Towards A Definition Of Baseball

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by Bruce Allardice, September 2021

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By Bruce Allardice Canadian baseball historian par excellence Bill Humber gave a thought-provoking presentation at this year’s Frederick Ivor-Campbell Conference. Among his observations was a reference to how baseball can and should be analyzed, based on a recent book, On the Origin of Hockey.1 Chapter Two of that work asks a very basic question: “What Constitutes Hockey?” It then expands on the definition created by the Society for International Hockey Research (SIHR—sort of the hockey equivalent of SABR), with hockey being:

A game played on an ice surface; With two opposing teams; Of skaters; Who use curved sticks; To try and drive a small disk, ball or block; Into or through the opposite goals, with the objective of scoring.

Under the strictest terms of this definition, a game isn’t hockey if ANY of these six characteristics is missing. Games considered closest to hockey share most of these characteristics. Thus field hockey, which shares four of the six (missing numbers one and three), is distinct from hockey. The analysis in the Origin of Hockey attempts, with some success, to judge variant hockey-like sports by how much they share these characteristics.

Applying this type of analysis to baseball is of course more complex. First off, just because a game is labeled “Baseball” (or variant)2 doesn’t necessarily make it baseball. However, that label creates what the legal profession terms a “rebuttable presumption” that the game is baseball, absent evidence that the game so labeled is recognizably another game such as cricket. Similarly, just because a game has another name, doesn’t mean that it isn’t baseball. As a poet wrote (in a different context), “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Too many definitions of baseball define the game as its played in 2021, under 2021 rules. Encyclopedia Brittanica, for example, defines baseball as a “game played with a bat, a ball, and gloves between two teams of nine players each on a field with four white bases laid out in a diamond (i.e., a square oriented so that its diagonal line is vertical). Teams alternate positions as batters (offense) and fielders (defense), exchanging places when three members of the batting team are “put out.” As batters, players try to hit the ball out of the reach of the fielding team and make a complete circuit around the bases for a “run.” The team that scores the most runs in nine innings (times at bat) wins the game.” That definition would exclude a whole generation of early baseball. As historian Richard Hershberger has pointed out, the number of players and bases has often varied. Baseball’s accepted rules changed constantly. Nine inning games were only made the standard in 1857. And pre-1857 games were often played to a set score, usually 21 or 100. For this article I’m synthesizing and simplifying various definitions given in other sources,3 with a view to a definition that will differentiate (or not differentiate) baseball from other, similar games. To me, the game of baseball has nine defining characteristics:

A game played by two teams, with; “Fair” and ‘foul” territory; and A pitcher who tosses or throws a ball to a batter, and; A batter who tries to hit that ball; With a bat; To score runs, which runs are created by the batter circling multiple bases to the “Home” plate; In a game whose length is measured by a defined number of outs or runs, where; The winning team scores the most runs, and; The game has rules (hopefully, written rules).

Omitted here as such factors as:

Number of players on a side; “Innings” and how they are defined; Rules as to what an “out” is; Ball and strike calling; Umpires; The number of bases; The ballfield; “Fast” pitching (intended to get the batter out, rather than to put the ball in play); Fielding rules; Some non-base marker such as stakes.

Under this definition, games such as softball share these nine essential characteristics and thus come under the subset “baseball.” Most baseball historians agree that the 1857 baseball convention altered existing baseball rules to where it resembles baseball as we know it today. I would argue that the 1845 Knickerbocker rules game, and the game as played 1845-57, qualify as baseball under the above nine characteristics.

Perhaps the most intriguing criteria is part of number seven--a game defined by outs. Baseball is unique among team sports in that the duration of the modern game is measured by failures (outs) rather than by time (as in football, basketball, soccer and hockey). Yet early games such as Massachusetts-rules baseball4 were often played to runs rather than outs—the first team scoring 100 being declared the winner. Allowing the game to be limited by number of outs OR runs allows these early games into the baseball fold. This addition might bring a whole series of “Rounders” type bat-ball games under the “baseball” umbrella.

Diagram of Townball

Historians Peter Morris and John Thorn regard the concept of “foul” territory (number two above) as one of baseball’s distinguishing characteristics.5 This concept was made part of the 1845 Knickerbocker club rules. If applied, this characteristic would result in Philadelphia Town Ball and the Massachusetts game (both played “in the round”) sharing only eight of the nine characteristics. It’s an open question whether sharing eight of the nine qualifies a game as “baseball.” Certainly many in the 1850s regarded the Massachusetts game to be “baseball.” Plus the game was labelled baseball, triggering the rebuttable presumption that a game so labelled should be considered baseball. Some historians today make the argument that applying the foul rule would disqualify that and a whole series of games that are often regarded as being in the baseball “family” of games. Regarding number three, games such as T-ball (where the batter hits a non-pitched ball) differ. The bat requirement (number five) separates baseball from the numerous predecessor games where the batter hit the ball with his hand, such as Stool-ball, Pize-ball and Tut-ball. Games such as cricket don’t have the batter/runner “circling” multiple bases to reach “home” (number six).

In the 1920s a baseball coach at a West Coast college pioneered a form of baseball where the batter could circle the bases clockwise as well as the accepted counter-clockwise. Under the above, HOW a batter circled the bases wouldn’t matter—this game would be considered baseball.

The Protoball database lists 300 different predecessor and derivative bat-ball games. For many of these games, we don’t have enough information on their rules to determine whether the game fits the above definition. Other games differ in three or more of these characteristics. This article is intended to stimulate discussion of this topic. The object here is not to certify (or de-certify) other sports as “baseball,” but rather to lay out a framework by which other sports can be said to resemble baseball.

__________ 1 Carl Giden, Patrick Houda, Jean-Patrice Martel, On the Origin of Hockey (Chambly, Hockey Origin Publishing, 2014). I’ve paraphrased the hockey definitions given in that book.

2 Up until the 1890s, the usual spelling was two words, not one, i.e. base ball.

3 Cf. Richard Hershberger, Strike Four: The Evolution of Baseball (New York, Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), 3-4.

4 For more on Massachusetts-rules baseball, see John Thorn, “The Game that Got Away” at https://ourgame.mlblogs.com/the-game-that-got-away-a385699cd936.

5 Peter Morris, A Game of Inches (Chicago, Ivan R. Dee, 2006), 39.