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The Knickerbocker Rules: the first organized rulebook for what would become baseball

In New York City and Hoboken, the modern game of baseball found its origins.

Group Photograph of 1858 Baseball Teams

Over the first half of the 1800s, a bat and ball sport known as town ball developed in the industrializing cities of the Northeastern United States. With four bases arranged in a diamond and a large group of fielders scattered throughout the field, town ball shares many similarities with the modern game of baseball, and despite Abner Doubleday’s claim to fame, it is almost certain that the sport evolved from the New York variant of the game.

Much like anything that develops over time, the true origin of the New York game is lost to history, the product of a series of innovations on town ball that occurred on a game by game basis. Credit often goes to a member of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of New York, Alexander Cartwright, who formalized the Knickerbocker Rules on September 23, 1845. According to the story, Cartwright, a resident of New York, set up a modern baseball diamond where there was a lot of empty space in Hoboken, New Jersey, placing the bases 90 feet apart and setting the number of strikes for a strikeout and outs in an inning at three.

Ultimately, although he did have an important role in the creation of baseball, calling him the inventor of baseball is just as false as giving Doubleday the title. The Knickerbocker Rules were certainly in circulation in some form before Cartwright recorded them — indeed, baseball historian Jeffrey Kittel concludes that none of them are indeed Knickerbocker innovations, with the three-out, all-out rule being the only possible exception (typical town ball games were either all-out, all-out or one-out, all-out). On top of that, Cartwright was likely not creating the rules himself, but working off of an earlier version created by William Wheaton for the Gotham Base Ball Club in 1837. In the end, Cartwright’s true innovation comes not from the rules themselves, but the fact that he refused to let the Knickerbocker Club play with any other variant, which helped contribute to the rise of the rules in New York and, eventually, throughout the rest of the country.

The Knickerbocker Rules look very similar to the modern game of baseball in many ways, although using playing card jargon rather than the cricket names that later became the norm (e.g., aces instead of runs, hands instead of innings). There were some notable differences, however, which I have summarized below:

  1. The first to score 21 runs wins the game, although both teams must get an equal number of innings.
  2. The pitcher must throw the ball underhand; technically, he “pitched” it like a horseshoe, which is how we get the name “pitcher.” There was no pitcher’s mound, or even a rubber, and the pitcher was allowed to deliver the ball from anywhere; later sources, however, suggest that the pitcher typically threw the ball at a distance of 45 feet from home plate.
  3. Foul balls were not strikes, and a ball hit out of the field of play but between the foul lines was a foul ball, not a home run.
  4. A ball caught on one bounce was considered an out.
  5. Balls that landed in fair territory but bounced out of the field of the play were singles.

In somewhat of a surprise to me, both the balk and dropped third strike rule originate in the Knickerbocker Rules. Because the balk aids batters more than pitchers, I expected that to be the product of the pitching-dominated dead ball era, not the offense-heavy Knickerbocker era — that said, it is not until 1898 that a balk was officially defined, suggesting that it became more of an issue as offense declined. Additionally, due to the lack of protective equipment, catchers stood much further behind the batter than they do today, which would have almost certainly led to more dropped third strikes. To some extent, I wonder if this is a vestige from rounders, in which a batter must run the bases regardless of whether or not he hits the ball.

The first recorded game that we have under these rules came on October 6th, 1845, an intrasquad game with both teams made up of Knickerbocker Club members. The following year, on June 19, 1846, the Knickerbocker Club took on the New York Nine, losing by a score of 23-1. According to many historians, this marks the beginning of the modern game of baseball, and for good reason — both clubs were a part of the community in which the first organized baseball leagues were created, and you can draw a direct line from the Knickerbocker Rules through to the modern rulebook.

The Knickerbocker game was not the only set of rules gaining prominence during the two decades prior to the Civil War, however. In Massachusetts, a variant of town ball, aptly known as the Massachusetts game, developed a following, in large part due to its high scoring nature. Bases were only 60 feet apart from each other, not 90, and fielders had to catch the ball on a fly for it to be an out — a much harder task considering the fact that they did not have gloves! As was fairly standard in town ball, the batter stood halfway between home and first, not at home plate, and there was no foul territory; additionally, fielders could put out runners by striking them with the ball, an old town ball rule banned by the Knickerbocker Club. Together, this resulted in a game that saw such levels of offense that the game still used the one-out, all-out model, with scores reaching several dozens with regularity.

At the onset of the Civil War, although the New York variant had been gaining traction, the Massachusetts game had a strong base throughout all of New England. By the war’s end, however, the Knickerbocker Rules had established themselves as the national game, and although the Massachusetts game still saw action long enough for Ty Cobb (1886-1961) to have played it as a child, it was the New York game that ultimately served as the foundation for the first professional leagues.