Those Crazy Nineteenth Century Baseball Rules

As Ridiculous As The Ghost Runner Rule Was For The Past Two Years, 19th Century Baseball Had Some Strange Rules

For instance – a batter could be called out for deliberately fouling off pitches

MLB has been tinkering with the rules for the last few years, trying to improve the game. Seven inning double headers; ghost runners; pitching mound visit limits; and the relief pitcher, minimum three batter requirement are just a few of the gimmicks that have been implemented with many more changes under consideration such as; designated hitters in the National League; pitch clocks and moving the pitching rubber back twelve inches.

Thankfully the 2021 World Series does not have any ghost runners. That is the MLB rule enacted during the last two seasons in which a runner was placed on second base to begin extra innings in the hopes of shortening the length of extra inning games. Most fans hope the ghost runner will be abolished permanently in 2022.

In the 19th century baseball was constantly evolving and changing rules. While baseball’s basic rules have remained the same for the last 120 years, modern fans would be perplexed at many of the old rules. Before 1884 all pitchers had to throw underhand. The batter could request to the pitcher where he wanted the baseball thrown. Very few players wore baseball gloves – they were considered unmanly.

In the 1880s and 1890s the rule changes came fast and furious.

The following examples are from Jerry Lansche’s entertaining book Glory Fades Away The Nineteenth -Century World Series Rediscovered (Taylor Publishing Group) 1991.

1884- Pitchers were now allowed to throw overhand.

1884- An error was charged to the pitcher for a walk, balk, wild pitch or hit batsman and by the same logic an error in the catcher’s column for a passed ball.

1884- A foul ball caught on one hop was no longer an out.

1885- Major league owners reduced the number of balls required for a walk from seven to six and ruled that a portion of the bat could be flat to improve bunting.

1886- A stolen base was scored any time a runner advanced an extra base on a hit or an out, so that a man going from first to third on a single, for example, was given credit for a theft.

1887- Batters could no longer request a high or low pitch.

1887- The number of bad pitches required for a walk  was reduced to five, and the number of strikes required for a strikeout was increased to four. A walk was counted as a base hit and a time at bat.

1887- An error was no longer given for a walk , a balk, a wild pitch or a hit batsman. The catcher was also relieved of any defensive liability for a passed ball. Hit batsman were now awarded first base with no time at bat being charged.

1888- The three strike rule was restored.

1888- The batter was no longer credited with a base hit and an at bat when he drew a base on balls.

1888- Baserunners were  now allowed an extra base if the batted ball struck an umpire.

1889- Four balls now constituted a walk.

1889- The sacrifice bunt was officially recognized , but the batter was still credited with a time at bat.

1889- George Wright’s sensible suggestion that a batter be allowed to overrun first base on a hit without being tagged out on returning was incorporated into the rules of the game.

1889- New York Giants pitcher Mickey Welch became the first pinch-hitter in National League history. He struck out.

1890- Only one substitution was allowed per game, per team, except in case of injury.

1890- An umpire could declare a batter out if he believed the batter was deliberately fouling off pitches.

1892- Teams could substitute players at any point in a game, not just at the end of an inning.

1892- A ball hit over the fence was a ground-rule double if the distance from the plate to the fence was less than 235 feet.

1894- The distance from the pitcher to home plate was extended to sixty feet, six inches. (from fifty-five feet, six inches)

1894- The sacrifice rule written in 1893 but not widely used until the 1894 season was rewritten so that when a bunt resulted in advancing a baserunner and the batter was, or could have been put out, the batter was credited with a sacrifice hit and no time at bat. (Not used by most official scorers until 1897)

1894- Louisville Colonels third baseman Jerry Denny retired. Denny was the last man to play baseball without the use of a fielder’s glove.

1895- The infield fly rule was adopted.

1895- Foul tips caught on the fly were now counted as strikes.

1896- The home club was required to have at least  a dozen baseballs ready for use at the start of the game. (ed. note – Today they sometimes use that many during one plate appearance.)

1897- The modern stolen base rule went into effect, crediting the runner with a theft when he reached a base he had attempted to steal without the aid of a fielding error or a hit by the batter.

1897- An error was no longer charged to a catcher for a poor throw on a stolen base attempt, unless the runner was able to take an extra base.

1897- An error was not charged to a fielder who failed to complete a double play, unless the runner took an extra base.

2 thoughts on “Those Crazy Nineteenth Century Baseball Rules

    1. Rick

      Unfortunately that isn’t likely. With the rights fees the networks are paying they need to get in as many commercials as possible. People complain, and justifiably, about the pace of games but the length of time between half innings adds about 20 minutes to the length of a game all by itself.


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