How did the players got where they did?
In Part I, I discussed how the baseball team ended up with nine players, approximately positioned where they are today. Here I will burrow down on their specific placement.
Starting with the easy part, the early placement of the outfielders would be unremarkable today. There was a lot of talk about getting them to back up other players and to vary their positions for different batters and different situations, but they were in positions within the normal range today.
The infielders are a different matter. Both the corner and the middle infielders were slow to adopt their modern placement
Starting with the corner infielders, they tended to play much closer to the bag, or at least the line, than they do today. This was partly out of inertia. They were originally tasked with guarding their base, and apparently started out more or less standing on the base. They realized in the early 1860s that this was sub-optimal and began moving off the bag, but the process was slow. This movement was mostly backward, toward the outfield, while still hugging the line. This was a rational response to two rules that no longer exist: the foul bound out and the fair-foul.
The Knickerbocker rules of 1845 put a batter out on any ball caught either on the fly or on the first bounce. This was the so-called “bound game.” The “fly game” rule gave the out only for a ball caught on the fly. This rule was adopted, after years of heated argument, for the 1865 season, but only for fair balls. The bound rule for foul balls survived into the early 1880s. This meant that a corner infielder sticking near the line had significant extra chances for outs on foul bounds.
The foul bound out was a weak incentive to hug the line. After all, if you are going to let a ball get by you, better a foul ball than fair. The fair-foul rule was a different matter.
Consider a ball hit down the line. It lands in fair territory, but bounces into foul territory. Is this a fair or a foul ball? Under the modern rule, it depends. The foul line is divided into two sections (three, if you count the foul pole, where the foul line suddenly takes a 90 degree turn and shoots straight up into the air). If the ball in our example goes into foul territory before it crosses the base, then it is foul. If it goes foul past the base, then it is fair. This is the difference between a bunt down the line, with the fielders surrounding it, ready to jump on it as soon as it trickles foul, and a line drive down the line and into the corner, with the batter strolling into second while thinking about going for three.
There was, until 1877, no such division of the foul line. Its entire length was like the outfield section today. From this arose the technique of bunting the ball, intentionally putting spin on it so that it would land fair then veer sharply toward the bench. There is not a whole lot you can do to defend against this, but playing near the line surely is a necessary precaution.
With the abolition of the fair-foul, the hard reason to play the line was removed. With the abolition of the foul bound out, the soft reason was also removed. The timing of the players’ responses to these changing incentives is not well documented, but a reasonable guess is that by no later than the mid-1880s the corner infielders were playing in more or less their modern spots.
The history of the middle infielders is more complicated. The second baseman began life at the base. The initial reason to have basemen at all was to be conveniently placed to tag the bag, or the runner coming into the bag. The question is when did he start drifting off the bag, toward shallow right field? This process was clearly tied to the changing role of the shortstop, and what was up with that anyway? He is the odd man out: an extra guy put in the field. But to do what?
Here is a description from 1857: “The short stop duties are to stop all balls from the bat that come within his reach, and throw them to whatever base the batsman may be striving to make (probably the first), to assist the pitcher, and, should occasion require, to cover in behind the third base when the catcher throws to it; also the second and third, when the ball comes in from the field.” The interesting bit there is that he was to assist the pitcher. In what? It is sometimes suggested that he was an early cut-off man. The idea is that he was needed to relay balls thrown in from the outfield because the ball was light and didn’t carry. I am skeptical. Certainly by 1857 the ball wasn’t light, assuming the specs codified in the rules were at all followed. Furthermore, early sources consistently place him close in the infield. From 1859: “Short stop is the point in the centre of a triangle, of which third base, pitcher, and second base are the corners and requires an able and active fielder to fill it.”
I tend to take this placement at its face. The antebellum shortstop played close in. He was assisting the pitcher by being another fielder close in. This makes sense if we assume that the balls were dead. The ball would also explains why he moved back.
Baseballs have from a very early date followed the same basic construction they do today: some sort of solid core, wrapped with string or yarn, over which is sewn a leather cover. The rules from 1857 through the 1860s specified the circumference and weight of the ball, but not what went inside. Balls were initially home made, then made commercially in small shops. Ball manufacture was industrialized in the post-war era. Manufacturers competed on price and quality, and also on the elastic characteristics of the ball.
Not too long ago, if more home runs were being hit than someone thought there ought, there would be mutterings about the ball being juiced. (We have upgraded our mutterings. Now it is the players rather than the balls that are juiced.) There were dark, conspiratorial airs around this discussion, but what people were really suggesting was merely that a tensioner on the machine that winds the yard had been slightly changed. In the 1860s they talked openly about live balls and dead balls. There was nothing secretive about this. These were marketing points. And they weren’t talking about the tension on the yarn. They were talking about how much rubber was in the core.
The ideology was that a good team preferred a dead ball. A skillful team was understood to mean a good fielding team. A dead ball would give the infielders the opportunity to display their skills, while a lively ball would shoot through the infield without the fielders having a chance. This lively ball was favored by teams that went in merely for strong hitting, trying for home runs. This was disparaged, using the most powerful derogatory term fit for print: it was “boyish.” At least this was the newspaper ideology. A lot of players and spectators preferred big hits. The long ball vs. small ball debate turns out to be an old one. The post-war period saw some seriously lively balls. They reputedly went up to three ounces of rubber, over half the total weight of the ball. (A modern baseball, by way of comparison, has a cork center, with just a bit of rubber used to coat the various layers of materials.)
The effect on the shortstop was to move him back: partly to be able to better reach sharply hit balls, and partly out of self-preservation. So by the post-war era he usually was more or less in his modern position. The second baseman, however, was still playing close to the bag. We know this because there are reports of the shortstop moving to “right short stop” for left-handed hitters. This would make no sense if the second baseman were in his modern position.
We also know the second baseman was close to the bag through the 1860s because in the early 1870s we have comments about how a modern second baseman now has to cover the right side. Here is some sensible advice from 1871: “[The second baseman] is required…to cover second base and to play “right short stop,” but his position in the field must be governed entirely by the character of the batting he is called upon to face. If a hard hitter comes to the bat and swift balls are being sent in, he should play well out in the field, between right field and second base, and be on the qui vive for long bound balls or high fly balls, which drop between the out-field and the second base line. When the batsman makes his first base the second baseman comes up and gets near his base in readiness to receive the ball from the catcher.”
This passage, from 1873, is the key that unlocks what happened: “[Barnes, the Boston second baseman] plays “very deep” towards the first base, George Wright [the Boston shortstop] doing much of the second base play, such as receiving balls thrown by the catcher, &c. Indeed, were these two elegant players termed simply right and left short stops the terms would be more suitable.” Here we have a description that could pretty much apply today.
Note that it was the Boston infielders playing this way. I have written previously about how Harry Wright with the Cincinnati Red Stockings introduced innovations in defensive play, and that these go a long ways toward explaining the Red Stockings’ dominance. Following the 1870 season Wright left Cincinnati and helped set up the Boston club, bringing his best players with him. That 1873 passage is a description of one of those innovations. The rest of the baseball world was still catching up. A few years later everyone would be playing this way, and it wouldn’t merit a special description.
This still leaves the placement of the pitcher and the catcher, but these are big topics in their own right. You could write an entire book on the catcher alone. In fact, someone has: Catcher by Peter Morris. In the meantime, I will save even a shorter exploration for another day.