November 23, 2014

A Very Strange Proposed Rule Change That Had Some Very Big Name Support

December 31, 2009 by · 4 Comments 

Baseball rule changes are nothing new. Every few seasons brings about at least one major or minor change to the rules. Sometimes the rules come about because of health and safety concerns such as the 1917 rule to outlaw the spitter and other freak deliveries or the 1908 rule which made catchers shin guards legal. The height and distance of the mound have been famously toyed with as baseball evolved. Some rule changes have been revolutionary such as the Designated Hitter in 1973. 2008 gave us instant replay for fair or foul home runs. A new rule was proposed in 1905 that was bizarre and would have caused no end to confusion had it been adopted. It would have added an additional foul line to the game!

The rule had no catchy name but could be easily summarized. The following is from the Washington Post of August 6, 1905, “Proposed that a line be drawn across the plate from one side of the stand to the other, and all fouls that drop back of that space shall not be counted strikes, but may be caught.” The purpose of the rule was to increase batting and take away the pitchers advantage.

What it meant in practice is that home plate would be divided in half with a chalk line. A third foul line. The umpire was, under this proposed rule, supposed to keep track of where foul tips landed in reference to this line. Rather than being a strike, a foul that landed behind this line would not count against the batter. A foul that landed in front of the line would still count as a strike. It would have prolonged plate appearances and given the batter a tremendous advantage.

Surprisingly, this rule had some big time supporters. Sportswriter Ring Lardner and White Sox owner Charles Comiskey were loud advocates of this rule, as was former and future manager of the White Sox, Jimmy Callahan. Lardner and Comiskey were the two most powerful men in their respective positions so there is no doubt that their voices were heard.

Pitchers were dominant at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. The feats of Christy Mathewson, Joseph “Iron man” McGinnity, and Albert “Chief” Bender seem superhuman today. There is a very good reason why this era is called the deadball era. Yes the ball was different but pitching has rarely been as dominant in the sport as it was from about 1901-1919. While fans loved baseball it is fair to say that then as now fans generally go to games to see hitting and runs scored.  Still this rule seems extreme and would appear to provoke no end to argument.

The Washington Post attempted to minimize the most obvious objection that it would cause even more work for the umpires and would provoke arguments between teams and managers. “The drawing of a well defined chalk line would leave no room for argument with the umpire, as the line would be declarative.” Yes because there are never arguments about foul balls and well defined chalk lines stay intact throughout all nine innings right?

To further facilitate batting it was also proposed that “the pitcher should be restricted to three balls instead of four.” Now we have scampered from illogical rule territory into the downright blasphemous!

Despite support among “well known players, managers, magnates, and writers of baseball history,” this rule fortunately found no traction. One factor that no doubt hastened its demise was the result of the 1906 pennant race. The Chicago White Sox won the 1906 pennant and World Series with a batting average of just . 230 with the highest batting average on the team being .279 . The Sox were last in homers and slugging percentage yet finished third in runs scored. No other team has ever won a pennant with such an anemic batting average.

What saved the Sox’s bacon and probably killed this rule was the pale hose pitching staff. Dominating with twenty-game winners Fran Owen and Nick Altrock, eighteen-game winner Doc White and seventeen-game winner and future Hall of Famer Ed Walsh, the Sox’s ERA was the lowest in baseball. White’s 1.52 was the best in the American league that year and one of the best of all time. Realizing that his team was winning without that much vaunted hitting that fans craved probably did much to kill “Commy’s” enthusiasm for this new rule. As for Ring Lardner, once big hitting did arrive in the form of Babe Ruth, he discovered that he liked the game a lot less.

Sometimes we should leave well enough alone.

Quotation source: “Wants More Batting ,“ Washington Post August 6, 1905 pg. SP3.

Comments

4 Responses to “A Very Strange Proposed Rule Change That Had Some Very Big Name Support”
  1. Cliff Blau says:

    Could you provide the wording of the 1908 rule which made shin guards legal? I am not aware that they were ever illegal. Also, what was the 1917 rule against spitballs? Was it anything like the 1920 rule?

  2. Cliff Blau says:

    “The umpire was, under this proposed rule, supposed to keep track of where foul tips landed in reference to this line.”

    No, he wasn’t. Foul tips always land in the catcher’s glove, by definition. And one doesn’t see many arguments as to whether pop ups are fair or foul, so I don’t think this rule would have produced many. It seems a reasonable compromise between those who favored the foul strike rule and those who oppposed it.

  3. James Elfers says:

    Cliff,

    There was no official rule. Shin guards were declared legal by presidential fiat. When Roger Bresnahan wore Shin guards for his first game in Pittsburgh, Pirates manager Fred Clarke protested the game, claiming that the equipment was illegal. Harry Pulliam gave the go ahead for the new equipment.

  4. James Elfers says:

    Cliff,

    I can’t cite chapter and verse of the rule but I can quote National League president Tener. “The pitcher will not be permitted to use any artificial or foreign substance in delivering the ball.”
    New York Times Feb, 4, 1917 Sports S.1

    While seemingly outlawing the shine ball, tobacco juice and licorice. Saliva is technically a “natural” substance so the law was toughened up for the 1920 season. The spitball was on its way out one way or the other. The death of Ray Chapman accelerated the process.

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