The Spitter History Project: The Most Important Rule Change in Baseball History

Baseball’s been changing rules since the Knickerbockers allegedly codified them in 1845. Even today, the powers that be tinker and tinker with the rules in an effort to be ‘fair’ and also ‘improve the game’.

Scoring rules have changed over time as well, but scoring is just how we count and record what’s happened. The rules of actually playing the game have the most affect of any rule – not whether a scoring fly ball is a sacrifice or not.

Most of these changes aren’t so hot, and many get quietly changed or de-emphasized. Remember the year of the balk? An emphasis on the balk rule in 1988 resulted in a crazy amount of balks (so exciting) and it was all due to a very subtle change in the wording of the rule.

The big change, though, and the one that affected history the most, was the change from a pitcher’s box to a ‘pitcher’s plate’ in 1893.

In the early days of baseball, there was no set pitching distance or area. But as pitcher’s became more and more important to the game, the rules established an area for pitchers to work, and a standard distance from the front of the area to the plate. A box was the best solution, so the pitcher’s box came into being.

Pitchers had to stay within the box, so many of them took leaps and runs from the back of the box to the front (which was five feet). One pitcher, “Jumping” Jack Jones, used to actually jump and then throw the ball as soon as he touched the ground (it was quite the spectacle, and he helped the 1883 Philadelphia Athletics to the AA title despite the derision heaped upon him).

Over time, as pitchers gained more and more of an advantage, rule makers tried to limit how the pitchers used the box. Still, though, the front of the pitcher’s box was a mere 50 feet away, and in the late 1880’s pitchers like Matt Kilroy, Tim Keefe, Cannonball Crane, and Amos Rusie scared the bejeezus out of hitters with their fastballs. Strikeouts went up. Offense declined.

In 1892, the National League emerged as a 12-team monopoly. (You’d know this if you’ve read the rest of these essays, hint hint!) It was a dreadful season, and what’s worse, scoring was down to just five runs a game per team. Which may seem like a lot, but this was still an era where there were lots of unearned runs. The NL ERA was 3.28.

Even though strikeouts had declined, it was still hard as heck to score runs on pitchers, mostly thanks to the pitcher’s box. A pitcher had to start his delivery touching the back of the box, and take one ‘stride’ at most and stay within the box. A pitcher like Silver King started on the left side of the box, stepped to the right, and then fired a deceptive crossfire with his left hand.

Some pitchers did a coily windup like Gene Garber or Luis Tiant did. Still others ran forward and fired. Especially in the late innings, seeing a dirty ball come out of nowhere from 50-feet away made it really tough for batters.  Imagine the Carter Capps delivery, but actually legal and with more pronounced steps towards home.

So what does baseball do when scoring is down and attendance is waning? Change the rules to help the hitters, of course. But this change was monumental.

The pitcher’s box was eliminated and the ‘pitcher’s plate’ was established.

Yes, in 1893, baseball instituted the pitching rubber. A pitcher had to have contact with the rubber at all times during the delivery of the ball (dragging the foot was deemed to be OK thanks to physics and all). Also, the distance was set from home plate to the pitching rubber at the traditional 60′ 6″. (There were no mounds at this time, that would come later.)

This set about a lot of anarchy and chaos in the pitching ranks, but not all at once.

Many pitchers adapted and were fine. Cy Young, Kid Nichols, and Amos Rusie certainly didn’t have issues. But many pitchers did.

The most ‘famous’ casualty was Bumpus Jones, a rookie who pitched a no-hitter in his first game in 1892. He could never adjust to the new pitching rules and was driven out of the league in 1893.

Silver King, who was outstanding from 1887-1891, fell off the map in 1893 and wound up pitching in the minors for two years, then exiled to the sub-par Washington NL club in 1896 and 1897. King had a huge workload in his career as an ace (starting at age 18 in 1886), and it certainly could be arm trouble that led to his demise, but it was a convenient coincidence if that occurred at the same time his ERA went from 3.29 to 6.08.

Tim Keefe, Bob Caruthers, Cannonball Crane, and Mark Baldwin pitched their last games in 1893. Promising hurler Jesse Duryea also bowed out seeing his ERA jump from 2.82 to 7.54.

Tony Mullane held on until 1894, but his ERA went from 2.59 to 4.44 to 6.59. John Clarkson ended his career with two mediocre seasons. George Haddock lost it at age 27 after stellar 1891 and 1892 seasons.

Sure, it could be the mileage on the arm that caused these declines and retirements, but the new pitching distance, along with the mandated delivery changes, no doubt exacerbated the situation.

It didn’t take batters much time to get used to the new pitching rules. Runs per team per game increased from 5.1 to 6.6 in 1893, and then to a whopping 7.4 in 1894. The league hit .309 in 1894. That’s an entire league hitting .309.

Soon, though, the equilibrium swung the other way, and by the end of the 12-team league runs scored were back to a mere 5.2 per game. That’s with the Cleveland Spiders giving up eight runs a contest.

Had they not changed the pitching box rule, though, baseball could have withered. Think about the current crop of flame throwers standing 10 feet closer with even more deceptive deliveries. First one two three wins!

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