5 Major Rule Changes in the History of Baseball

The baseball games we enjoy today bear little resemblances to the games of old. See more sports pictures.
Donald Miralle/Getty Images

Although baseball feels like an American institution, it's much more of an American evolution. The story of Abner Doubleday "inventing" the game in 1839 by drawing a diamond in the dirt at Cooperstown, New York is itself an invention [source: Miklich]. The game of "base ball" had been played for nearly a century by the time of Doubleday's purported inspiration. The truth is that baseball wasn't invented by anyone, but evolved from existing sports and was codified over the centuries into a series of official rules.

One of the earliest mentions of "base ball" is found in the diary of Englishman William Bray, born in 1736 [source: MLB.com]. In an entry dated March 31, 1755, Bray writes, "Went to Stoke church this morn. After dinner, went to Miss Jeale's to play at base ball with her the 3 Miss Whiteheads, Miss Billinghurst, Miss Molly Flutter, Mr. Chandler, Mr. Ford and H. Parsons. Drank tea and stayed til 8."

The early game almost certainly evolved from rounders, a popular British ball-and-stick sport that is still enjoyed by English school girls. Rounders closely resembles baseball, but differs in the details. Like baseball, there are nine players to a side, but rounders uses upright sticks for bases, the pitcher throws underhand, the batter swings with one hand, and matches last five to seven innings [source: MLB.com]. Still, the evolution from rounders to baseball is a straight line.

In the late 18th century, baseball took root in America. Folks in New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts each played their own regional variation of the game. In Massachusetts, for example, every hit was fair and runners didn't have to stick to a straight path between bases, making for some fun outfield run-downs. A variation on the more sober New York game eventually won out and its rules were codified at the First Base Ball Convention, held in New York in 1858.

Still, the game that was played in the 1850s would be almost unrecognizable to modern baseball fans. In this article, we'll cover the 5 major rule changes that have shaped the evolution of America's favorite pastime.

5

Called Strikes

The called strike seems like such a fundamental part of baseball, that it's hard to imagine a time when it didn't exist. But the early game that evolved from rounders and other ball-and-stick sports gave significant advantage to the batter. Pitchers not only threw underhand -- more about that on the next page -- but batters could sit back and wait for their perfect pitch before even attempting a swing. Apparently this bored the knickers off of enough players and spectators that the called strike was among the new rules passed at the First Base Ball Convention in 1858 [source: Miklich].

But even the called strike came with some generous caveats. For example, an umpire couldn't just call out "strike" at the first good-looking pitch. He would issue a warning first. Perhaps something like, "Pardon me for intruding, my good man, but that last one looked rather on target, if you ask me. Consider thyself under advisement that I will feel it necessary to call a similar pitch as a strike, of which you get three. Fair enough?" Even more gentlemanly, the umpire was prohibited from calling a strike on the very first pitch, unless the batter swung and missed [source: Miklich].

To add to the absurdity, all the way until 1886 batters could "call" their pitch [source: Miklich]. Before stepping into the batter's box, the batter would ask the pitcher for either a "high ball" or a "low ball." To qualify as a strike, a high ball needed to be both over the plate and between the batter's waist and shoulders. A low ball needed to pass over the plate between the batter's knees and waist. The batter had to choose one or the other and couldn't change his mind during the middle of his turn at bat.

In 1887, the high and low strike zones were combined into a single zone that extended from knees to shoulders. The strike zone has undergone several alterations in the ensuing years. Currently, the official MLB rules position the top of the strike zone at halfway between the top of the shoulders and the waist of the uniform. The bottom of the strike zone is not the knees (because that would be too normal), but the "hollow beneath the knee cap," aka the knee pit [source: MLB.com].

4

Overhand Pitching

A routine pitch like this would have been shocking a century ago.
A routine pitch like this would have been shocking a century ago.
Otto Gruele Jr./Getty Images

Here's an interesting trivia tidbit for you, courtesy of David Nemec, one of the foremost baseball historians and chroniclers of the sport: Major League pitchers don't have to throw overhand [source: Nemec]. There is absolutely nothing in the rule book that imposes any restrictions on how a pitcher can pitch, other than the bans on spit balls, scuffs and all that "balk" business. If a pitcher was curious, he could loft a few toward the plate in a "granny"-style underhand arc, but he might get discouraged after the fifth or sixth consecutive home run.

Underhand pitching, in fact, used to be the only game in town. As we mentioned on the previous page, the early days of baseball were a hitter's paradise. The pitcher's role was simply to toss the ball into play. The real game was between the hitter and the fielders [source:James]. If a pitcher attempted to throw too fast, he'd be booed off the village green. Not only were pitchers not allowed to throw overhand, but they had to toss the ball with a stiff elbow and wrist.

It wasn't until 1884 that the National League voted to lift the ban on overhand pitching. The American League allowed pitchers to use a modified sidearm in 1884, as long as their hand didn't raise above the shoulder during release, but then lifted all restrictions on pitching in 1885 [source: Baseball Almanac].

3

The One-Bounce Rule

This next rule sounds like something your mom forced you to do when your six-year-old nephew wanted to join the big kids' kickball game. Incredibly, all the way until 1864, fielders were allowed to "catch" a player out on one bounce. Yup, you could either attempt to catch the ball on the fly, or wait for it to take a slower and safer hop. Both counted as an out, and one-hop fielders weren't even laughed out of the league.

The reason for the one-bounce rule was that the baseball glove had yet to be invented. The very first gloves were slowly adopted by catchers in the 1880s, and the first "pillow-type" catcher's mitt wasn't invented until 1888. The first mention of gloves in the official rule book didn't come until 1895. If you've never caught a line drive with your bare hand, you're in good company. Nobody does it because it's really dangerous. You could break digits or even your wrist. In the utter absence of gloves, the one-hop rule looks a lot less wimpy.

Even after the one-bounce was abolished for fair balls, fielders were still allowed to catch foul balls on a bounce all the way until 1882 in the National League and 1885 in the American League [source: Nemec].

2

End of the Dead Ball Era

Who knew that the yarn on a ball could make it go further and faster?
Who knew that the yarn on a ball could make it go further and faster?
Bruce Lighty/Getty Images

In 1919, Babe Ruth shocked the baseball world by becoming the first player to hit 29 home runs in a season. Prior to Ruth's explosion at the plate, most batters had employed a slower, more strategic swing to produce singles and doubles that would advance the runners. Ruth famously swung for the fences every time and had the stats to prove it, despite the wretched condition of the game ball in 1919.

What does the game ball have to do with it? The years spanning 1900 to 1919 are known in baseball history circles as the "Dead Ball" era. Why was the ball "dead?" Some historians point to the materials used to construct the ball itself. The rubber core of the ball was replaced with cork in 1910, and Australian yarn replaced American yarn in 1920. But those changes were unlikely to produce the sort of home run barrage that broke out in 1920 [source: Rader].

Instead, it was a rule change that ended the Dead Ball era. In February 1920, the rules were changed to officially ban all "doctored" pitches, including spit balls, scuffed balls, sanded balls and any other trick pitch. Imagine the condition of a ball that had been manhandled and literally licked by a half-dozen pitchers over the course of a game. And remember, back in the Dead Ball era, it was customary to use the same ball all game long. Even foul balls to the bleachers were routinely tossed back into play [source: Wright].

Not only were balls cleaner, livelier and easier to see after the 1920 rule change, but there were more of them. In August 1920, Cleveland Indian Ray Chapman was struck in the head by a pitch that he never saw. He lost the dark, soggy ball after it left Yankee pitcher Carl Mays' hand. The impact fractured Chapman's skull and he died the next day [source: Wright]. Chapman's death -- still the only of its kind in Major League Baseball history -- prompted a new edict for umpires to frequently replace the game ball with a new, clean ball.

Pitchers complained about the difficulty of gripping the fresh balls, but batters relished the change. Inspired by the big swings of the Babe and armed with cleaner, livelier balls, strikeouts hit an all-time low in the 1920s, eight batters achieved a .400 batting average, and home runs soared. Ruth himself hit 54 in the 1920 season and 59 in 1922 [source: Baseball Almanac]. The Lively Ball era had begun.

Under current MLB rules, the home team must provide the umpire with a ready reserve of at least 12 unused game balls with the glossy sheen rubbed off. The umpire must keep two alternate balls on his person at all times, and balls are replaced when the ball is batted into the stands, the ball becomes "discolored," or the pitcher requests a new one [source: MLB.com].

1

The Designated Hitter

No rule change in baseball has caused more controversy among fans and baseball traditionalists than the designated hitter rule, adopted by the American League in 1973. The reason for the rule change was simple: money. For years, the American League had been sluggish on offense [source: McKelvey]. Most baseball fans don't want to drop good money on tickets to see a 1-0 outing with three hits and no home runs. If you can improve the offensive output, the argument goes, you will sell more tickets. But how do you boost batting averages overnight? Ditch the pitcher.

It has been statistically proven that the worst offensive performers on every baseball team -- in both leagues -- are the pitchers. Pitchers are trained and recruited for a very specific skill: hurling a ball upwards of 90 miles (144.8 kilometers) per hour toward a shrinking strike zone. They don't spend much time in the batter's box, and they usually have the .154 batting average to prove it. For years, some major league owners wanted to bump the pitcher from the lineup altogether and replace him with a designated hitter, a guy whose sole job was to bat. The National League owners repeatedly struck down the DH, but in 1973, after a four-year trial period in the minors, the American League voted yes.

Designated hitters had an immediate effect on the game. The very first major league DH to take the field was the Minnesota Twins' Larry Eugene Hisle during a 1973 preseason game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Hisle hit a three-run homer and followed it with a grand slam [source: Nilsson].

Baseball purists continue to argue that the designated hitter rule sullies the integrity of the sport by adding a tenth man to a nine-man game. But it remains the most significant difference between American League and National League play. During the World Series, the designated hitter rule only applies to games played in an American League stadium [source: Dodd]. Same for interleague regular season play, which began in 1997. Starting in 2011, every All-Star Game now uses the designated hitter rule, no matter the location.

For lots more information on baseball and other American traditions, explore the related links on the next page.

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Author's Note: 5 Major Rule Changes in the History of Baseball

My life would have been a lot different if I had been born in the 1830s instead of the 1970s. On the downside, I may not have survived my infancy due to chronic ear infections. And there's the whole lack-of-indoor plumbing thing, which is kind of gross. But on the plus side, I would have been a much better baseball player. I quit little league baseball in the fifth grade because I was sick of the opposing teams' pitchers using my head as target practice. Each of these overgrown 11-year-olds thought they were the next Roger Clemens and hurled the ball with reckless fury in the general direction of home plate. If we were playing the 19th century game, the pitchers would be tossing gentle underhand lobs, something I could really whack. If not for my almost certain death in the Civil War, I'd be boarding my secret time machine tomorrow.

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Sources

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