The Magazine

Bases Loaded

The smooth moves, and rough edges, of baseball’s infancy.

Jul 29, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 43 • By JAMES BOWMAN
Widget tooltip
Audio version Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Though the “dead ball” era is usually dated from 1901 to 1920, the 1883 ball was perhaps even deader. It was rubber-centered, rather than cork, and only one was normally used per game—which made rigor mortis set in by the late innings. Foul balls were still not strikes, but those caught on the bounce were outs. Seven balls were required for a walk, and batters could choose high or low strike zones. The plate umpire had to adjust with each batter, and was further kept busy by having to rule from behind the plate on long foul balls and plays on the base paths, as he was the only umpire on the field. There is no record of spectators actually killing an umpire, but more than one of them had to run from a mob of “fans” (Ted Sullivan may have coined the term that season)—in fear for his life.

Batters hit by a pitch did not take their base, which led some pitchers, such as George Washington “Grin” Bradley of the Athletics and Tony Mullane of the Browns, to hit people deliberately as a form of intimidation. Pitchers did not stand on a mound, but in a four-by-six-foot pitcher’s box, which allowed them a brief run-up for their delivery. The front edge of the pitcher’s box was only 50 feet from home plate and further increased a pitcher’s scope for intimidation. Officially, at that time, the pitcher’s elbow was not allowed to rise above his shoulder, a relic of the days when pitching had been underhand. But the rule was widely flouted in 1883 and was changed to allow an overhand delivery the following year. 

The Athletics’ most sensational (if not always their best) pitcher was Dan “Jumping Jack” Jones, recruited right out of Yale, the Ivy League champions, in the heat of the pennant struggle as relief for the team’s fading stars, Bradley and little Bobby “Shrimp” Mathews. Jones’s distinctive delivery involved a leap skywards to give further impetus to the ball and was widely ridiculed even when it briefly made him successful. Nobody as yet wore a glove, except for the catcher—Jones’s battery-mate from Yale, Al Hubbard, was signed along with him—who had two of them, one on each hand with the fingers cut off. Naturally, playing hurt was a normal part of the game for more than just pitchers.

“Base Ball is old in the world,” a joke from the St. Louis Globe-Democrat of the period informed its readers, “as is proven by the very first line of Genesis: ‘In the big inning .  .  .’ ” Baseball may not be as old as the world, but it’s good to learn that the joke is almost as old as baseball, whose colorful early days and characters, especially Chris Von der Ahe, could hardly have hoped for a better retelling than Edward Achorn’s.

James Bowman, the author of Honor: A History and Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.