Larry Jacob

Nineteenth century baseball rules

Most fans are under the impression that baseball rules have been consistent throughout history.  Indeed, other than the elimination of the “spitball” in 1920 and the advent of the designated hitter in 1973, baseball rules have not changed appreciably since the 19th century.

Incidentally, when the “spitball” was outlawed pitchers who were throwing it were “grandfathered” until they retired.  Can you name the last pitcher who was able to throw it legally?  Can you name the first person to bat as a DH?  Please see below for the answers.

Most fans are under the impression that Alexander Cartwright and other baseball pioneers just woke up one day and banged out a set of rules that, for the most part, have been set in stone since the 1850s.  In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.  The fact of the matter is that the original so-called “Twenty Rules of Baseball,” promulgated in 1845, were quite vague, and the baseball rules we view as immutable have evolved over a period of time.  During the mid to late 1800s the rules were being amended and tweaked continuously.  Many of the early rules were quite bizarre and will astound you.

Some of the more interesting ones were as follows:

  1. Pitching – Pitchers were required to “serve” the ball underhand from a distance of 45 feet. It was more of a motion used in bowling than what we see today. Over time, pitchers began to raise their arm angles, first to a sidearm motion then, eventually, to the overhand throwing style with which we are all familiar. Along the way the distance was increased to the present 60 feet, six inches, and a mound was created. The height of the mound has been raised and lowered throughout the years. Also, batters were permitted to designate the location of the pitch – high, low, inside or outside (similar to batting practice).
  2. Length of game – The original rules did not mandate that a game be nine innings. Instead, the first team to score 21 runs, or “aces,” was the winner. Good change. I like the fact that, regardless of the score, the losing team will always have a chance to come back and win. The clock doesn’t run out as in other sports.
  3. Bases – Originally, the distance between the bases was vague. Thirty “paces” was common. Later, the distance was standardized to 90 feet, which seems to be the ideal distance.
  4. Catcher- Originally, catchers were no more than glorified backstops. Their main function was to stand a few feet behind the batter, retrieve the pitched ball and return it to the pitcher. In the 1870s a few brave, innovative souls began to crouch right behind the batter, but this was not commonplace until shortly after 1900.
  5. Bats – At one time, bats were flat on one side, similar to cricket. That rule was rescinded in 1892.
  6. Umpiring – 19th century umpires had it made! They were volunteers selected from among the spectators. They were provided with easy chairs behind home plate to sit in. No crouching, and arguing was rare.
  7. Walks – We have all heard the expression “a walk is as good as a hit.” Well, in 1887 walks counted as hits. Obviously, batting averages soared. Eleven players hit .400, and Adrian ( Cap) Anson, who batted .421, had 60 walks that inflated his batting average. That experiment lasted only one year. If not, can you imagine what the lifetime batting averages of sluggers, such as Ted Williams or Barry Bonds, who routinely drew in excess of 100 walks a year, would have been?
  8. Home runs/ground rule doubles – In the early years, balls hit over the fence, which was a rare occurrence, were not automatic home runs. They were in play, and an outfielder was required to chase after them and make a play on the hitter.   Later, such balls became automatic home runs as did balls that cleared the fence on a bounce. It was not until 1931 that such balls became doubles in both leagues. In case you’re wondering, when Babe Ruth set the single season home run record of 60 in 1927 he did not hit any such homers.


I hope you found this as interesting as I did.  There are many more examples, but those are the main ones.

Quiz answers:  Burleigh Grimes and Ron Blomberg, respectively.

About the Author
Larry was born and raised in New York. He is 73 years old. He has a Bachelors Degree in Accounting and a Masters Degree in Marketing Management, and worked in the financial industry for 42 years in accounting and Compliance. Larry is also a veteran, whose hobbies are reading and golf. He has been writing a blog for three years, which is being read by people in 90 countries.