The Stories behind the Rules of Baseball
by Waggoner et al
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THE PLAYING FIELD
The Plate and the Bases. Home plate and the base bags must fit certain specs, too. Home plate is beveled, and of the dimensions specified in Diagram 2. The bags must be made of canvas, and filled with soft material, fifteen inches square and 3 to 5 inches thick. All four bases must be in fair territory. [1.05 and 1.06]
The bases didn’t start out being the bags they are today; originally they were wooden stakes, but largely because so many players were injured, they were substituted with other, less pointed objects. Flat stones were used for a while, and in 1840 sand-filled sacks came into existence in some areas. It was in 1877 that today’s fifteen-inch-square, canvas-covered bases became the standard.
Home plate, too, was subject to certain changes over the years. For one, under Massachusetts rules, the batter’s box (then called the "striker’s box") was located midway between first base and the "fourth" base the runner crossed to score. In 1885 and 1886, home plate was allowed to be marble as well as "whitened rubber." For some years, it was a twelve-inch square, and it wasn’t until 1900 that the present five-sided design was adopted.
Grass vs. Carpet
Given all these careful specifications, it is a little surprising that there is one not-so-small aspect of playing field design that isn’t specified in The Book: namely, the material of which the "grass" is to be made.
Natural grass sufficed nicely for more than a century. Then, after the grass planted in the Astrodome for its grand opening in 1965 died, artificial nylon baseball turf made its debut. (The deceased natural grass was Tifway 419 Bermuda, for any horticulturalists out there.) The result was baseball on so-called "carpet". (More trivia? The first game played on Astroturf was played on April 8, 1966. And, yes, it is possible for rain to postpone even an indoor game: on June 15, 1976, an Astros game was rained out because of flooding–on the streets of Houston.)
Grass vs. carpet is a debate that rages among sports fans, players, and management alike. Does it cause injury? Probably, given that there is concrete beneath the carpet’s underpadding, though artificial turf-related injuries seem less prevalent in baseball than in the National Football League. One study conducted after the Cincinnati Reds’ arrival in carpeted Riverfront Stadium in 1970 reported an increase in abrasion and burn injuries, particularly to the palms and knees, but no notable change in the frequency of other injuries. No one believed it then–especially the guys with all kinds of leg problems caused, at least in part, by patrolling rock-hard outfields and sliding on the unforgiving surface. In the decades since, the superiority of grass has virtually been conceded. Consider the fact that of the new parks opened between 1990 and 1998, eight have grass surfaces, and only one has carpet.
Artificial turf has had an undeniable effect on the speed of the game. The ball gets through the infield faster, which has led the interior defense’s to play deeper. If it gets through, an extra-base hit seems more likely on turf than on grass. As Tom Seaver said a few years ago, "Even hitters like Mike Schmidt of Philadelphia have begun to put turf to work, swinging for the gaps when they get a pitch that’s unsuited to pulling for a possible home run. The current style of compact, golf-style swinging, taught by Charlie Lau and epitomized by George Brett of the Royals, is perfectly suited to artificial turf."
The Pitcher’s Plate. The pitcher’s mound is to be ten inches higher than home plate and the base lines, and is to have a pitch of one inch per foot for the first six feet from the point six inches from the rubber toward the plate.
The familiar pitcher’s mound didn’t get that way overnight. For much of the nineteenth century, pitchers were required to pitch from a "box," a rectangular space marked on the field. The box changed in size a number of times (at its largest, it was 4 by 12 feet, and it gradually shrank to 4 by 5 1/2 feet in 1866 and 1887, respectively). It didn’t have the familiar pitcher’s rubber until 1890, and even after the rubber was added, the "box" remained until 1893. In 1895, the rubber, which had been twelve by four inches, was enlarged to its present size of twenty-four by six inches. [1.07]
The distance of the mound from home also changed, moving from forty-five feet to fifty and eventually to the present sixty feet, six inches. That distance is measured from the front edge of the rubber to the facing side of the plate.
The Bench. There are requirements for team benches, too. They have to be at least twenty-five feet from the base lines, and they’re required to have roofs and walls at the back and ends. While The Book doesn’t specifically prohibit it, there aren’t supposed to be campfires in them, either. But Dizzy Dean and Pepper Martin once built a fire in front of their bench on a 110-degree day in St. Louis. They donned blankets and sat Indian-style before the fire. The public loved it. The umpire’s reaction went unrecorded. [1.08]
From Spitters, Beanballs and the Incredible Shrinking Strike Zone by Glen Waggoner, Kathleen Moloney, and Hugh Howard.
Copyright © 1987, 1990, and 2000 by Glen Waggoner, Kathleen Moloney, and Hugh Howard. Reprinted with permission.