Friday, June 9, 2017

Present (or at least near) the Creation

Recently I've been revisiting the early days of organized base ball as described by John Thorn in his definitive work, Baseball in the Garden of Eden.  I'm always fascinated by rules or features of the game which date back to the 1840's when the game first really got organized in New York City.  For example, among the Knickerbocker rules, adopted in 1845, is the stipulation that if a batter swings and misses for a third time, the catcher has to hold on to the ball, a rule enshrined forever in the annals of Brooklyn Dodger baseball misery.  Why did those young men so many years ago feel compelled to spell that out?  Since the Knickerbocker rules by themselves weren't sufficient to play a game, it's been suggested a number of their rules were intended to clarify issues not generally accepted among the relatively small number of ball players in Manhattan.  But if the catcher wasn't required to catch the first two strikes why was it so important to literally handle the third strike differently?  We'll probably never know for sure, but Richard Hershberger (as per usual) has done some extensive research and thinking on the subject, to be found at .

 Another feature of today's game, something so common place as to be taken for granted, also dates back to that same period - the box score.  Any modern fan worth his or her salt spends time perusing the daily sports pages or the Internet seeking statistical information about players and teams.  Regrettably, newspapers are cutting back publication of out of town box scores, but fortunately comprehensive coverage is available on the Internet.  In fact, the wonders of technology even enable us to watch a box score in real time as the game progresses.  Yet even those consciously aware of the important role of the box score, may not realize it was part of the game before some of the most basic rules.  Box scores, for example, preceded called balls or strikes, nine inning games and nine players on a side, just to name a few.  It's risky to use creation and base ball in the same sentence, but based on the earliest documented match games, it's almost possible to think the box score was actually present at the creation or at least in the general vicinity.

Two of the earliest documented match base ball games were played in late October of 1845 between the New York Club and members of the Union Star Cricket Club of Brooklyn.  Both results were reported to the public and preserved for posterity through a brief verbal summary and, more importantly for our purposes, a crude box score.  The above box score which appeared in the New York Morning News, informs the reader the two teams met and played a match at Elysian Fields with eight to a side and the New Yorkers won handily by a 24-4 count.  A second account in the same paper a few days later includes a similar box score, which told the paper's readers the New York Club won the rematch.  Published at a time when it's safe to say most people  knew little about base ball, and perhaps cared less, the box scores confirmed which team won and gave a sense of which players had done well or poorly offensively.  Beyond that, there's not much a contemporary reader could have learned from the box score.  Even the inclusion of a simple inning by inning listing of runs scored, would have allowed an interested observer to know, for example, whether both games were one sided from the beginning or close until the New York Club pulled away.

From an historical perspective, however, these ancient (relatively speaking) box scores raise some interesting questions about the rules of games played just as the Knickerbockers were getting started and before their rules, or at least their clarifications, may have been generally accepted.  An obvious difference from the modern game is only eight players on a side confirming the matches were played before Doc Adams invented the shortstop's position.  It's also unlikely the teams played under the Knickerbocker's rule which said the  first team to tally 21 aces or runs won the match.  Unlikely instead of certain because under the Knickerbocker rules each team had to have the same number of at bats or innings so it's not impossible, the New York Club reached 21 and it took the Brooklyn players longer (far longer in the second match) to retire the side.  Still it's more probable the New York team was the winner because they scored more runs over the course of the same number of innings which raises the more interesting point - how many innings did the two teams play?

1853 box score showing little change from 1845

Perhaps a more appropriate question is, how many outs were there per inning?  Both box scores reflect 12 outs for each team although there is an error of some kind in the Brooklyn totals for the second match.  While the box score shows 12 outs, the individual figures total up to 13 which may be accurate, but more likely reflects an error by the score keeper (they are human after all) or an mistake in the transfer of the information from the score book (probably that of the New York club) to the newspaper.  Assuming for the moment, it was a mistake, then we have two games where each team made 12 outs which under modern rules would have meant four inning games.  However there is no way of knowing for sure if the New York Club had either adopted or was already using the Knickerbocker rule of three outs per inning.  The relationship between the New York Club and the Knickerbockers in October of 1845 is unclear.  We know there were overlapping memberships, but the extent there was common ground in their beliefs about rules such as the number of outs per inning  is unknown and probably unknowable.

By 1854 more detail is being provided, although inning by inning runs scored is still missing

In his ground breaking work, Baseball Before We Knew It, David Block wrote that before the Knickerbocker rules came into vogue, most games were played under two possible scenarios, one out - side out or all out - side out.  While these box scores don't spell out the number of outs allowed, the fact that in both games at least one player on each team didn't make an out (what would become known as a clear score) confirms the game was not played under the all out -side out arrangement.  It's certainly possible they played under the one out - all out version, but that would have meant playing 12 innings which is possible, but seems unlikely.  Among other things it's hard to believe so many runs would have scored in matches where only one out was sufficient to end a team's turn at bat.  While it's impossible to know for sure, my guess is that for at least these two games, the clubs not only played under the Knickerbocker rule of three outs per inning, but also anticipated the post Knickerbocker rule of the victory going to the team with the most runs after an even number of innings were played.  Speculation?  Without a doubt. Obscure?  Perhaps, but since base ball lacks a specific creation moment, artifacts like these, limited as they are, help us to study the beginnings of the organized game.



  1. "...if the catcher wasn't required to catch the first two strikes why was it so important to literally handle the third strike differently? Barring some unlikely discovery of new information,we'll never know..."


  2. Regarding the 1845 match games, another possibility, which I favor, is that the first game was played to 21 runs, as in the Knickerbocker rules, while the second was ended some other way. In other words, each game was played according to the home side's rules. The Knickerbockers had split off (apparently amicably) from the New York Club, so the Knickerbocker rules would likely be similar, or even identical to, the New Yorks'. Given the William Wheaton later said he had drafted the New Yorks' rules, and he was on the committee that drafted the Knickerbockers', it is doubly unsurprising that they would be similar. As for the Brooklyn players, who knows? It is interesting that both games were played with three-out innings. This was not a feature found in other versions of baseball, but it might have been common within the metropolis.