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.