Baseball Rules and Trivia #1

HPB? They don't need no stinking HPB.

HBP? They don't need no stinking HBP.

Hello everyone. Now that baseball season is finally here we are all set to follow the progress our our favorite teams and hopefully see them improve on what they did last year – unless you’re from Saitama or Philadelphia, in which case a repeat of last year would be just fine.

This past year has been a great one for baseball – as Garrett can attest to, December and January were the only two months in which is was impossible to watch professional baseball in Japan. In November we had the opportunity to watch Asia Series games, and in late February Samurai Japan played against the Seibu Lions at Tokyo Dome. After that, the World Baseball Classic followed. We may not see so much baseball again in a single calendar year until 2013. After all, baseball has been excluded from the 2012 Olympics (boo!)

Let’s get to the point: I have been doing a serious amount of research on baseball rules over the past few weeks, in an attempt to get a feel as to how the game has changed over the past 150 or so years that professional baseball has been played. The truth is that the bulk of significant changes were made before the National League itself existed, and were done under the Knickerbocker rules from 1857 to 1872. For example, before 1857 a baseball game was won when one team scored 21 aces. From 1857 this rule was changed to introduce the 9 inning format in which the team with the most runs was declared the winner. In 1858, called strikes were introduced, and in 1864 it was decided that base runners must actually touch each base in order.

Many of the early National League rules have undergone serious changes – overhand pitches were banned until 1883, and batters could call for a low or high pitch from 1867 to 1887. Also in 1887, using a home plate made of marble was banned – all teams had to switch to white rubber, which they could sully with dirt to their heart’s content under the rules.

1887 was an odd year for National League rules. A pitcher needed to get four strikes for a strikeout, and walks counted as hits that year, while six balls meant a walk. This was also the first year in which a hit batsman was awarded first base rather than having such a pitch not count.

In 1889, four balls became a walk, while in 1893 the pitching distance was pushed back from 50 feet to 60 feet 6 inches – where it stands to this day. The pitching rubber was also introduced in 1893. Before that, the pitcher had a 4 foot by 5 1/2 box within which to operate. Until 1893, batters could use a bat with one flat side.

Yes, the rules have changed quite a bit over time. Over lunch the other day, a good friend asked me what the biggest rule change since the introduction of the DH (in 1973) was. I said it could be the rewrite of the save rule in 1974 and 1975, or perhaps the inclusion of the instant replay for home run or foul calls in 2008.

The whole point of this post is to ask our readers what they consider to be the most significant rule changes in the history of the game. It’s worth noting at this point that there are two categories of rule changes: On-field rules and league rules. It can be difficult at times to ascertain which type of rule falls under which category, but let me give a few examples.

On-field rules include the ball and strike counts, the infield fly rule (1895), the banning of the spitball (1920), the lowering of the pitching mound (1969), the DH and forcing hitters to wear helmets (1971). League rules include the intricacies surrounding free agency, the number of games played in a season, draft rules and rules governing the number of foreign players allowed per team (for example in NPB).

Both categories have relevant rules, though I tend to be more concerned with the on-field rules. Either way, I would like to invite everyone to contribute their nominee for the rule change that has changed baseball the most. Look around, do some research, rely on your gut – however you come to your conclusion is fine, we just want to know what you think. What rule change has affected the game of baseball most in its history thus far?

  • Pau

    For the 20th century, I’m not sure how much of an actual rulebook rewriting it involved (may have been only a matter of stricter enforcement), but I’d go with the 1920 rule that mandated that game balls be replaced at the first sign of wear, discoloration or deformation.
    It seems before that they would use the same ball, no matter how dirty and banged up, until it got lost. The new clean balls were much easier for the batters to see and to hit out of the park.

  • The biggest league rule change that I’ve enjoyed here in Japan is the player strike-induced introduction of interleague games in 2005, though they’ve been scaled back from 36 to 24 games in 2007 (boo). With 6 teams leagues, this was really needed to add some variation to league games instead of endless repetition of the same 5 opponents. Yeah, playing 36 straight interleague games over 2 months was too long, that should’ve been split up into two 18 game chunks in May and July (after the All Star Games).

  • Pau, that’s definitely a big rule change, done at the same time the spitter was banned. It was especially common in those days to sully the ball as it was getting darker, and no doubt made it much more difficult for hitters.

    Simon, it’s funny that I agree with you on interleague games in NPB, and I also wish they would go back to 36 games. But I still don’t like the idea in the Major Leagues, since it’s not really fair for the American League to get to beat up on the National League so much. We already have the All-Star Game and the World Series for that!

    Kidding aside, something about MLB interleague play still doesn’t seem right to me.