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The Term "Foul Line" Appears in Sunday Mercury Report on Excelsior-Atlantic Game

Salience Peripheral
Tags Antedated Firsts
City/State/Country: New York, NY, United States
Game Base Ball
Immediacy of Report Contemporary
Age of Players Adult

"Excelsior vs. Atlantic 8/9/1860] [Brainerd on third base, Reynolds on first] Flanly then struck a ball, which touching the ground inside of the foul line, bounded far off into the foul district, and had started for first base, while Reynolds ran to the second, when some outsider called “foul,” and Reynolds immediately returned from the second to the first base, where Flanly also remained, but off the base."

NABBP rules for 1861 specified the marking of lines in order to help game officials make fair/foul judgments.


New York Sunday Mercury,  August 12, 1860. 


[[1]], contributed by Richard Hershberger as part of his collected clippings.


This issue was raised by Stephen Katz on the 19CBB list-serve, citing Peter Morris' A Game of Inches "In 1861, the NABBP introduced into its rules the requirement that, “In all match games, a line connecting the home and first base and the home and third base, shall be marked by the use of chalk, or other suitable material, so as to be distinctly seen by the umpire.  

Commenting on the rule, the New York Clipper (June 29, 1861) referred these as 'lines whereby foul balls can be judged.' Henry Chadwick, writing in Beadle’s Dime Base-Ball Player of 1860, declared that foul poles are 'intended solely to assist the umpire in his decisions in reference to foul balls…' (p. 18). So, it seems that, although the lines demarcate fair from foul territory, the focus was on determining when a ball was foul, and assisting the umpire in making that determination.

 An early use of “foul line” appeared in the Cincinnati Gazette’s commentary on July 16, 1867, on a game between the Nationals of Washington, D.C., and Cincinnati’s Red Stockings. In the fifth inning, the Nationals’ third baseman, George Fox, tripled on a “fine ball just inside the foul line.” An earlier reference to “foul line” was in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of October 31, 1865, in an account of a game between the Atlantics of Brooklyn and Philly’s Athletics, although it is inconclusive as to whether it referred to the actual line between home and third or the track of the batted ball."


[]The NYSM account preceded the new NAABP rule, and as of January 2022 is Protoball's earliest known use of "foul line" is shown above.  It thus appears that foul lines where known by that name (if not actually marked?) prior to the new rules.

[] The 1845 Knickerbocker rule 10 had simply stated: "A ball knocked out of the field, or outside the range of first or third base, is foul." As of January 2022 the NYSM usage is the earliest known to Protoball.

[] But why use "foul line" and not "fair line?"  Richard gives linguistics interpretation in Supplemental Text, below.



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Do we know whether and how Chadwick referenced foul territory prior to 1860?

Do we know of other prior usage of "foul lines"??


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Submitted by Stephen Katz, Richard Hershberger
Submission Note 19CBB Postings, 1/9/2022 and 1/10/2022


<comments voting="Plus" />

Addiitional 19CBB posting by Richard Hershberger, 1/10/2022:

There is a concept in linguistics of "markedness."  There is a default unmarked state and a contrasted marked state.  In this case, the ball being fair is the default state.  This is true historically, as most versions of premodern baseball were played in the round, like cricket.  Foul territory, and by extension lines demarking foul territory, were a later addition. It is likely that by the late 1850s when they started laying down chalk to make this line overt they weren't thinking in terms of the contrast with premodern ball, but the sense remained that the ball was fair by default.  In other words, it was fair unless it was foul, rather than the other way around.  And this accurately reflects game play.  The batter is, at least nominally, attempting to hit a fair ball.  This is not entirely true, of course, but in the 1850s context I doubt that batters were intentionally fouling off pitches they couldn't get around on.  So bringing this around to what the lines are called, this markedness is reflected in the quotations you cite.  The line is there to show when the ball is in its non-default marked state, and the name for the line reflects this.  Also, foul poles.  Foul poles in their modern form came much later, but the logic remained.