Baseball has a long history in the United States. The roots of America’s favorite pastime go back to the early 1800s. It was a British game that involved a pitcher throwing a ball at a “striker” swinging a flat stick that inspired the modern-day game of baseball. The rules of baseball were written in 1837 by Alexander Cartwright, a member of the Knickerbocker Club in New York. The rules originally written by Alexander Cartwright lead the way towards making the game we watch today.
So what has changed in the nearly 130 years since the game of baseball first appeared in American culture? Would we even recognize the original game that Cartwright envisioned if we saw it today? What are some of the biggest changes to the game?
A Tale of Two Leagues
The popularity of baseball in the mid-1800s led to the founding of the National League in 1876. It started with 8 teams. In 1901, the American League was formed with 8 teams of its own. These teams were considered bitter rivals of the National League. Today that dynamic is different. Both leagues are much more competitive within the leagues, and really don’t worry about the other league until the playoffs leading to the World Series begin. There are exceptions to this rule, of course. If you’ve ever been to an inter-league game between the Chicago Cubs and the Chicago White Sox then you know that rivalries between the two leagues DO exist. Still, the National League versus American League mentality is not nearly as bitter as when the American League came on the scene in the early 1900s.
The Ball Itself
The history of the actual baseball is an intriguing one. The baseballs used at today’s games are formed from wool yarn that is covered by cowhide. These balls weigh 5 ounces and have a circumference of nine inches. The modern-day baseball came into play in 1976 when balls were no longer made with horsehide – a change from the beginning of the game. In the early 1900s, balls were also not wound as tightly and were not even weighed. Until 1920, pitchers could modify balls with things like spit or tar to have an even greater advantage over the batter. Those rules changed after batter Ray Chapman died on August 16, 1920 after a spitball thrown by Carl Mays struck him in the head.
The number of balls used in games has also changed. A typical Major League game today uses 60 to 70 balls. When balls end up in the stands, it’s customary for fans to keep them. Umpires pull balls out of play after they’ve been hit or landed in the dirt a few times to maintain the integrity of the ball and keep the game fair. From 1900 to 1919, only 5 or 6 balls were used each game. Now known as the “dead ball era,” this time frame gave pitchers a distinct advantage because batters could not hit the overused balls as far. To put this concept in perspective, during those years the leading home run hitter in a season would have just 14 home runs. In 2014, Nelson Cruz had 40 home runs and was the leader in both leagues. Even a decade earlier that number was even higher, but a crackdown on players using performance enhancing drugs is believed to have led to a drop in home runs in recent years.
The Evolution of the Baseball Bat
The first six years of the National League allowed players to determine what bats they wanted to use. There were no rules on weight, height or even what material the bats were made from. Over the years, the width of the bat became regulated to the 2.61 inches it sits at today. The maximum length for a bat is still the same today as it was in 1869 – 42 inches. Bats that are 33 to 34 inches long are commonly regarded as the standard for today’s players, though. At one time baseball players could use flat-sided bats, but rules changed to make them round in 1893. The types of wood used in bats is also regulated now and players can choose between ash, maple and birch. There isn’t an exact weight requirement but bats cannot be 3.5 ounces lighter than the length of the bat.
Major League Baseball is the ruling body when it comes to most changes to the game but occasionally players or owners facilitate modifications to how baseball is played. One example is shortening the outfield requirement. Over time, team owners have made the joint decision to shorten outfields to make home runs more common in order to excite fans. Case in point: when Fenway Park opened in 1912, the distance to its outfield fence was 488 feet. Today that distance is just 420 feet. These decisions made owners, fans and batters very happy. Pitchers, understandably, aren’t fond of the smaller outfields, though most modern-day pitchers still have better records than their predecessors.
Introduction of the Designated Hitter
In 1973, the American League debuted a new kind of player: the designated hitter. This position was designed to ramp up excitement at pivotal times in the game. In the first year the designated hitter was used, hits in the American League went up by nearly 2,500. Not only does the designated hitter concept increase excitement in the game itself, but it extends the career lifetimes of batters. It also means that for American League pitchers, there are never any “easy” outs like there still are in the National League when the pitcher is at the plate.
The Introduction of Technology
The introduction of technology has impacted the game of baseball at almost every level. As an example, video technology was first used in baseball in 2002, and is still used to track pitch speed, break, and location. Between 2002 and 2014, video replay outside of the plate was limited, and only calls disputing home runs were evaluated. During the 2014 season, video replay was expanded, and now the manager of each team can issue one video replay challenge per game.
Technology is also used to evaluate umpire calls, and as a result, umpires are becoming more accurate. Prior to the use of Pitch f/x, a camera used to evaluate umpire calls at the plate, umpires had a median accuracy rate of about 83% (in 2007), as of 2013, that accuracy has become closer to 87%.
The sport of baseball continues to evolve with its fan base. Each generation of players is better than the last and they infuse a new energy into the game. Though the logistics and specifications of baseball have changed, the excitement of hearing the crack of a bat on a summer night remains.
What do you think the game will look like in another 100 years?