I don't think I'm stretching anything to say that most baseball fans know what it's like to play a game of baseball with too few people. Depending on just how many kids were available, we might play a game with no third baseman and only two outfielders or, if players were really limited, we'd have only one player in the outfield and rely on ghostrunners to run the bases. It wouldn't be unheard of to make all of rightfield off limits as well. You make do with what you have, right?

Along those same lines comes a version of baseball that I've never seen before. It was featured in the December 1939 issue of Popular Mechanics and was invented by Stephen Epler to allow smaller groups of players to play games quicker. Epler had, five years previously, invented a game called "six-man football" so, naturally, he also came up with "six-man baseball". From the magazine:

Each team is composed of six players – two infielders, two outfielders, a pitcher and a catcher. Instead of four bases, the "diamond" is composed of three, including home plate. Bases are equal distances apart – ninety feet when a hard ball is used – and they are located at the corners of an equilateral triangle. A full game is six innings, and two strikes, instead of three, retire the batter. Foul balls are counted as half-strikes, and the hitter is called out on four fouls. Three balls, instead of four, give a base on balls.

The picture above is an artist's rendition of the sport, and, I have to admit, it looks intriguing. It got me wondering just how the game would play if baseball were really played this way.

It seems simple enough. The bases are still 90 feet away, so the time to go from station to station doesn't really change. Runs would certainly score more, with players basically only needing to get to third before the run counts. Turning towards the next base might be a tad harder, but that's manageable.

The article makes sure to point out that, while batting wouldn't be much different, the batter's "must be more accurate since they hit into a sixty-degree angle instead of ninety." It's a good point. In this new version of baseball, any and all shots down the line (as we know it) would be foul balls. Instead (as you can see below), the new "down the line" shot would be the balls that would normally go directly at a properly positioned first-baseman. How many balls in play are normally hit between the fielder and the baseline? I don't have the data in front of me, but it doesn't seem insubstantial. What's more, those would now be foul balls in a game where foul balls count as strikes. Sure, they're only "half-strikes", but they certainly add up. Outs – especially strike outs – would pick up more, and that's even before we consider the three-balls, two-strikes rules Epler proposed.

In the end, though, the offensive changes that would come from six-man baseball wouldn't represent that much of a change from baseball as we know it. Outs and runs might come quicker, but it would still be close to baseball as we know it. Defensively, however, is a different story.

Look at the red lines on that baseball diamond again. The horizontal line represents the baseline between first and the new second and, under the proposed rules, would be manned by only two infielders. Having only two fielders between two bases isn't much of a change, but where they would have to play is a huge difference. Currently, the secondbaseman and shortstop position themselves roughly 130 feet from the plate. With secondbase removed from the equation, though, the new basepath is only 80 feet from the plate. Our two up the middle infielders, then, would be forced to position themselves on what is now the infield grass, much like they would today with a drawn-in infield. We all know how that plays out – anything that isn't a weak grounder would fall in for a hit due to the decreased reaction time the fielders would have.

The outfield might be worse. The new, 60-degree foul lines certainly lessen the amount of ground that needs to be covered in the air, but they still extend between the right- and leftfield power alleys. Two men would now be expected to cover all that ground. This is possible with two quality fielders, but would mostly result in more hits. And, with all the extra grounders they'd be forced to field due to the infielders' poor reaction times, the two outfielders would find their job that much harder and more tiring.

Six-man baseball was, of course, never designed for full-on, major league play. Epler was hoping to make a quicker, easier game for small groups of kids to play. I have no doubt that it worked to a certain extent. After thinking of all the issues involved with the game, though, I don't see how it's any better than just letting a group of kids play with a ghostfielder at third and with rightfield an automatic out. Six-man baseball has some neat ideas (and a very cool looking field – thanks, Popular Science!), but the increase in offense and the extra-difficulty of defense, isn't worth it. Of course, if I were a ten-year-old kid hoping to get a full game of baseball in at recess with my schoolyard friends, I might be singing a different tune.

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Great article, Larry. Coming from the land of six-man football (west Texas), I actually participated in this modification as a kid in the seventies. One of the parents among the kids I played with mentioned the game and said it came from an old magazine and might work for us. We were always short of players but always had at least six, so we tried it. The biggest frustration (as always) was chasing down foul balls, and there were a lot of them. We drew the baselines with string and measured it out to try and use an existing baseball field. We did it for about three weeks and got frustrated, eventually going back to the same modifications you mentioned.

I'm glad you write about so much of this stuff that takes you back....
This article definitely sent me back to my childhood. Many, many summer days were spent playing games of baseball with only three people (my brother and cousin). Batter, pitcher and one fielder usually positioned in the OF. The rules were...

1. Balls hit to RF were outs (unless we elected to hit left-handed).
2. Any batted ball that hit the ground before the outfield grass was an out if cleanly fielded. Caveat, if the ball got past the fielder, then the ball was a hit regardless if fielded cleanly.
3. Balls that rolled to the OF wall was a double.
4. Balls hitting the wall on the fly were triples.
5. NO WALKS! It was designed to be a hitter's game.

As we grew into our mid-teens we still played by the same rules except we used tennis balls instead of hard balls. Games were mostly frequently played on a college softball field. If we happened to play on a little league field, rule #2 was changed so that any batted ball field cleanly was an out.
Our Rules were a bit different, but we often played with 4-8 people and depending on the number could use any of the following:

1) Ghostrunners
2) "Pitcher's hand" - ball fielded and arriving at the pitcher's glove in place of leading forced human runner constitutes a forceout at leading base (including ghostrunners). Although it was almost impossible to succeed with this, the fielder could run to a base for a force then throw to the P for a DP opportunity.
3) No walks
4) Batter-Called field foul (ie Batter could opt to hit to RF and call LF foul before hitting)
5) Into the woods on the roll is a double, on the fly is a homer.
As a former softball pitcher, I'd also suggest a rule that we had in one of my leagues ... any ball hit back at the pitcher is an out :-)
There was no mention of strike zone and if it was altered. I would think you might want to tinker with that too but I don't know how much it would start to change the pattern of balls in play. I also think the infielders could play a bit deeper to allow for reaction time but who knows for sure.

Over the line with 3 or 4 per team was our game of choice with only pull side hitting allowed as fair. We did play a lot of whiffle ball on a shrunken down baseball diamond in a friends huge yard using a swingset with an umpire's chest protector hanging there as a strikezone. We had short porches down the line, a barn in center where the roof was a HR, hitting the runner with a thrown ball after fielding it was considered an out. Installed lights for night games. Raised the mound a bit and covered with old carpet to hold it in place. Damn those were good days!
The thing that caught my attention was running the bases. Making the turn from 1st to ...the base after 1st (still 2nd?)... is one hell of a turn!

Our variation of one-on-one baseball was similar to what other mentioned, except we used a tennis ball and these rules:
1) the pitcher could field the ball and throw it at the runner for an out (often resulting in a fight if aimed at the head, but that's another story...)
2) a ball caught on one bounce was an out, but the ghost runners advanced one base.
Here's another variation that I played all the time with my buddy in high school:

It was 1-on-1 baseball with ghosts all over the field, Calvin & Hobbes style but with less running. Hits were judged based on similar rules as those above, ie grounders were outs, ball had to reach the OF for a hit, one-hop the fence for a 2B, and hit the fence for a 3B.

We also had fun with ghost runners... they were basically station-to-station, except that grounders to the right side advanced a ghost runner, and they would score from 2nd on singles with 2 outs.

We would play a full lineup, including a designated "fast guy" and "slow guy" (we also required at least 2 LHB's). The "fast guy" scored from 2nd regardless of out count and also went first-to-third on singles, while the slow guy required a double to score from 2nd with 2 outs. Slow guys would not score from 3rd on sac flies. Also, fast guys didn't hit into double plays.

... maybe we were a tad too specific, considering the arguments that ensued over whether or not a ball was hit hard enough for a DP.
Here's another one that we played in Little League, and that I used as a coach:

For 8-12 players: We would split up into 4-6 teams of two players each, and the teammates would alternate plate appearances while the rest of the group was in the field. The 2-man team would hit until they registered 3 outs, but rather than using ghost runners, we would just count up points based on the number of total bases gained - a single nets 1 point, a double is 2 points, etc. Walks would just reset the count and start the AB over again.
Ok, last one...

"Over the Line" is hugely popular in various parts of the country, and the field looks like it was inspired by the drawing above. For the uninitiated, Over the Line is 4-on-4 on a triangular field, with 4 lines crossing the triangle (parallel to the 1st-to-2nd baseline in the drawing). The pitching team has one defender behind each of the lines, with the pitcher behind the front line. A ball that hits ground before the first line is an out, as is any flyball caught by the defense. Batters are awarded points for each line that is cleared on a ball that lands safely within the zone. 3 outs and the teams switch sides.

I hadn't heard of the game until I hit San Diego for college, but folks are crazy for the game down there - and for good cause, as it's an awesome beach game.
Why would the infielders be "forced to position themselves on what is now the infield grass?" The hitter is still running 90 feet to first, and 100+ years of data indicate that a shortstop can cleanly field a grounder and throw someone out when starting from ~130 feet. Pitchers would be forced to cover first on a ground ball to the right side, but they've been doing that since day 1. If anything, the shorter throwing distance might give infielders a chance to play even further away from the plate with the pitcher tasked even more heavily to cover first.
Good point. I said that because I was figuring the fielders would have to play near enough to the bag to be able to get back to it in time to nail a runner. The pitcher would be able to help out in that regard, you're right, but I still don't think both fielders would be able to play deep. For example, any extra-base hit would need the pitcher at first and the secondbaseman at "new second".

Thinking about it now, I bet you'd have the "first baseman" playing ~140 from the plate and the "second baseman" about 90 feet away. The 2B could cover his base on XBH's with the pitcher covering first, while the 1B would field shots up the middle and such. I have no idea how well this all would work.