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Baseball is a simple game. Here's the second statement from the Official Major Leagues Rulebook:
Paragraph 1.02 The objective of each team is to win by scoring more runs than the opponent.
Baseball fan and comedian George Carlin states it this way: "In baseball the object is to go home." It can't get much simpler than that (though while playing the game is simple, laying out the field is another matter). Yet when one attempts to determine what players are the most skilled at "going home", or are the most talented at helping their teammates "go home", obtaining answers isn't so simple.
A particularly vexing problem is comparing players from different eras. One complicating factor is that the baseball rule book has changed every year since the first rule book for the National League was issued in 1877.
For example, did you know that:
Babe Ruth reportedly had no "bounce" home runs; Lou Gehrig had a few, so did Rogers Hornsby and many, many other players of that era.
The picture at the upper left does not portray an actual occurrence of a "bounce" home run under the old rule, but it does depict the effort by Jose Canseco of the Texas Rangers to turn the baseball clock back in time to his version of the rule. On May 26, 1993 Canseco was drifting back to deep right field to catch a routine fly ball hit in the 4th inning by Carlos Martinez of the Cleveland Indians. By all appearances it was going to be an easy catch. Not only did Canseco not catch the ball but, in true soccer fashion, his initial and only contact with the in-flight ball was with his head. The ball's new post-impact trajectory, combined with its increased velocity (caused by the steel plates in Canseco's head according to Ranger's pitcher Kenny Rogers, the beneficiary of Canseco's defensive exploits) propelled the ball over the fence for a home run. Texas lost 7-6. Two days later the Harrisburg (PA) Heat of the National Professional Soccer League offered Canseco a contract. You just can't make this stuff up.
Baseball historian Bill Jenkinson estimates that Babe Ruth probably lost about 75 home runs because of the pre-1931 rule. Here is one example of a disallowed Ruthian blast that he cited based on newspaper reports of the day:
"On August 21,1920, Babe launched one far over the right field grandstand roof at the Polo Grounds. It was obviously fair when it left the park and Ruth proceeded to trot around the bases. When he arrived at home plate, the umpire disallowed the homer with the explanation that the ball had landed on foul ground somewhere out in Manhattan Field." (As Bob Uecker would say, "you'll need a visa to go find that ball") (my comment).
Part of the rationale for the "infinitely long" foul lines is that in the early years ballparks did not always have foul poles. When a long fly ball was hit down the left or right field foul line, the absence of foul poles made it difficult to determine the status of an airborne ball relative to the foul line when it broke the plane of the outfield fence. It was easier to determine the fair/foul status by viewing (or estimating) the eventual landing point. Foul poles now have a screen two feet wide attached to the fair side of the pole to serve as an additional visual aid for the umpire on the really close calls.
Roundoff error, baseball version.. Most folks know that foul poles are really "fair" poles since they are in fair territory. But the folks who put the finishing touches on Dodger Stadium (aka Chavez Ravine) apparently interpreted the foul pole designation literally. During their inaugural season (1962) in the ballpark, the Dodgers discovered that the foul poles were yes indeed, positioned entirely in foul territory (as clearly seen in picture at right). A special dispensation by the National League allowed the foul poles to stay foul the rest of the season. After the season, rather than reconfiguring the poles, the groundskeepers moved back home plate, and tweaked the location of the bases and the pitching rubber, to make the foul poles fair.
In 1918 Babe Ruth hit a "home run" with a teammate on first base in the bottom of the ninth inning of a tied game. Under the rules of the day, Ruth was credited with a triple.
In 1968 the Special Baseball Records Committee voted to restore home runs to players who had lost credit for them because of the above-mentioned pre-1920 rule. But even people in power tinker with baseball's traditions and statistics at great peril. After a hyper-decibel outcry by casual and serious fans, the committee changed its mind in 1969.
The table below shows how the game of baseball evolved from 1876, when the National League was formed, to 1920.
National League/Major League Rule Change and Event Timeline 1876-1920
Event or Change In Official National League/Major League Rules
Notes: Distance: feet from pitcher's box to home plate; Balls: balls needed for a walk; Strikes: strikes needed for a strikeout
||National League begins play with eight teams: Philadelphia Athletics, Boston Red Stockings, Chicago White Stockings, Cincinnati Red Stockings, Hartford Dark Blues, Louisvlle Grays, Mutual of New York, St. Louis Brown Stockings|
|Pitcher - pitches from 6 foot square, must pitch underhand; batter - can request high or low pitch; strikes - only if batter swings and misses|
|Foul balls - out if caught on fly or after 1 bounce|
|If an umpire is unable to see whether a catch has been fairly made, he may confer with spectators and players.|
Bases required to be canvas-covered and 15 inches square, same as present-day size.
|Home plate is positioned at its current location: the angle formed by the intersection of the first and third base lines.|
|A time at bat is not charged to a batter who walks.|
||All pitched balls must be called strikes, balls, or fouls.|
|The number of strikes required for a strikeout is three|
|The pitcher had to face a batsman before pitching to him.|
|A staff of umpires was first introduced.|
||Base on balls was reduced to 8 "called balls."|
|The base runner was out if hit by a batted ball.|
|The catcher is required to catch a third strike on the fly to register an out.|
||Base on balls was reduced to 7 "called balls."|
|The pitching distance is lengthened to fifty feet.|
|The pitcher is fined for deliberately hitting a batter with the ball.|
|A spectator who "hisses or hoots" at or insults the umpire may be ejected from the grounds.|
||The American League is formed.|
|Umpires may not confer with spectators or players.|
||A foul ball caught on the bounce is no longer an out. It must be caught before it touches the ground.|
|Pitcher's arm is allowed up to shoulder height when delivering a pitch.|
||Almost all restrictions on a pitcher's motion are lifted. He may throw the ball with virtually any motion he chooses, provided that he is facing the batter at the moment of wind-up. He is allowed only one step before delivery.|
|Base on balls was reduced to 6 "called balls."|
||The bat may have one flat side. (This rule lasted only one year.)|
|Home base could be made of marble or whitened rubber.|
|Chest protectors worn by catchers and umpires for the first time.|
||Base on balls was reduced to 5 "called balls."|
|The size of the pitcher's box was reduced from a 6-foot square to 4 feet by 7 feet.|
|An umpire may introduce a new ball at any time. Before this year, when a ball was lost, the umpire gave the team five minutes to find it before he threw in a new one. An umpire must have two baseballs at his disposal at all times.|
|A hit batsman is not charged with a time at bat.|
||The number of strikes required for a strikeout is four (this rule was adopted for this season only).|
|The size of the pitcher's box was reduced to 4 feet by 5 1/2 feet.|
|The batter is no longer allowed to request a high or low pitch.|
|Bases on balls were recorded as hits for this season only.|
|The batter was awarded first base when hit by a pitch.|
|Home plate is to be made of rubber, dropping the marble type, and is to be 12 inches square.|
||The strikeout, once and for all, is set at three strikes.|
|A base on balls is not counted as a hit and not charged as a time at bat.|
|A batter is credited with a base hit when a runner is hit by his batted ball.|
|It is a ground-rule double instead of a home run if the ball is batted over the fence in fair territory and the fence is less than 210 feet from home plate.|
|A hit batsman is awarded first base and credited with a hit.|
||A base on balls is reduced to 4 "called balls", and there it remains.|
|A sacrifice bunt is statistically recognized, but the batter is charged with a time at bat.|
||Substitutions are permitted at any time during the game, but once a player has been substituted for, he cannot re-enter the game.|
||It is a ground-rule double instead of a home run if the ball is batted over the fence in fair territory and the fence is less than 235 feet from home plate.|
||Pitching distance is increased from 50 feet to 60 feet 6 inches; it has not been changed since.|
|The pitching box is eliminated (never to be seen again, though present-day pitchers are still said to get "knocked out of the box") and a rubber slab 12 inches long and 4 inches wide is substituted.|
|The pitcher is required to place his rear foot against the slab; the rear foot must maintain contact with the slab throughout the windup and pitch delivery.|
|A batter credited with a sacrifice bunt is not charged with a time at bat.|
|Foul bunts are classified as strikes if the batter has less than two strikes.|
||Pitching slab is enlarged to its present size of 24 inches long and 6 inches wide.|
|Bat dimensions are set to present-day values: a maximum of 2 3/4 inches in diameter and 42 inches in length.|
|The infield fly rule is adopted: the umpire may call an infield fly when there is one out and first and second base or first, second, and third base are occupied. (The infield fly can be a source of confusion for fans. Here's the rule book definition of infield fly.|
|A foul tip was classified as a strike (a foul tip is a batted ball that goes sharp and direct from the bat to the catcher's hands and is legally caught. It is not a foul tip unless caught and any foul tip that is caught is a strike, and the ball is in play. It is not a catch if it is a rebound, unless the ball has first touched the catcher's glove or hand).|
||The first official balk rule: a pitcher is compelled to throw to a base if he makes a motion in that direction.|
||The balk rule is refined: a pickoff throw may not be faked; when there is a baserunner, once the pitcher begins his motion to deliver a pitch to the batter, the pitcher must complete his motion and pitch the ball.|
||The shape of home plate is changed from a twelve-inch square to a five-sided figure seventeen inches wide.|
||The American League joins the majors. Major league baseball now consists of two leagues, the National League and the American League, and the rule discrepancies begin. For instance, the National League declares that any foul ball not caught on the fly is a strike unless the batter has two strikes on him. The American League does not consider these foul balls as strikes - at least not right away.|
|The infield fly rule is in effect when there are no outs as well as one out.|
||The American League agrees with the National League that any foul ball not caught on the fly is a strike unless the batter has two strikes on him.|
|First World Series is played. The Boston Americans of the AL defeats the Pittsburgh Pirates of the NL 3-0 in game eight and wins the Series 5 games to 3.|
||The height of the pitcher's mound is established. It may not be higher than fifteen inches above the base lines and home plate.|
||Pitchers were prohibited from scuffing or soiling a new ball.|
|The sacrifice fly rule is adopted, exempting the batter from an at-bat when a run scores after a catch.|
||A foul bunt attempt when the batter has 2 strikes is a strikeout.|
||The cork center is added to the official baseball.|
||Earned runs are charged to a pitcher when a player scores by means of safe hits, sacrifice hits, bases on balls, hit batters, wild pitches, and balks.|
||All freak deliveries, including the spitball, are outlawed, with a "grandfather clause": each team is allowed to designate two pitchers as spitball pitchers for the 1920 season (it would take two decades for pitchers to compensate for these restrictions and to develop new legal pitches).|
|The batter was given credit for a home run in the bottom of the ninth inning or an extra inning if the winning run was on base when the ball was hit out of the field.|
|The ball has its gloss removed before a game by the umpire.|