Monte Ward gets cute
[New York vs. Detroit 6/27/1883] [runner on first, John Montgomery Ward at bat] “[Ward] hit a hard grounder right into short-stop’s hands, which he saw as soon as he hit it would result in a double play if he ran. He accordingly stood stock still purposely. The short-stop threw to the second baseman, who touched second and threw to first. Meanwhile the base runner from first went on to second. The umpire declared Ward out for not running, and the base-runner safe at second, on the ground that as Ward’s out was recorded before the ball reached the second baseman, the runner at first was not forced, and would have had to be touched to be put out. The next man batted the runner home, with the winning run. Source: The Sporting Life July 29, 1883
I had read a couple of different accounts of this play, and couldn’t figure it out. What does the batter not running have to do with anything? I tentatively dismissed it as either an erroneous report, or a confused umpire–not at all impossible in this era. Then I found this longer report, and it turns out to be more interesting: a curious case of rules archeology. The report continues:
The umpire was right. One rule says the batter becomes a base runner if he has struck three times at the ball and the ball be not held by the catcher on the third strike, or if he make a fair hit. But a second rule says the batter is out if, after three strikes or a fair hit, he fail to run to first base. This is the rule of which Ward took advantage. The moment he failed to run after hitting the ball he was out, and that was before the ball reached the second baseman’s hands. Now that the play has been made other players will be trying it, now doubt, but where Ward succeeded others may make a botch of it. Those who question the correctness of the umpire’s ruling in the premises should recall how many times the batter is told by his captain not to run if he strikes out, so as to not force men on bases ahead of him.
I had forgotten that second rule. In my defense, it is pretty forgettable: a minor digression in the development of baseball. It is part of a larger rule giving circumstances where the base runner (including what the modern rules call the batter-runner) is out. From the 1883 National League rules, the base runner is out
if, immediately after three strikes, seven balls, or a fair hit, he fails to run to First Base.
(Seven balls? That’s right. It took seven balls for a walk. Go with it.) What is up with this rule?
It goes back to a version enacted in 1877. The rule regarding a base on balls read
When three “balls” have been called by the umpire, the batsman shall take one base, provided he do so on the run, without being put out…
The question is why was the batter required to go to first base “on the run”? The base on balls had been on the books since 1864. There is no evidence of any problem with batters delaying the game by sauntering to first base.
The key lies in the year the running requirement was enacted: 1877. The National League had been founded in 1876. The first year they were busy getting organized. 1877 was the first year the NL put its mark on the playing rules. The rise of the NL was a shift in the center of gravity of the baseball world. It originally was New York, spreading to Philadelphia and the Boston. With the founding of the NL Chicago became the new center. William Hulbert, the president of the Chicago Club, became president of the NL from December 1876 to his death in 1882, and was assisted by Albert Spalding, his consigliere. The fact that this rule first appears in 1877 strongly suggests that it was at the instigation of Hulbert and Spalding.
But what purpose did it serve? I find no discussion of this in the record. It simply appears. The explanation for it is speculative, but in character for the persons and the times: the rule was moralizing pure and simple.
The base on balls was not wholly respectable. Baseball had not yet embraced the modern conception of the duel between pitcher and batter, with the batter working the count and the pitcher working the corners. The base on balls was literally considered an error by the pitcher. It was not something the batter worked for. It was a gift. In the words of the immortal Crash Davis, “What are you doing standing there? I gave you a gift. You stand there showing up my pitcher? Run, dummy!” Hence the 1877 rule: A ballplayer should hustle. The fact that he has just been given his base doesn’t change that. This may seem ridiculous, and for good reason. But Hulbert was entirely capable of such things. The National League routinely presented its policies in moralistic terms. (It also was shameless hypocritical, but that is another story.)
Now jump forward to 1880. The rule is expanded:
If, after three strikes, eight balls, or a fair hit, he fails to run to First Base.
Notice how “run” is put in italics for emphasis. Why expand the rule? Again, I find no discussion, but it is easy to fit into the moralizing scheme. We have all seen the batter hit a ground ball and vaguely jog toward first base. Most of the time this makes no difference. It is a routine out, and running full out won’t change that. But occasionally the fielder bobbles the ball, making the play close. Had the batter run out of the box, he might have been safe. Or the fielder sails the ball past the first baseman, and had the batter been running hard he would have taken second. I remember a time when Jimmy Rollins hit a sky-high pop-up, which landed precisely between the three fielders looking at each other. Rollins ended up at first, followed by a mea culpa tour. Hence the mandate to run, dammit! What about after three strikes? This is because of the dropped third strike rule. The batter became a runner immediately upon the third strike. If the catcher caught it, then the batter was out, just like on a fly ball. But if the catcher didn’t, then the batter should run! The 1883 version, quoted above, further emphasizes the imperative point by adding that the batter must run “immediately.”
The thing is, I don’t know of any instance of this rule being enforced. This was an era when players and umpires argued constantly, and teams were prepared to walk off the field if they believed themselves to be unfairly treated. An umpire calling a batter out because he didn’t run to first base would have provoked howls of outrage. It would have been reported widely and prominently. The argument from silence is always a tricky one, but I am confident that the rule was applied rarely or never. Not only was it mere moralizing. It was also mere bluster.
But it did find one practical application. This is seen in the report quoted above from The Sporting Life, where it mentions the batter not running if he strikes out. This returns us to the dropped third strike rule.
The dropped third strike rule is an old feature of the game, going back to the 18th century. At that time the pitcher stood next to the batter and lobbed the ball into the air. He didn’t have to pitch the ball to any particular spot, and the batter didn’t have to swing at any particular pitch. The idea wasn’t for the pitcher to get the batter out. He was there to put the ball into play. But what if the batter was peculiarly incompetent, and kept swinging and missing? The solution was that the third time he did this, the ball was in play whether he hit it or not. If he missed it three times he would run toward first base. The pitcher, who was right there, could pick it up and be well position to throw the batter out, so the batter was better off hitting the ball. Go forward a few decades and now the pitcher has moved away from the batter, and is pitching the ball more horizontally than vertically. This necessitates a fielder be positioned behind the batter, hence the catcher’s position. The rule remained the same: on the third swing the ball was in play. If the catcher caught it, the batter was out, just like on a fly ball. If not, the batter would run to first.
This opened up the stratagem of the intentionally dropped the third strike. Suppose the bases are loaded with fewer than two outs. The batter swings and misses the third strike. The catcher blocks the ball but doesn’t catch it. He then picks it up, steps on home plate for the force out, and throws the ball to first to put out the batter. Or even throws to the third baseman, who touches the base and throws to second for a triple play.
This was not an easy play early on. Catchers didn’t have protective equipment, and fielders were bare-handed. They had to work to turn the play:
[Mutual vs. Union of Lansingburgh 9/17/1868] [bases loaded] Galvin…struck twice ineffectually; as he struck at the ball for the third time and failed to hit it, Craver, who, as usual, was playing close behind the bat, dropped the ball and deliberately picking it up stepped on the home base and threw it to third; Abrams passed it to second, but not before Hunt, who ran from first, reached the base. This sharp feat of Craver’s was much applauded… Source: New York Clipper September 26, 1868
and it didn’t always go well:
[Baltimore vs. Philadelphia 8/7/1873] The umpire gave [Charlie] Fulmer his base on called balls, and a singular series of misplays followed. Treacy made three strikes, and McVey [the catcher] missed the last in order to effect a double-play. He threw the ball splendidly to Carey [the second baseman], who missed it, and, instead of catching Fulmer, Charlie was soon trotting to third, where he would have been caught had not Radcliffe [the third baseman] missed the ball sent to him by Carey. Fulmer got home, and Treacy to second. Source: Philadelphia Sunday Dispatch August 10, 1873
This gradually changed. Fielding skills improved. Catcher’s masks were introduced in 1877, letting them play closer in. The play still wasn’t routine, but it wasn’t as unusual as previously. Batters compensated by taking advantage of the requirement to run. If the batter could restrain the natural impulse to run for first, he was automatically out and the force play was removed. This use was not the intended purpose of the rule, but the consensus was that it was beneficial.
Now we finally get to Ward’s novel play in 1883. He took the idea a step further. Upon hitting what would ordinarily be a routine double play ball, he stayed in place and removed the force play. He clearly was right. If staying in place broke the force on a dropped third strike, there was not reason it wouldn’t on a ground ball. (It would be a cheap shot to point out that Ward would go on to a successful career as a lawyer, so I won’t mention this.)
This went too far. The consensus was against allowing the batter to escape a double play this way. The rule was quietly dropped for 1884. But again we ask why? If the rule was good for third strikes but bad for fair balls, why throw out the good with the bad? My guess is that they didn’t really think about it. The rule was a problem, so out it went. But this brought those cheap double plays back. So in 1887 they came up with another solution, which holds to this day: the dropped third strike rule only applies if first base is open (so there is no force play) or if there are two outs (making the possibility of a double play moot). This is inelegant, but simple in actual practice.
So what is my point? I have two:
(1) Game rules are a lousy place to moralize; but
(2) Run out those grounders anyway, dammit!