March 21, 2019

Richard Hershberger — Strike Four: The Evolution of Baseball

Strike Four: The Evolution of Baseball
By Richard Hershberger

Thank you to Chaplain Mike for giving me space to flog my book–especially since its connection to the usual theme of this blog is, um…, tangential. (It turns out upon close examination that the 59 beads of a rosary is not the same number as the 108 stitches of a baseball, and why did you think Annie Savoy was a reliable source for this anyway?) He has generously allowed me to take advantage of our shared love of baseball.

Modern baseball emerged in the mid-19th century from a schoolyard game. (If you react to this statement with “But what about Abner Doubleday and/or Alexander Cartwright?” take a look HERE.  Or you can simply expunge those names from your memory and you will do just fine.) There was a general trend for athletic activity. This was partly a response to rising urbanism, with young men in sedentary occupations seeking exercise. Sports also offered a desirable alternative to their spending their leisure time in bars and pool halls. Finally, there was the rise of “Muscular Christianity.” This taught that a good Christian should be physically vigorous, the better to spread the gospel. These ideas combined, resulting in an explosion of athletics of all sorts.

Baseball was the big winner. It was widely known from childhood play, making it readily available when adults looked for sports to play. Clubs formed as vehicles for these young men to take their exercise together in a socially congenial setting.

The game needed to be adapted for adult play. The first change was how to put a runner out. The fielder, in most early versions, put the runner out by throwing the ball at him. While fine for pre-pubescent boys, it wasn’t so great for full grown men. One early account is refreshingly honest about why not, explaining with only minimal euphemism that we are talking about taking the ball where you really don’t want it. Guys, you know what I mean.

Organized adult baseball took off. It was the fad that would not die, annual predictions of its demise notwithstanding. It did, however, change. The idea for the earliest clubs is that they would meet a couple of afternoons each week, divide into two teams, and play until it was time to quit. But boys will be boys. One club would challenge the another, they would each pick their best players, and they would test their mettle. A game that works for boys doesn’t necessarily work for men. A game that works for social exercise clubs doesn’t work for clubs in the throes of competitive fervor.

Modern baseball–or, more precisely, its direct ancestor–was created in New York City. It became all the rage in the mid-1850s, and by 1858 broke the bounds of the Metropolis and spread across the country. 1857 saw the first baseball convention, held to update the rules. This led to a cycle of revisions. A problem would arise. The rules would be changed in response. The change might well create a new problem. Rinse and repeat. This lasted through the latter half of the century. The rules finally stabilized around the turn of the 20th century. Changes since then have been rare, and all the more controversial for it.

The book tells the story of these rule changes. I seek to explain the overall arc of their history, with a pitching revolution around 1860 (fastball and change of pace), a fielding revolution around 1870 (with fielders figuring out where to position go), a second pitching revolution lasting from 1875-1884 (the curve ball and overhand delivery), and everything needed to respond to these revolutions. I also explore what constitutes a problem that needs solving. (The most common, from earliest time, is pace of play. Some things never change.) Above all, I delve into the reasons for individual features of the game, both unremarkable (such as nine innings, and four balls and three strikes) and oddball (such as the dropped third strike rule).

Should anybody be so moved, Strike Four: The Evolution of Baseball can be purchased through all the usual online sources. You are unlikely to see it in a bookstore, due to the publishing line it is a part of. You can, however, special order it. You are more likely to see it in your public library, and libraries typically are open to patron requests, so this is a good option. Or you can purchase it directly from the publisher at rowman.com . Use promo code RLFANDF30 for a substantial discount.

Comments

  1. senecagriggs says:

    My mother wanted me to be a Gospel pianist
    I wanted to play professional baseball.

    Neither goal was predicated upon talent and abilities.

    sigh

  2. brianthegrandad says:

    Mine arrives on Wednesday. My 12 yr old son and I await with excitement. Finally! an answer for why there’s a dropped third strike rule!! perhaps the infield fly will be covered as well.

    • Richard Hershberger says:

      Indeed it is!

      • brianthegrandad says:

        well then, my standing among the other, much younger, baseball parents is bound to soar when I answer the question ‘why’ that inevitably arises each time this happens.

    • Isn’t the reason for the dropped 3rd strike rule so the batter can’t be out on an error?

  3. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    “But what about Abner Doubleday and/or Alexander Cartwright?”

    Their names just ended up ASSOCIATED with the game.
    At a time when historical figures were routinely recast as Mythological Heroes.

    • Richard Hershberger says:

      Cartwright at least actually played the game. That puts him ahead of Doubleday. It also, to my mind, makes the process of mythologizing him more interesting. The Doubleday story is simply BS. There is no kernel of truth to it. There is one legitimate factoid about Cartwright, that he was the one who said “Guys, we should form a club!” The mythologizing was to hugely over-interpret that factoid, while piling on layers of pure fantasy.

    • rhymeswithplague says:

      HUG, you obviously didn’t “take a look HERE” in Mr. Hershberger’s second paragraph, or you wouldn’t be asking that question! It’s a VERY LONG read but thoroughly worth it, and you’ll never wonder again.

  4. “This was partly a response to rising urbanism, with young men in sedentary occupations seeking exercise. Sports also offered a desirable alternative to their spending their leisure time in bars and pool halls. Finally, there was the rise of “Muscular Christianity.”
    With the advent of video games we probably need a renewed push for physical sport. Sound in body and mind and so forth. Very interesting Richard. You should get a copy to Mike Reiner on The Ticket radio station in Dallas. Big baseball guy who would likely get you a lot of sales if you got on the show for an interview. He loves talking baseball. In fact, he refers to it loosely as a “talking sport” because of all the complexity.

  5. I always thought baseball evolved from English cricket but recently learned that American baseball was based on the English and Irish game called rounders. Probably both cricket and rounders had their Origen in another,unknown game. I have played all the sports-football, basketball, tennis, golf, etc. but when I dream, I dream of baseball.

  6. Christiane says:

    somewhere among my son’s possessions are boxes and boxes of baseball cards bought hopefully for many years as he grew up by his father, my husband, a fan like no one ever seen before in our land . . . . . money spent year after year in hopes of someday reaping ‘that rookie card’ that would become big money if the player ever ‘made it’

    Somewhere in all those boxes, there is such a card, but no one has time to take a look, or a moment to consider that they are sitting on a gold mine 🙂

    seriously, what do I know of THE GAME . . . . too much and not enough . . . . but I REMEMBER we all had to learn poems in Catholic school and recite them before the class and THIS poem was, besides O Captain My Captain, the all time favorite beloved of boys and girls and even the nuns who loved the game:

    for old times’ sake, for the kids at Blessed Sacrament School,
    and for Sr. Ruth and Sr. Patricia, and dear Sr. Lucy who taught us that poetry was to be spoken and heard with joy:

    “And now the leather-covered sphere came hurtling through the
    air,
    And Casey stood a-watching it in haughty grandeur there.
    Close by the sturdy batsman the ball unheeded sped—
    “That ain’t my style,” said Casey. “Strike one!” the umpire said.. . . . . .

    yes, THAT poem, here’s the link:
    https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/casey-bat

  7. Robert F says:

    Congratulations, Richard. I’m afraid the little I know about baseball could be written on the back of baseball card. The one and only time I ventured out onto a field to play with a little league team as a child, they sent me into right(?) field, where I could do the least harm. A high pop fly came toward me — I positioned myself under it, lost it in the sun — then it flew past my upheld mitt and straight into the bridge of my nose. I saw stars, and my eyes teared up, but — to the amazement of my adult brother, who had brought me there in the hopes of finding an activity for his asocial little brother to participate in — I did not cry. The was the last time I had anything to do with baseball.

    • Well at least you were trying to catch it in the correct way.

      You basically look the ball into your face then put your glove up just before it smashes into your face. You were a bit off on the last step.

  8. Pellicano Solitudinis says:

    I’m not a sports-minded person, and in any case, baseball isn’t really a thing where I come from, but I want to congratulate you on your achievement. If this post is anything to go by, your writing style will make this book an interesting read for even the uninitiated.

  9. I was a very good player at the age of ten. When we were moving to a new state my coach asked if I could stay with his family to finish the season. Meanwhile all I knew was that it was fun because we went to Dairy Queen after every game for ice cream cones.

  10. This was an enjoyable read for this person who played baseball from age 9 to 19, from summer of 1960 to spring 1970. Big part of my young life spent behind homeplate. Glad to learn more about baseball from your book.

  11. brianthegrandad says:

    Got my copy a day early! Started it last night. very good book, Mr Hershberger. My wife is now tired of my occasional announcements of, ‘well, what did you know, sometimes there were more than 6 bases’ or ‘hey baby, get this, at one time, there was no foul territory,’ etc. my 12yr old, however, is fascinated.

  12. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    1857 saw the first baseball convention, held to update the rules. This led to a cycle of revisions. A problem would arise. The rules would be changed in response. The change might well create a new problem. Rinse and repeat.

    Isn’t such a shoot-look-shoot iteration cycle typical of any systems development/debugging?

    • Richard Hershberger says:

      It is in some respects, but the difference is that with systems development you know more or less what you are aiming for. It is very rare with sports rules for there to be some grand goal they are aiming for. They are far more likely to be trying to restore an Edenic earlier state. And small decisions can have vast long-term implications, as the unanticipated consequences of that small decision play out. Had a different, equally plausible decision been made, the end result would be vastly different.

  13. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    Don’t know why I didn’t think of this until now:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UnWQd70br9g