How did the players get where they did?

Next in my “I take requests” series, Mike Schilling asks how we ended up with the current alignment of positions? The answer is in two parts. The first is how we ended up with nine players, with more or less their modern assigned positions. The second will cover the evolution of their precise placement.

Necessary background: Modern baseball descends directly from a version that arose in club play in New York around 1840 (perhaps as early as 1837, certainly no later than 1845). The game is much older, attested in England to the second quarter of the 18th century, and was widely played through Anglophone North America since colonial days. The “New York game” was so called to distinguish it from all those other versions, and in particular from the “Massachusetts game” played in and around Boston. This version expanded rapidly beginning in 1855, and spreading beyond the metropolis from 1858 onward. By 1866 it had completely displaced all other versions across the country, at least for organized adult play. When I speak of “pre-modern baseball” I mean those versions.

Pre-modern versions had, as a first approximation, only two defined defensive positions: the pitcher and the catcher. The other fielders were scattered around the field. There were no basemen. This worked because in most versions a runner was not put out by being tagged by a fielder with the ball. Rather, the fielder threw the ball at him: a practice that went by various colorful names such as “plugging” or “burning” the runner. There thus was no need for a fielder to be positioned at the base.

Another difference was that most versions were played in the round, like in cricket. There was no foul territory, and a batted ball was fully in play regardless of what direction it was hit. This meant that the fielders had a lot more territory to cover, and so there generally were more of them on a side. The details varied wildly, but from eleven to fifteen on a side would be typical, and sometimes more.

Tagging (rather than plugging) the runner and foul territory (specifically 90 degree foul lines) were two of the distinctive features of the New York game. (The third was three-out innings, rather than the all-out or one-out innings of other versions.) There is much that can be said about the whys and wherefores, but the topic at hand is how this played out in the development of fielding positions. They now needed three basemen. (The number of bases varied from version to version. The four bases, including home, of the New York game was one common variant.) It didn’t need as many other fielders. Spreading three of them in the outfield may simply have been a matter of pleasing symmetry with the three basemen. In any case, the three outfielders seem to have been standard from the start of the New York game.

This leaves the shortstop as the odd man out. It seems to have been a later addition, but only slightly. There is an interview from The Sporting News from 1896 of Daniel “Doc” Adams. He claimed (or at least raised the possibility) that he originated the position of short stop. He joined the Knickerbocker Club soon after their founding on September 23, 1845. Adams was a leading figure in baseball through the 1850s and into the early 1860s. He presided over the convention of 1857 that led to the formation of baseball’s first governing body, and chaired the rules committee for several years after that. His claim about the shortstop position is not confirmed anywhere else, but neither is there any particular reason to doubt him. A tantalizing tidbit is that the traditional first “match game” (i.e. a game between two clubs, as contrasted with an intramural game) of modern baseball occurred in June of 1846, with nine on a side. Adams was in the game, but the positions of the individual players are not recorded. This is almost certainly not, however, the actual first match game. There were two games played the previous October, and the Knickerbockers were not involved. One of them shows clear signs of being played under the same rules as the Knickerbockers used, or at least a set very much like it. These two games were played eight on a side. So we can suppose that the innovation of the short stop occurred between these two events. It might even be true.

What is certainly true is that as club play expanded in the 1850s, nine players on a side, in more or less their modern configuration, was standard for match games. This was not codified until 1857, but was well established as customary before that.

That was true of match games, but the vast majority of early baseball took place within clubs. The club was organized to give young men in sedentary occupations a context to take their exercise together in a social congenial setting. The club would meet typically two afternoons a week during the season. Match games were fairly rare events in the life of the club. The twice weekly club days were the real point. So if, say, twenty members showed up wanting to play, then they would play with ten on a side. If only fourteen showed up, they would play with but seven on a side. And so on. In the 1860s club days declined, and match games became more and more the point of the exercise, so the nine-on-a-side grew into a fixed standard for “real” baseball. But as late as 1872 a newspaper published helpful suggestions on where to place up to fifteen fielders.

A final peculiarity was the “ten men ten inning” game. This was a pet proposal of journalist Henry Chadwick, who got into the Hall of Fame despite this. He began muttering about the idea in the mid-1860s and was pushing it hard ten years later. It never had any chance of being accepted, but Chadwick had enough prestige to get it brought to a vote in 1874. Only one club voted for it, and I have a feeling they only did so because they knew it wasn’t going to pass. The tenth man was a right shortstop. Chadwick loved low-scoring games, and wanted the extra man to close the gap on the right side of the infield. (The tenth inning bit seems to have been merely for symmetry.) This was defensible in the 1860s, when scores routinely were in the double digits, but by 1874 they can come down to roughly modern levels. Few people wanted to offend Chadwick by calling the idea idiotic. This was the professional era, so instead they claimed poverty, with clubs being unable to afford to hire another player. He kept talking the idea up for several years, but it was regarded as Chadwick background noise. Except (and there is were things really get weird) in Cuba. Cuban clubs read Chadwick talking about how the rule was inevitable, and believed him. They seem not to have noticed that it never actually got enacted. For years afterwards games inside Cuba were played with ten men, and the rule even spread to Honduras. It took years for them to sort this out.

In Part II I will discuss such burning issues of the day as, why is it that two fielders play the same distance from second base, but only one of them is called a second baseman?

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11 thoughts on “How did the players get where they did?

  1. Richard, as always I love the baseball history.

    If you take requests, then how about how the strike zone got to be the shape it is? It could just as easily have been much smaller, or much larger. Or it might not exist at all. Wasn’t there a variant of the game in which the pitcher was friendly to the batter?

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    • You are going large with this question. We tend to think of the 19th century game as constantly changing. There is considerable truth to this, but most of these changes, and after the Civil War nearly all the big ones, were really about the relationship between the pitcher and the batter. These collectively altered the underlying nature of the game. We today see the duel between the pitcher and the batter as the centerpiece. That would have been ridiculous in, say, 1860. Then they saw the centerpiece as being contest between the batter and the fielders, with the elite opinion giving primacy to the fielders, while the hoi polloi even then enjoyed home runs.

      The evolution of the strike zone is part of the bigger story of the evolution of the pitcher-batter duel, and that in turn is the story of the evolution of baseball from how it was played in the Civil War era to how it was played by the turn of the 20th century. I have not seen a proper treatment of this. I think that anyone who knows enough to understand the question tends to recoil at the magnitude of sorting it out.

      I will try to break this down into manageable pieces and write about it eventually.

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      • I took Mike’s comment as a humorous potshot at the DH.

        I don’t think decimal numerology was Chadwick’s motivation. He developed an ideology strongly favoring low-scoring games. He published lists of “model games” for years past when this seemed sensible to most people. He considered a 1-0 game nearly orgasmic. So originally I think it was simply that a right shortstop would lower the score. As it happened, scores came down in the 1870s. The problem was that this happened without following his advice, so it didn’t really count. The rule proposal had taken on a life of its own, at least in his mind.

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  2. I’m interested in attempting to determine if the current alignment is truly “ideal”. At least as a base alignment. I think the proliferation of “the shift” is telling us that it might not be quite as ideal as we think.

    With advanced ball and player tracking technology, I would think it’d be possible to say, “With today’s distribution of balls in play — both in terms of direction, frequency, and type of hit — and assuming players of average defensive skill at each position, the following arrangement would be ideal…”

    Of course, that might only be so useful given all the assumptions baked into that and all the variables in the real world… but imagine if we learned definitively that 2 outfielders (or 4!) yielded fewer runs to the opponent than the current 3? How would the game respond?

    Would it be like the NFL and going for it on 4th down? A handful of forward thinking coaches sometimes bucking conventional wisdom to gain a statistical advantage? Or like the NBA and the corner 3? Which most teams have overwhelmingly embraced in response to evidence of its statistical superiority?

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