5 Rules Baseball Changed to Keep from Looking Silly

As the oldest team sport in North America, baseball has had ample time to mature in fits and starts during its ultimate ascension to the über-successful multi-billion-dollar enterprise it is today.

Of course, this progress emerged amidst a backdrop of dead ends and dubious motives.

Let’s begin by casting aside two great myths. The first is that baseball is a kid’s game played by men. Hardly. Baseball was developed by men to be played by men. Young boys most likely entered into the equation because they wanted to do what the men were doing. And simple logic infers that it’s more natural for kids to imitate adults than vice versa.

This leads us to the second great myth, which avers that Abner Doubleday invented baseball in Cooperstown, New York. He first hit the headlines by firing the first retaliatory shots from Fort Sumter after Confederate soldiers began the Civil War in earnest by turning their arms on this Union outpost in South Carolina. He also managed to exit the Battle of Gettysburg in one piece, but he did so at the behest of Major General George Meade, which doesn’t exactly portend to a job well done.

How doing the obvious in one instance and later being relieved of his command in battle qualified Major General Doubleday for a hero’s status is grist for another mill, but suffice it to say that in the jingoistic times of the early 1900s, it worked for A G Spalding. An accomplished ‘base ball’ player turned sporting goods magnate, it behooved him to publicize the game so he could sell more equipment. And what better way to gain attention than to hawk it as a game created by an American for Americans?

It’s doubtful Doubleday ever set foot in Cooperstown at any time, but a local citizen conveniently produced a ‘copy’ – in pre-Xerox 1905 – of a letter the Major General allegedly wrote, describing his sporting brainstorm in that bucolic little burg, far removed from the scrutiny of big-city journalists. Spalding ran with it, a story was born, and baseball was on its way to becoming the national pastime.

It actually took an act of Congress in 1953 to acknowledge Alexander Cartwright as a more legitimate founder. At least he helped found the Knickerbocker Base Ball club in New York City, drew up a few rules, and scheduled his team to play another club at the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey on 19 June, 1846. This game was observed and documented.

Somehow, it’s fitting that the visiting New York Nine clobbered the game’s creators, 23-1.

In all likelihood, baseball’s roots came from various stick-and-ball games played by the lower classes in England. Puritan immigrants frowned on adults playing frivolous games, so if there was a kids’ role in baseball’s evolution, it was in keeping those games alive until Cartwright and his crew could be duly inspired to assemble a set of acceptable rules.

So, in every sense of the word, baseball has been a make-it-up-as-you-go operation. And when a well-researched Congressional decree from 1953 still doesn’t keep Commissioner Bud Selig from saying in 2010, “I really believe Abner Doubleday is the Father of Baseball,” it’s clear that the element of silliness remains embedded in the game to this day.

However, incredible as it may seem, baseball occasionally does realize there are limits to its ways and that common sense must prevail. It’s a mind-blower, but it happens.

Here are five instances when the game’s overlords showed they not only had an amazing grasp of the obvious, they understood seminal moments had arrived for baseball to evolve again and again.

5. Runners between bases were out if hit by a thrown ball.

Boston Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury (2) is caught by Kansas City Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar (2) trying to steal second base in the first inning at Kauffman Stadium Aug 8, 2013. Denny Medley/USA TODAY Sports Images

One of baseball’s richest ironies is that Alexander Cartwright was voted into its Hall of Fame in 1938. That means his accomplishments are immortalized in the town where the game’s faux father, Abner Doubleday, was credited with inventing it through no fault of his own.

But no matter what Cartwright’s role was – likely a figurehead of a group effort – he belongs in the Hall for one reason above all others, and that’s for creating Knickerbocker Rule 13.

It curtailed the common practice at the time of soaking, which was pegging a runner between the bases to register an out. Word is that infielders savored those moments. It may have kept them in practice for duck hunting season, but Cartwright and his crew deemed soaking an activity unfit for gentlemen.

Specifically, Rule 13 reads like this:

“A player running the bases shall be out, if the ball is in the hands of an adversary on the base, or the runner is touched with it before he makes base; it being understood, however, that in no instance is a ball to be thrown at him.”

And with that, baseball’s divergence from The Hunger Games was complete.

4 Runners could steal a preceding base.

Manny Ramirez was born a century too late.

When he was establishing himself as a major league star with the Cleveland Indians, Manny still needed a road map when it came to running bases. One of his memorable miscues occurred in 1997 against the Detroit Tigers. He had just singled in an eighth-inning run and thus was at first with Jim Thome coming to bat, but he wasn’t there for long. Manny took off on a pitch where Thome swung and missed, diving safely into second without a challenge.

This is where ‘Manny being Manny’ kicked in, long before that telling phrase ever came into being.

The Tiger catcher couldn’t make an attempt to throw Manny out because he didn’t hold on to the pitch that Thome missed. However, he did manage to keep it in front of him with a good block. Manny, finally looking plate-ward to see what became of Thome’s swing attempt, noticed the ball on the ground a few feet away from home. Realizing there was no throw down to second on his steal, Manny assumed Thome fouled the ball off. So he dutifully arose and began trotting back to first. Ultimately, the Tigers noticed, fired the ball to first, and Manny was out. Officially, he was caught stealing … while trotting back to his previously occupied base.

It was enough for Cleveland fans to come to subsequent games carrying signs such as, “Manny! Turn left. Turn left. Turn left. Score!”

Manny was in danger of succumbing to MLB Rule 7.01, which had been amended 70 years earlier:

“A runner acquires the right to an unoccupied base when he touches it before he is out. He is then entitled to it until he is put out, or forced to vacate it for another runner legally entitled to that base.Rule 7.01 Comment: If a runner legally acquires title to a base, and the pitcher assumes his pitching position, the runner may not return to a previously occupied base.

Yes, that happened every now and then back in the old days. It was a tactic trail runners deployed when trying to distract the pitcher so a runner on third could get a better jump on stealing home. The Dead Ball Era was good for stuff like this.

In fact, it was the trademark move of Germany Schaefer in the early 1900s, who may have been solely responsible for the rule being clarified. He was so adept at it, baseball put an even finer point on banning it in 1920 by adding MLB Rule 7.08(i):

“After he has acquired legal possession of a base, he runs the bases in reverse order for the purpose of confusing the defense or making a travesty of the game. The umpire shall immediately call ‘Time’ and declare the runner out;Rule 7.08(i) Comment: If a runner touches an unoccupied base and then thinks the ball was caught or is decoyed into returning to the base he last touched, he may be put out running back to that base, but if he reaches the previously occupied base safely he cannot be put out while in contact with that base.

The comment above shows a loophole still exists for clueless base runners like Manny Ramirez. But even baseball can only do so much to protect a guy from himself.

3 "Little People" cannot be on the roster.

Baseball may be the only sport to have an anti-trust exemption – excluding it from monopolistic activities – but it’s still subject to anti-discrimination policies.

Back in 1951, baseball’s incarnation of P. T. Barnum had an idea. Bill Veeck owned the St. Louis Browns, a downtrodden club that played in the shadow of the much-revered Cardinals. If he was to draw enough fans to make a go of it, Veeck’s only recourse was to dream up promotional stunts. This was one of his most famous … or infamous, depending on your attitude about decorum.

Between games of a doubleheader with Detroit, 3-foot-7 Eddie Gaedel popped out of a birthday cake celebrating the American League’s 50th birthday. But that wasn’t the appearance that put him into the history books.

Gaedel, who had never played baseball in his life, was signed and rostered by Veeck, who told manager Zack Taylor to have him pinch-hit for the leadoff hitter in the bottom of the first. Meanwhile, to make sure the tiny stuntman from Chicago had no visions of grandeur, Veeck told Gaedel he had snipers on the roof ready to shoot if he even thought about swinging at a pitch.

When Gaedel dutifully strode to the plate, wearing the number 1/8, umpire Ed Hurley immediately questioned the proceedings. Taylor was ready for this, handing Gaedel’s contract to the ump and daring him to find a rule prohibiting Gaedel from playing. Of course, there was none.

Gaedel then watched Tiger lefty Bob Cain miss on four fastballs, which can happen when a strike zone is only one inch high. After Gaedel reached first, Taylor immediately sent out a pinch runner, Gaedel bowed for the 18,369 uproarious fans, and then exited to the dugout with a 1.000 on-base percentage duly secured.

Establishment backlash was immediate and furious. Sensing a salary-sucking scramble for tiny people and noting how sportswriters seethed at Veeck making a mockery of the game, baseball’s overlords did what they’re best at doing: acting as a cabal to ensure no little person would ever appear on a roster again.

2 Switch-pitchers must declare whether they’ll throw from the left or right side to each batter.

On September 28, 1995 in Montréal, Greg A Harris was summoned from the Expos’ bullpen to mop up a one-sided game. It was time for him to make use of the six-fingered custom-made glove he had prepared for a moment like this.

Harris was ambidextrous and had been working on pitching both left and right-handed for ten years. He was signed as a righty – his natural side – but yearned to do something baseball hadn’t seen since the late 1880s: pitch from each side in one game.

His dream inning began by pitching righty against Cincinnati’s Reggie Sanders, who grounded out short-to-first, then switching to lefty to walk Hal Morris and induce a catcher-to-first trickler from Ed Taubensee, and finally reverting to righty to get Bret Boone on a comebacker.

Although the Reds’ hitters couldn’t get the ball out of the infield, Harris was never allowed to switch-pitch again.

While the unasked question was what would have happened if he’d faced a switch-hitter, baseball’s overlords apparently assumed this was a one-off novelty and never addressed it.

Enter Pat Venditte, a Creighton product in the New York Yankee system who is now one step away from the majors. He’s an accomplished switch-pitcher who uses that ability as part of his repertoire. And he finally faced a switch-hitter in A-ball while hurling for Staten Island.

Imagine the scene. It’s easier to hit a ball that breaks toward the batter, so when Venditte prepared to pitch from the right side, Brooklyn Cyclones switch-hitter Ralph Henriquez stepped into the left-side batter’s box. Venditte then shifted the glove to his right hand and prepared to pitch left, prompting Henriquez to call time and step over into the right-side batter’s box. Rinse. Repeat.

Ultimately, the exasperated plate umpire made up everyone’s minds for them. He demanded Henriquez choose a side so Venditte could decide accordingly. The hitter protested at having to make the first move, of course, but vigilante justice prevailed and that was that. It was clear this situation could be ignored no longer.

That’s why the Professional Baseball Umpires Corporation put their solution in writing as part of Rule 8.01(f). In summary, here it is:

  • A pitcher declares his preference first; then the batter gets to choose.
  • After one pitch is thrown, the pitcher can switch once during the at-bat; so can the batter.
  • No warm-ups after a switch is made.
  • If a pitcher claims injury, he can switch but can no longer use the injured arm for pitching for the rest of the game.

1 Some innings need a fourth out.

Baseball’s governing laws have grown from the Knickerbocker Club’s original 13 rules to a tome so tangled that only a patch will suffice when loopholes are discovered. And so it is with the fourth out.

A special set of circumstances must exist, of course. Then again, what is baseball but a special set of circumstances just waiting to happen? The Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks can attest to that.

Every player, umpire, manager, and fan understands these simple standards:

  • When a ball is hit in the air, runners can’t safely leave their bases until it’s caught; and
  • In a non-force situation, if a runner touches home plate before the third out is registered, the run counts.

On 12 April 2009, the Dodgers had André Ethier at third and Juan Pierre at first with one out when Randy Wolf laced a liner right back to Diamondback pitcher Dan Haren. He speared it, wheeled, and fired to second baseman Felipe López, who tagged the retreating Pierre on his way to Arizona’s dugout on the third base side of the field, thus doubling up Pierre. Inning over, right?

Not necessarily.

Ethier had broken for home on contact and crossed the plate before Lopez’s tag doubled up Pierre. Run counts, right?

Not necessarily.

Enter MLB Rule 7.10(d):

Appeal plays may require an umpire to recognize an apparent fourth out. If the third out is made during a play in which an appeal play is sustained on another runner, the appeal play decision takes precedence in determining the out. If there is more than one appeal during a play that ends a half-inning, the defense may elect to take the out that gives it the advantage. For the purpose of this rule, the defensive team has left the field when the pitcher and all infielders have left fair territory on their way to the bench or clubhouse.

Too bad Arizona didn’t know the rule. Had they stayed on the field and appealed at third to get the inning’s fourth out, Ethier’s game-tying run wouldn’t have counted. The Dodgers went on to post a 3-1 win, and somewhere, the ghost of Abner Doubleday was smiling.

And that apparition has to be Doubleday. You wouldn’t expect Alexander Cartwright to come up with a fourth-out rule, would you?

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