Laws of Base Ball

Legend has it that baseball was invented by  Abner Doubleday somewhere back in the mists of time.  That legend has been debunked and we’ve learned that, not surprisingly, the game evolved from older pastimes.  One phase of that evolution recently came to light when a “new” document called “The Laws of Base Ball” surfaced. (In the beginning, the name was two words “base ball” and was later hyphenated “base-ball” and now is just one word.)  That handwritten codification sold at auction in April for $3.26 million.

There had been earlier versions of the rules written down, but there apparently was not universal acceptance of just what the rules were.  So in 1857, delegates met in a “Convention of Base Ball Clubs” – all from New York, I think – to consider and adopt the “Laws of Base Ball,” which they did on February 25 of that year.

The document (the handwriting is actually quite readable) was reportedly written by W. H. Grenelle from a draft by D. L. (“Doc”) Adams.  Both the “Laws” and the Adams draft are now on display (thanks to the generosity of the anonymous buyer, rumored to be a Portland businessman) at the Oregon Historical Society through October 9.

I went there to see them and was allowed to take (non-flash) pictures. The first pages of the Adams draft and of the Laws are shown below. Google the Laws and you’ll find many more stories.

I’ve also attached a transcription of the Laws, and they are quite interesting. For example, they establish the 90 foot base paths, but also provide that a “striker” (batter) is out if a fly ball is caught in the air or on the first “bound.” That first bounce rule didn’t last, but 90 feet has proven to be the perfect distance between bases. I personally like the requirement that the umpire call a foul ball “unasked.”



Here’s the transcription: Laws_of_Baseball.


One thought on “Laws of Base Ball

  1. Nice job on the rules, Bob! They are pretty fascinating, including that a run is often called an “ace”, which happens with “a player making the home base.” Three more I especially like:1. When a third strike is not caught “it shall be considered fair”, a concept I’d not heard before, and “the striker must attempt to make his run.” 2. Rule 22 has to be stated in its entirety: “If any adversary stops the ball with his hat or cap, or takes it from the hands of a party not engaged in the game, no player can be put out, unless the ball shall first have been settled in the hands of the pitcher.” Huh? Splainify that. As a lawyer, I like the imprecision of “a party not engaged in the game.” If that had been the rule when I was coaching 7 and 8 year olds some years ago, it would have frequently applied to many of my right fielders actually in the field. 3. A manager had to pick his starting team wisely. Under Rule 27 no substitution may be made “after the game has commenced, unless for reason of illness or injury.” Apparently that included extra innings. Hard on pitchers, I’d think, unless they practiced vomiting on demand or at least limping convincingly. Oh well, I guess even the Magna Carta has undergone some improvements over the past 800 years. But I firmly agree with you that the choice of 90 feet has turned out to be brilliant. It never ceases to amaze me that with all of the changes in baseball we will apparently always have close plays in the stealing of second!


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