The Knickerbocker Rules

Baseball has changed a lot in 176 years but not as much as you'd think.

Major League Baseball’s Official Rule Book drones on with over 150 pages of rules, diagrams, measurements, definitions, and footnotes. The 1845 Knickerbocker Rules had 2 pages and 20 rules.

These lengths are indicative of their times. Each team today is worth billions, and a difference of a few inches a few times a year can cost someone a few million dollars. Having 150 pages of rules makes a little more sense in this case to protect those assets. In 1845 teams struggled to field two teams on the same diamond at the same time. Never mind that the first player to make $50k per year was nearly a century away (the Great Bambino, for any curious minds) and teams rose and folded like the passing of seasons. Twenty rules were just fine.

The Knickerbocker Rules (saying Knickerbocker makes me want to twirl my 19th-century mustache) are some of the earliest rules written down for baseball and are woven into the DNA of the modern game the same way we see hints of the Wright Flyer in the Space Shuttle.

Were they super effective? Not at all. Did they work? Magically they did. Is baseball the same now as it was then? Not even close.

Some rules created by the Knickerbockers still exist today: three strikes you’re out, foul territory, and you can’t argue balls and strikes. Other rules, however, are best left with historical re-creation leagues scattered across the country. Each of the Knickerbocker rules (again, giddy saying it) are worth a read-through just to enjoy some of the history of the game we love, while some of these vestigial rules offer a fun “what if” alternate reality.

6TH. If there should not be a sufficient number of members of the Club present at the time agreed upon to commence exercise, gentlemen not members may be chosen in to make up the match, which shall not be broken up to take in members that may afterwards appear; but in all cases, members shall have the preference, when present, at the making of the match.

Today’s game is always looking for ways to get fans more involved in the game; what better way than to actually bring some ringer in from the stands? Or if Bobby Dalbec’s Uber to the park takes a wrong turn, let a kid take first base for the Red Sox and make a lifelong fan out of them.

One of the greatest players of all time got their debut this way. Legend has it that during the first night game at Forbes Field between the Homestead Grays and Kansas City Monarchs, Grays catcher Buck Ewing broke a finger. The manager, already frustrated with a depleted roster, searched the stands and came up with a stout 18-year-old kid eating a hot dog (allegedly). The young man played backstop that night and wound up tallying over 800 unofficial home runs: Josh Gibson.

Gibson, who some called “The Black Babe Ruth” with others countering by calling Ruth “The White Josh Gibson”, likely debuted two weeks prior to this night game and had a short history of semi-professional ball, but within the first 16 games of his professional career slashed .417/.444/.833. The Homestead Greys surely did not scour the stands and randomly pluck a legendary talent, but the 6th Knickerbocker rule could make that possible in today’s game.

9TH. The ball must be pitched, not thrown, for the bat.

Being hit by the pitch in 1845 wasn’t as painful as today for a whole host of reasons. The ball was often made of feathers for one (or whatever the players put into it), and it’s tough to achieve bone-breaking speed while tossing underhand — Jenny Finch these guys were not. That didn’t stop pitchers from trying. Of the top 10 hit batsmen by a pitcher, seven of the players were born in the 1800s. Two are knuckleballers, and the other is Randy Johnson.

Most of those players pitched at a time where 300 innings was a minimum and had ample opportunity to knock a batter to the ground. Today’s game emphasizes outs over personal vendettas most of the time, so you wouldn’t expect any modern-day pitcher to be close to—

Charlie Morton, ladies and gentlemen. Morton has bruised hitters 121 times in his career. That’s more than pitchers like Gaylord Perry, Ice Box Chamberlain, and just behind Phil Niekro, who had the advantage of pitching for roughly a hundred years. The Braves pitcher has an honest chance to finish his career as a top 15 plunker of all time. He’s averaging 16 per season and assuming 2020 was an aberration, is in great position to surpass Nolan Ryan with 37 more plunks.

10TH A ball being struck or tipped and caught, either flying or on the first bound, is a hand out.

Recording an out by catching the ball after it bounces sounds sacrilegious, like something you’d do in whiffle ball with your friends, not at Wrigley Field. However, if fielders could ease up to a fly ball as opposed to throwing their bodies across the diamond, think about how many injuries could be prevented. Rules have been changed in the past to prevent injuries, and if Zac Gallen fracturing an arm while batting is enough of a reason to curse the National League with the Designated Hitter, then how many untold injuries would it take to allow this Knickerbocker rule to re-enter the league after a 176-year absence?

13TH. A player running the bases shall be out, if the ball is in the hands of an adversary on the base, or the runner is touched with it before he makes his base; it being understood, however, that in no instance is a ball to be thrown at him.

In no way am I advocating for base runners to be pelted with baseballs. That’s not fun. What is a little fun is when a base-runner is called out when a batted ball nicks their leg.

On May 2nd, 2015, a game between the Giants and Angels ended that way when Matt Joyce hit a line drive and nailed his runner and teammate in the leg for the last out. That’s not too unusual. Games have ended after a runner was plunked with a hit ball plenty of times. What was unusual is that a few hours later, the game between the Dodgers and Diamondbacks ended when a David Peralta batted ball nailed a runner at second for the final out of that game. That’s like having two no-hitters on the same day.

16TH. Players must take their strike in regular turn.

17TH. All disputes and differences relative to the game, to be decided by the Umpire, from which there is no appeal.

The author of these rules, Alexander Cartwright, etched this phrase into stone, “from which there is no appeal.” Ain’t no arguing balls and strikes or second-guessing the fine folks in blue. Sure, instant replay has made the game better, but I’m willing to bet fans miss the thrill of an ejection when players or managers vigorously “appeal” a call. Rallying the team by standing up to the man and speaking truth to power is the American Dream. I bet some umpires secretly miss ejections, too. It’s being able to eject your annoying co-worker from the office — another example of the American Dream.

Some umpires, however, like it just a little more than others. Joe Klem spent the better part of three decades officiating Major League Baseball, umpired 17 World Series (not 17 games, 17 series) and for his efforts was inducted into Cooperstown. Along the way, “The Father of Baseball Umpires” ejected 279 players and managers. Far and away the most in history.

The Old Arbitrator” also holds the record for the most games behind the plate (3,544), total games (5,369), and, of course, World Series games (103). Expect Joe West to pass “The Dean of Umpires” in total games this season, but West is still over 150 ejections away from Klem. Prepare yourself, 2021 season.

19TH. A runner cannot be put out in making one base, when a balk is made on the pitcher.

Great. Can 1845 define a balk?


Featured Image by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)

Brandon Riddle

Brandon is a former Little League All-Star whose child-like mind still believes Steve Finley is the greatest centerfielder of all time. Catch him on twitter talking into the void about outer space, adult beverages, and baseball.

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