Very Early (pre-1857) Rules on Base Advancement After Caught Fly Balls

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Did Runners Have to Tag Up?

by Richard Hershberger, June 2018

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Running the bases on caught balls prior to 1857

Richard Hershberger

Consider the situation of a man on third base with fewer than two outs. The batter hits a fly ball that is caught by a fielder. What does this mean for the runner?

The modern rule is that the runner can “tag up,” that is, return to his base (if he has left it) and touch it after the ball has been caught, at which point the runner is free to try to advance. This rule was instituted in 1859.

The rules of 1857 and 1858 don’t allow the runner to advance at all:

Section 16. No ace or base can be made upon a foul ball, nor when a fair ball has been caught without having touched the ground; and the ball shall, in both instances, be considered dead and not in play...

What about before 1857? The rules make no mention of the subject. The purpose of this article is to show that in fact, prior to 1857 baseball followed a third, and surprising rule. Base running on fly balls was unrestricted. Runners were free to run on fly balls just as they were on ground balls, going as far as the situation permitted. The argument supporting this claim is twofold. The first looks at the implicit logic of the early rules. The second looks at the discussion around the enactment of the 1857 rules.

Base running in the early rules

There are four extant sets of early rules. The most famous is that adopted by the Knickerbocker Club in 1845. The second is a minor revision by the club made in 1848. The third is that used by the Eagle Club, printed in their club pamphlet in 1852. The fourth is a joint set of rules adopted in 1854 for inter-club match play by the Knickerbocker, Gotham, and Eagle clubs. The game entered its first great growth phase in 1855, with the 1854 rules the de facto standard. There are some variations between these four rule sets, but none that affect the subject at hand.

The early rules contain an implicit assumption: A runner is free to run, barring some specific reason otherwise. For that matter, this is the assumption in the modern rules as well. If the ball is live, the runner can give it his best shot. This basic fact of the game is obscured by the secondary fact that under most circumstances, straying too far off the base is unwise. In practice, runners usually behave in predictable fashion: when they keep a foot on the base, when they move a few steps away, and when they take off running. This pragmatism should not obscure the underlying fact that runners are not obliged to follow the normal patterns. If, for example, the fielders get distracted in an argument while the ball is still live, a base runner is free to stroll to the next base while the fielders’ attention is directed elsewhere, thereby ensuring a place on SportsCenter.

The early rules give one situation where the runner is prohibited from advancing: on a foul ball. From the 1854 rules: Rule 14. No ace or base can be made on a foul strike.

This is all the rules have to say on the subject. There are rules adding details about running: the batter must run to first if he hits a fair ball, and first base must be vacated if the batter hits a fly ball. These concern special situations where the runner must try to advance. There is nothing apart from the quoted rule about when he otherwise can or cannot try this.

This is a prima facie argument that runners can advance freely on fly balls, whether or not they are caught. The logic of the rules is that they specify when the batter cannot run, rather than when he can. Since the rules are silent about caught fly balls, the implication is that the runner can advance.

This is not an absolute conclusion. The early rules were not comprehensive, nor were they intended to be. Early baseball was a widely known game, but in many different variants. The purpose of the written rules was to specify which of the various possible options were in force. Points of the game that were not subject to variation were left unstated. This is why, for example, the early rules don’t specify that the pitcher is located within the circle of the bases. This was always true, and did not to be stated.

So perhaps the early rules are silent about runners advancing on caught balls because it was universally understood that they were not permitted to do this. The 1857 Rule 16 is, in this interpretation, a tidying up, in the same way that the 1857 rules specified the placement of the pitcher.

Negotiating the fly game in 1857

Next we turn to the circumstances of the 1857 rules, taking what at first appears to be an irrelevant digression: the fly game. The early rules gave an out for any batted ball caught on the fly or the first bound. Here is the rule from 1854:

Rule 6. A ball being struck or tipped and caught, either flying or on the first bound, is a hand out.

Compare this with the 1857 version, which splits this into two rules:

Section 11. The striker is out if a foul ball is caught, either before touching the ground or upon the first bound.

Section 13. Or, if a fair ball is struck, and the ball is caught either without having touched the ground or upon the first bound.

This is an oddly clumsy formula, stating in two rules what had previously been stated entirely adequately in one. The explanation is that this is a vestige of an earlier draft.

The 1857 rules came out of a convention called by the Knickerbockers. The New York baseball community had turned into a competitive cauldron. Clubs were looking for any edge, and the 1854 rules weren’t designed for that. The Knickerbockers, as the senior club, had the standing both to call a convention to revise the rules and to submit the working draft. The general convention held two sessions, on January 22 and February 25. The first session organized itself and appointed a rules committee. The committee met January 28 to consider the Knickerbockers’ draft, with the February 25 general session meeting to receive and vote on the report of the rules committee.

These meetings were not rubber stamp sessions. The Knickerbockers had the prestige to command respectful attention, but this was not to say that their recommendations were accepted blindly. The rules committee made revisions of the draft, and the second general session further revised the version that emerged from the committee. It is the revisions within the committee session that concern us here.

The 1845 Knickerbocker rules had included the out on the bound, as did the other early versions. Somewhere along the way the Knickerbockers changed their mind about this, and proposed the “fly game,” in which a batted ball had to be caught on the fly to get an out. This was a prominent feature of their proposed rules. The idea did not prove popular. Here is one account, reporting the session with great delicacy:

Although many old Base Ball players were connected with the new clubs, it was generally conceded, and expected, that the Knickerbockers would, from their well-known experience, as to the requirements of the game, take the lead in proposing the necessary reforms. They, accordingly, submitted a new code of laws, in which they clearly defined every point of the game; and with a view of making the game more manly and scientific, they proposed, that no player should be put out on a fair struck ball, if it was only taken by the fielder according to the old rule, after it had touched the ground once, and was then caught on the bound; but that the ball must be caught in the air before it had touched the ground, or the player was not out. This rule... was discussed in the committee, some objecting to it as being too much like Cricket, some that it would hurt the hands more than taking the ball on the bound, the committee being pretty equally divided. (Porter’s Spirit of the Times March 7, 1857)

The controversy would last until 1864, when the fly game would finally be adopted at the baseball convention that December. In the meantime, the 1857 rules committee had to alter the Knickerbocker draft to remove the fly rule. They did so economically, making the smallest possible change (perhaps explained by the use of pen and paper: a small change was easier on the secretary). Here we have the explanation for the redundant rules 11 and 13. The rules committee added the “either ... or upon the first bound” language. This could have been combined with rule 11, but this would have required renumbering the rest of the draft.

This is not the end of the story. While the committee was unwilling to adopt the fly game, they offered the Knickerbockers a compromise (or, depending on how you look at it, a bone). They would make catching a ball on the fly more valuable by forbidding any runners to advance on a ball so caught, while runners could advance as before on a ball caught on the bound. Here is more from the Porter’s account:

The advocates of the reform finally acceded to a proposition of their opponents; namely, that if a man was caught out before the ball touched the ground, that then the players who were running to the different bases, or home, could neither make an Ace or Base, but had to return to their original position. This was, certainly a greater inducement to a display of nerve on the part of the fielders, as, by the former rules, the players could make as many Aces and Bases as they pleased, if the ball was taken on the bound. (Porter’s Spirit of the Times March 7, 1857)

This was codified in the new rules in Section 16. I earlier quoted this rule in part. Here is the rule in its entirety:

Section 16. No ace or base can be made upon a foul ball, nor when a fair ball has been caught without having touched the ground; and the ball shall, in both instances, be considered dead and not in play, until it shall first have been settled in the hands of the pitcher. When a fair ball has been caught without having touched the ground, the players running the bases shall have the privilege of returning to them.

This, like Sections 11 and 13, is clumsy, but where those rules split one concept into two rules, Section 16 crams unlike concepts into one.

The original draft filled a gap in the early rules. Those had specified that the batter and runners could not advance on a foul ball, but hadn’t really explained how this worked. The original point of Section 16 was to give this explanation. If the batter hit a foul ball, the ball was dead. It was live again when it was settled in the hands of the pitcher. At that point play recommenced. The pitcher could deliver the ball to the batter, any base runners could attempt to steal the next base, and so on.

The rules committee once again was economical in how it revised the draft rules. Rather than create a new rule, it piggybacked on the existing draft. The draft had this concept of a foul ball being dead and the base runners being held in place. A fair ball being caught now also made the ball dead.

They were not entirely satisfied with this. The foul ball became live when settled in the hands of the pitcher. Consider a ball hit down the line that clearly is not going to be caught, but which a runner cannot be sure whether fair or foul. If fair, his proper response is to run immediately so as to advance as far as possible. If, however, it goes foul and is fielded promptly back to first base, where the pitcher is waiting for it (note that the pitcher did not have to be in his position to revive the ball) then the runner could be put out before he got back to first. This was considered a part of the game: a feature, not a bug. For whatever reason, though, the rules committee did not wish to impose this same condition on a fair ball caught on the fly. Hence the last sentence of Section 16, which rather incoherently contradicts the previous sentence. (This was rectified for 1858, with the ball being revived for both purposes with the next pitch to the batter. Then 1859 introduced tagging up, making the question moot for caught fair balls, and the rule with respect to fouls was returned to the previous “settled in the hands of the pitcher” language.)

Now let us return to the original question. What does this tell us about earlier practice and running on caught fly balls?

First off, the Porter’s report explicitly states that the previous rule for balls caught on the bound was that players could run the bases freely: “ the former rules, the players could make as many Aces and Bases as they pleased, if the ball was taken on the bound.” The early rules make no distinction between a ball caught on the fly and one caught on the bound. We would have to impose this distinction upon the early rules to make even the limited claim that runners could not advance on balls caught on the fly.

Even were we willing to make this imposition, it still doesn’t work. At that point the rule of 1856 is identical to that of 1857. Where then is the compromise Porter’s speaks of? This is only a compromise if the Knickerbockers were given something they didn’t already have: in this case, that runners no longer could advance if the ball were caught on the fly, where previously they could.

The conclusion is clear. The early rule was that runners could advance freely on any fair ball, without having to tag up or otherwise wait for the outcome of any fielding attempt. This conclusion is consistent with the logic of the rules, with a close reading of the text of the 1857 rules, and with the Porter’s account of the proceedings.

Submitted June19, 2018: Version 1.0