Thursday, November 16, 2006

November 16th, 1886

Joint Rules Committee Meets

The “joint” part of the JRC refers to both the America Association and National League—the primary professional leagues at the time—being members of the committee. It met on this date and set a number of rules, all of which go a long way to illustrating why I don't write much about pre-1900 baseball. Among the gems from the 1886 came the decision that a strikeout would be four strikes, it would take five balls for a walk and that one side of the bat could be flat, so as to aid bunting. As you might have noticed if you happened upon a Major League baseball game any time in, say, the last hundred years, none of these rules really stuck.

To be fair, some of the rules innovations made at the 1886 meeting survive to this day. The 1886 meeting made universal the rule that batters would be awarded first base on a hit-by-pitch and the elimination of the batters' ability to call for a "high" or "low" ball. In 1886 it was decided that the home team would have the choice of first or last ups, which doubtless evolved into the more standard arrangement we know today. And, to be even fairer, the four strike rule was quickly recognized as a bad idea and eliminated by 1887.

1886 also marked the beginning of a pair of rules that have pretty much been ignored ever since. The first was that coaches had to stay in their coaching boxes. In baseball early days, this was especially important as coaches used to do things like run up-and-down the bases lines in an attempt to distract the pitcher. (Although why this didn't do just as much to distract the batter I'll never know.) Modern coaches don't do that, of course, but they also almost never stand in the proper coaches box; they more-or-less stand wherever the hell they feel like standing.

The second rule is one that has launched a million debates, and probably a thousand ejections: the strike zone. The 1886 rules defined it as from the shoulders to the knees. It has gone over a number of revisions both in height and width since then and is defined today with the top being the midpoint between the shoulders and waist (in other words, the letters) and the bottom being the knees, as illustrated here. Of course, as anyone who watched the playoffs this year can tell you, umpires tend to call the strike zone pretty much however they feel like calling it, often varying from pitch-to-pitch for no apparent reason.

The JRC might not have created a set of rules that was carved in stone and honored all the way to the present day, but did lay the groundwork for some of those rules and also helped established that a common set of rules was necessary to the growth of the game; that is likely its most important legacy.

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