up to a full game, but they finally relented when no one could come up with another one right away. "Batter up," I started to say.

No, "striker to the line" was the proper phrase to start an inning. There were two things I couldn't break myself of all game long, and one of them was that I kept saying "batter" instead of "striker." Since there was no "batter," there was of course no "batter's box," and in fact there was no box of any kind. A line had been drawn straight through home (which was supposed to be circular and look like a dinner plate, but since we were using an existing ball field we had to make do with the modern pentagon), extending into what would now be the left and right batter's boxes, and the striker was obliged to straddle the line while hitting.

All of this, I think, didn't bother either team in the least, as they didn't expect me to know all of the rules. They said they'd help with that, and I believed them. The first play, however, destroyed whatever limited credibility I might have had as an umpire. It was a ground ball to the short stop, who knocked it down, picked it up and threw to first, just as the hitter was sliding in…which was also the exact moment one of the hitter's teammates walked right in front of me to pick up the discarded bat. I didn't see a thing. When he got out of my way, the runner and first baseman were both on the ground, and all 30 or so people around the field were looking at me, waiting for the call. You know the scene in "The Naked Gun" in which Leslie (It's Enrico Pallazzo!) Nielsen just stands there after the first pitch? That's what it was like. I had to tell them that I didn't have a clue what had happened, and the the teams decided that the man was safe.

Now, before Joe Sheehan goes off, let me explain that bit about the runner sliding into first. By the rules of 1864, this was not a silly or stupid or useless play, but an absolute necessity. The first base was just like second or third; if you overran it, you were liable to be tagged out. The rule allowing you to overrun first wouldn't enter the books until the early 1870s, and after seeing only two games it is easy to understand why it was needed. Practically every close play at first ended with the first baseman and runner together in a heap; allowing the base to be overrun had to reduce injuries.

The runner, having been called safe, immediately stole second. Between the style of pitching (underhand only, and with the wrist held straight throughout, which meant pretty low speed), and the catcher playing way behind the plate, the runners had a field day. Virtually every runner who reached first tried to steal second, and in both games together I only saw one play that was remotely close. The only thing that really gave the runners any hesitation was the threat of a foul ball.

Yes, threat. I couldn't figure this one out by just watching. After a number of foul balls, I could tell that the fielders were trying to get to the ball as quickly as they could and get it back to the pitcher, while the runners were trying to get back to base as fast as they could. I finally had to ask the players about it. As in today's game, you see, a foul ball was a dead ball, and no runner could advance. However, as soon as the ball got back to the pitcher, it immediately became live again. If some runner hadn't gotten back to his base, he could be thrown out, exactly as if he'd left early on a caught fly ball.

That brings me to another rule I didn't know before. I did know that the batter was out if the ball was caught on one bounce, which always struck me as a pretty reasonable concession to not having gloves. I always thought that it was exactly like a fly ball, but I was wrong. There was a real advantage to catching a ball on the fly, namely that base runners were not allowed to advance until after the ball was caught, just like today. If the ball was caught on the bounce, though, they didn't have to tag up. The batter--I mean, striker--was out on the bound, but the base runners were free to go.

So the game was moving along, and I was calling the balls and strikes as best I could. The strike zone went from the ankles to the head, but even so there were plenty of pitches where I couldn't decide whether to blame the pitcher or the striker, and the grumbling from one bench steadily rose about not calling everything. I took it for sour grapes.

It took three strikes for an out and three balls for a walk (which would advance all runners, not just forced runners)...sort of. It wasn't a swinging strike unless the batter swung and missed completely; foul balls wouldn't be strikes until after 1900. And you couldn't call a strike on a hitter until you had first warned him. In other words, the second called strike was called strike one, assuming the batter hadn't already swung and missed. Likewise, you couldn't call a ball on the pitcher until you had warned him that what he was throwing was a bad pitch. So in a sense there were four balls and four strikes.

This meant that I, as umpire, not only had to keep track of balls, strikes and outs in my head, but also whether or not I had warned either or both of them in the current at-bat. This became a problem in the third inning, when a Chesapeake runner on third base beautifully timed the catcher's somewhat lazy throw back to the pitcher. The pitcher threw back too hard for the catcher to handle, and the runner slid in for a very nice steal of home. I called him safe.

That was the other thing I couldn't keep myself from doing. I didn't just call him safe, I signaled with my hands out, a practice that didn't originate until around 1900. I did that all game long--I just couldn't help it. The instincts are too strong.

After the steal of home, the pitcher made his next pitch over the batter's--no, striker's--head, and I froze. It was clearly a ball, and I knew I had already warned the pitcher, but in all the excitement from the previous play I realized that I had absolutely no idea what the count was anymore. Trying to keep that from being obvious, and with considerably more confidence than I felt, I said ball two.

It already was ball two, said the striker. "Uh-oh," I said to myself. The captain of the other team said it should be a no call, which was fine by me. The aggrieved striker singled on the next pitch, so it all worked out the same as if he had walked, and between innings I got an explanation that made the rest of the day much easier.

When the one team said I didn't have to call everything, they weren't being catty, they were absolutely serious. There was no obligation to call each and every pitch; the umpire was really there to make sure the game moved along, and generally only called balls and strikes when it seemed one side or the other was wasting time. In practice, that meant I was only supposed to call the pitches that were very clearly balls or strikes; if it was in the borderland between one or the other, when due effort to make a proper pitch had been given, you could just make a no call. I could duck the hard ones and just call the easy ones. It was hardly necessary, though; nobody struck out (although several were out after their foul tip was caught, either on the fly or on a bounce, foul tips being no different from any other foul ball) and only one man walked the entire game.

In the fourth inning the ball broke open, as the Elkton player had forecast. Anachronistically, I allowed the teams to replace it. My thinking was that the ball is only busted on one of the four seams, it might still be reparable, it might not be if they keep playing, and I don't know what these things cost. I just made sure that both captains gave their blessing to the new ball and carried on.

In the fifth inning, a Chesapeake striker hit a little pop-up down the third base line, one of those swinging bunts that have lots of backspin on it (while bunting was allowed, I didn't see a single player try it). This was a dangerous ball, believe it or not, although it would have been more so without the fence in front of the bench that came with the modern field. A ball in 1864 was fair or foul by where it first hit, none of this "has to go past first or third" crap. A swinging bunt could hit fair and then kick off under the bench while the hitter just kept running--a play that became synonymous with Ross Barnes until the modern rule was adopted in 1877. It didn't matter here, though, despite the serious English it showed on the bounce, because the Elkton third baseman dove in from nowhere and snatched the ball out of the air a split-second before it hit the ground for the second time, easily the most spectacular play of the game.

Later in the inning, Chesapeake had a runner on second when the striker singled to left. The runner on second came home, the throw came in, the catcher caught it and applied a tag to the sliding runner. I started to call him out, but then the ball came loose and I changed it to safe. Elkton's captain complained bitterly. I was applying modern rules, he said; a runner in 1864 is out as soon as he is tagged, just like a football player is down and the ground can't cause a fumble (not a historically accurate example to use, since football in 1864 would be entirely unrecognizable to modern eyes as football). I appealed to the other team, who said they weren't sure, but that Elkton was the more experienced team and was probably right, so I called it the third out of the inning. One Chesapeake player did not take it well and continued arguing the call as he took his position. A proper umpire of the day would have fined him on the spot, but I just ignored him.

I got through the rest of the game without further incident, and received a rousing "huzzah" from both teams for my efforts, however little that may have been deserved given my numerous mistakes. When I got home, I was able to locate the rules on-line, and found that everything I had been told was correct; in particular, the tag rule that caused such dispute was clearly covered by rule 16. However, I also found that I was in gross violation of rule 36:

SEC. 36. No person shall be permitted to act as umpire or scorer in any match, unless he shall be a member of a Base-Ball Club governed by these rules.

One last "oops" to add to my day as an umpire.

4 comments have been left for this article.

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