1858 Winter Meetings: Building on the Foundation

This article was written by Robert Tholkes

This article was published in the Baseball’s 19th Century Winter Meetings: 1857-1900


Baseball's 19th Century Winter Meetings: 1857-1900For baseball, 1857 had been a momentous year in its development into an organized sport for adults. The meetings of 14 Greater New York clubs in January and February introduced standardized rules that still form the game’s backbone: nine innings, nine players, 90 feet between bases. Furthermore, the list of rules was extensively modified:

What emerged from this (1857) convention looked like a fairly thorough overhaul. The 17 playing rules expanded to 28 rules (plus seven others that related to umpiring and player eligibility), with fewer than half of the 1854 rules remaining essentially unchanged.1

Logically, the meeting before the 1858 season would concentrate on fine-tuning the 1857 changes after a season’s experience with them. Proposals not accepted in 1857 would resurface, among them the “fly rule,” called strikes and the use of flat bats. Also, contentiousness over which was the “champion club” had broken out in 1857, when the Gotham of New York came up with several excellent reasons why it could not play the “conquering match” of its best-of-three series with the Atlantic of Brooklyn, for which it was roundly criticized in Brooklyn. Complaints continued also about “playing off,” attempts by clubs to avoid defeat by preventing the completion of a game before darkness. Reports and correspondence in Porter’s Spirit of the Times in December 1857 detailed quarrels over umpiring, player eligibility, and ungentlemanly behavior among the rising number of junior clubs.

Porter’s, a Saturday weekly published in New York, was the publication providing the most extensive coverage of Knickerbocker Rules baseball, the ancestor of the modern game. Editor William T. Porter had covered the Greater New York sports scene for the original Spirit of the Times since 1838 before breaking away to start his own paper in 1856. The March-April 1858 convention would be his last; he died in July. The New York Sunday Mercury, another weekly, probably ranked with Porter’s in baseball coverage but has no known source for 1857. The New York Clipper, the third sports weekly covering the game at this time (before Henry Chadwick joined the staff), concentrated on reporting scores.

Prominent in Porter’s coverage of the game during the 1857-1858 offseason were the “X” letters, which their anonymous author hoped would “prove of some interest to your readers, as well as induce some prominent player to write or publish a book on the game.”2 The letters covered the origins of the game, commented on prominent clubs and players, provided a guide on playing the game and operating a club, discussed current issues, and advocated for improvements. Letter number 11, published on January 2, 1858, noted “considerable speculation” about whether to hold another convention, but insisted that:

It seems desirable that there should be one, if not to make any new laws, to amend or render a few points less obscure than they are at present; and a Convention of committees from all the Clubs, including all who have played under the rules now used, will tend to advance the game as much next season, as those adopted last Spring did for the season that has left us.

In the absence of a permanent organization, “X” suggested that a convention “will, perhaps, have to name what clubs shall send their delegates so that most of them will not interfere with the rules of the game.”

And further, in Letter number 13, published on January 16, 1858:

It is right that the clubs, who were represented at the last Convention, should constitute the body this year; and that the clubs since formed be admitted by ballot: this will not be any slur on the newly-organized clubs, but will give the Convention control over those who, not belonging to any of the well-founded clubs, may seek to enter, merely to make trouble.

“X” had several suggestions for improving the current rules, which were also published in Letter number 13, concluding that, “The game needs some few points to make it equal, if not superior, to all Summer out-door sports.”

SEC. 1 regulates the size of the ball and weight. While many are satisfied with the latter, they would prefer to have the ball from nine and three-quarters to ten inches in circumference, instead of the present size; it is a prettier ball to throw, pitch, or catch. SEC. 5 defines the position of the pitcher; some few players desire to have it three or four yards further from the home base, say eighteen, or place the pitcher exactly in the middle of the square. SEC. 6 needs many alterations and has always been unsatisfactory. The balk should be more clearly defined; for, as it stands now, on the referee’s good judgment, depends the correct rendering of the section. SEC. 8, on foul balls, says, that the umpires shall declare all foul balls unasked. Experience has shown that the referee should call them, instead of umpires; and at all matches, the clubs have been in the habit of making this regulation. SEC. 13 should be erased, and another introduced, compelling all fair balls to be caught on the fly. It would improve the game very much. It is also the wish of most players, that the section should be altered. SEC. 16 forces the player running the bases to return to his base, if a fair ball is held on the fly, or on a foul ball. In one case he has a right to the base he returns to; in the other, he is obliged to hurry back and run the risk of being put out. Should not the rules in both instances be the same, protecting the player back to the base he starts from?

SEC. 27 states, that “in playing matches, each player shall have been a regular member for thirty days.” While the observance of this rule will be correct, there should be some courtesy exhibited, when a club desires to play a member who has not been such for thirty days, but who is and will be, for the season a regular member, and where there is no trick or fraud intended. … All clubs play to win, if possible; but they should not force any to play second nine men in a first nine-match, any more than they would like them to introduce first-nine men in second-nine matches.

Appearing as they did in a major publication of the game in the hometown sporting press, and though authored anonymously, undoubtedly produced by a knowledgeable member of the local baseball community, the “X” letters’ influence was apparent as the convention was opened: As recommended, only the 14 clubs which had participated in the 1857 meeting were seated. The 1858 convention’s first session convened on Wednesday evening, March 10, at the venerable Gotham Inn, 298 Bowery, in Manhattan, which also housed the clubroom of the Gotham Base Ball Club. The honor of “calling” the convention had been shared by the oldest clubs, the Knickerbocker, Gotham, Eagle, and Empire. The convention was called to order by Dr. Daniel Lucius Adams of the Knickerbocker Club.3 The New York Herald’s report on the convention, which appeared on March 14, succinctly summarized the first session’s actions:

Dr. ADAMS, President of last year, called the convention to order and nominated A.J. Bixby of the Eagle Club for temporary President, who was accordingly chosen. W.A. Sears of the Baltic and T.J. Voorhis of the Empire were chosen secretaries. E.H. Brown of the Metropolitan, the treasurer of last year, was re-elected.

Dr. ADAMS stated the object of the convention to be to provide some fixed and permanent plan of representation and to amend the rules for playing if necessary.

On motion of Mr. JACKSON, a committee of five from the clubs represented last year was appointed to examine and report upon credentials, which was adopted. The Chair appointed the following gentlemen as members of that committee: — Messrs. Jackson, Adams, Spadone, Place, and Tassie.

The Committee on Credentials reported that the following clubs, which appeared to be regularly organized and composed of men of suitable age, have sent delegates to this Convention, and the committee respectfully recommended their admission (Columbia, Osceola, Oriental, Stuyvesant, Hamilton, Pastime, Metropolitan, Monument, Amity, St. Nicholas) …

That the following clubs appear to belong to the class commonly known as junior clubs, and the committee recommends that their credentials be returned, viz: — Star, Ashland, Lone Star, Live Oak, Resolute, and Enterprise.

A minority report was submitted by Dr. ADAMS, admitting all the delegates.

Considerable discussion, pro, and con took place about the propriety of admitting young men from 17 to 21 years of age, or those who represented clubs composed chiefly of mere boys.

Mr. KEITH, of the Ashland, protested against the exclusion of the delegates from what was called junior clubs. He thought that boys of eighteen were as well qualified as older persons to decide what should be the rules of the game. Mr. Wadsworth, of Gotham, as opposed to admitting children. At length, the question was taken by yeas and nays upon the motion to admit the younger members to a seat without a vote, which was carried. Yeas 34, nays 8.

A motion was now made by Mr. BARRY, to appoint a committee of five to nominate permanent officers of the Convention, which was amended by declaring the present officers permanent. The amendment was adopted.

On motion of Mr. JONES, a committee of five was appointed by the chair to draft a constitution and by-laws for the government of the Convention and to report the same at the next meeting. The chair appointed as members of the committee Messrs. Jones, Grenelle, Jackson, Van Cott, and Voorhis.

On motion of Mr. DAWSON, a committee of nine was appointed to revise the rules for the government of the game of baseball. The following gentlemen were appointed upon that committee: — Messrs. Dakin, Adams, Tassie, Place, Clark, Weeks, Barry, Leggett, and Brower.

Mr. BROWN, the treasurer, now moved to assess each member three dollars for expenses of the Convention. Adopted.

A DELEGATE stated the “Cricketers” had obtained the guarantee of a playground in the Central Park and moved the appointment of a committee of five to obtain the same permission for the Base Ball Club. Carried.

The Convention then adjourned to meet again in two weeks.

In all, 23 clubs of the 50 or so estimated to be in existence4 (perhaps including junior clubs) attended the first session. The plan to found a permanent organization had apparently emerged from pre-convention discussions among the clubs rather than from the convention itself, as it was not the subject of a motion, and was not debated. William Cauldwell, Sunday Mercury editor/publisher, and a convention delegate, evidently had voted in favor of admitting the juniors, as he sniffed in the Mercury’s report5 “that the ‘little boys’ might see and be seen, but not be heard,” but added that the juniors could trust the seniors to look after their interests. He also noted that the committee assigned to secure a playground in Central Park consisted of Messrs. Brown, Gregory, and Milliken (the latter, who did not live in Manhattan but in Morrisania, seems an odd choice). Besides feeling that much time had been wasted by the group, Cauldwell cautioned the rules committee:

… the less change they make in the present regulations the better. Simplify the rules as much as you please, but this business of altering and changing the rules every year is not very desirable.

The Clipper, in a brief commentary on March 20, also criticized the exclusion from the participation of the juniors, calling it “inexplicable.”

Porter’s previewed on March 13 additional issues facing the new rules committee:

The first convention was … to devise a new set of Rules and Laws for baseball. The call originated with the old Knickerbocker Club; and, with the co-operation of the Juniors and Freshmen, formed a code which, we hear, has not given unqualified satisfaction, nor worked as well as we could have expected. Some of the rules are said to be especially unpopular with the tyros — that of giving more than one man out if the second man is not protected back to his base. This rule of the game has proven rather sharp practice, as the lawyers for the youngsters, and they don’t like it. Another, which is to be taken up for discussion, is, that a player can only be caught out by a fair ball on the fly. The rule which determines the game by innings works well, and will be retained, and a strong effort will be made to have eleven fielders on each side.

Porter’s then subsided, but, perhaps remembering the simplicity of the game before it became a matter for adult attention, grumbled:

It may, however, be doubted whether too much legislation, and the discussion thereby exerted, does not tend rather to the development of talk, than to active exertion outdoors.

Backlash over the convention’s decision to allow juniors only as observers, besides the unfavorable comments in the Sunday Mercury and the Clipper, reappeared in Porter’s on the 20th, which, after reprinting without attribution the New York Herald’s convention report of March 14, published a letter signed “INFANT BALL-PLAYER”:

… (T)he Junior Clubs was denied either voice or vote in the subsequent meetings, under the pretense that there were so many of them they would vote the old men down — a very palpable blunder; for if they were strong enough in votes to rule the meeting when in, they surely could not be voted out, and to try it would only show them their strength. I can only conclude that it was by an organized clique of men, who are old enough to know better than this to abuse the purposes of the Convention, which, I believe, was to have the rules amended by all Clubs, and for the benefit of all who are interested in this noble and popular game.

Another excuse was, that the boys did not understand enough about the game to see what was wanting in the rules. Let me tell the old folks that we boys want to have a voice in that Convention, not to hear ourselves talk, but to keep up those points in the game which require the utmost physical exertion, and the exercise of skill and strength combined. We are only afraid of the legislation of those “pseudo” Senior Clubs, which are composed of apologies for men, who, with plenty of money, and a proportionate lack of strength of body and energy of spirit, wish to make the game a means of showing off their figures in fancy dresses, and their wealth in fancy dinners; who are so lazy, that, in a short time, they will become worse than some cricket clubs, who hire professional players to do the work, and they do the blowing.

Another objection was, that the Juniors were disposed to quarrel, and would delay and thwart the meeting. I think the conduct of the men at that Convention is a sufficient reply to that. I have attended a number of Junior B.B. meetings, but never one where there was so much dispute, and so little work done as there was there. I should respectfully recommend Jefferson’s Manual to some of the delegates who made themselves ridiculous by their confused ideas of their own importance, and the rules of meetings.

Now, gentlemen of the Convention, let the boys have a say in regard to this game, which they have always played, and which most of you have only just now taken out of their hands — unless you have no other way of showing the world that you are not children, except by refusing to have anything to do with boys who do not sport a plug, and who you call, with a patronizing air, Bub, in which case there may be a little excuse for you.

Not to be drawn by such callow argumentation, editor Porter suggested that the Juniors “get up a Convention and organization of their own. It would, doubtless, have a good effect, and tend to enlarge the number of the ‘Infant’ clubs.” A National Association of Junior Base Ball Players was eventually formed, before the 1861 season, but promptly became a casualty of the Civil War. The “boys’” points do echo Porter’s complaint that rule-making distracted attention from developments on the field, and repercussions from the juniors’ exclusion came quickly. The course of the protracted argument over the adoption of the “fly rule” was doubtless affected, assuming, as seems reasonable, that the juniors would have favored it. And since the junior clubs were much more likely to be headed by players, their inclusion might have ameliorated the tendency that emerged in the next few seasons for rule-making to be influenced by senior players and “muffin” or nonplaying senior club officials (not to mention the soon-to-be-prominent reporter, Henry Chadwick), one result being gaps between the rules on paper and the conduct of clubs and umpires (who were all players) in the matches.

The same prompt, thorough reporting of the doings of the second session of the Convention, on Wednesday evening, March 24, again at the Gotham, was not forthcoming. Cauldwell explained in the Sunday Mercury on the 28th that he had not been able to attend or to get a copy of the report of the committee on constitution and by-laws. The New York Herald’s summary, on March 25 was the most extensive:

BASE BALL CONVENTION. — An adjourned meeting of this Convention was held last evening at the “Gotham,” Mr. Bixby in the chair. The following additional delegates presented credentials and were admitted: Nassau — W.P. Powell, E.B. Coombs; Mutual — Anson B. Taylor, Jas. J. Kelso. Dr. Jones, from the committee, appointed to draft a constitution and by-laws, reported the same. The constitution provides that the name of the association shall be “The National Association of Base Ball Players”; that it shall be composed of two delegates from each club, who shall hereafter be elected by a ballot of two-thirds; that a regular annual meeting shall be held on the second Wednesday of March of each year, and that each hereafter admitted shall pay $5 entrance fee and $5 annual dues.

The constitution was adopted after sundry amendments, and the by-laws, after having been adopted, were, upon motion, recommitted for the purpose of amending the same.

The association then proceeded to the election of officers. A motion to appoint a committee of five to nominate and report at the next meeting was amended by providing that the nominations be made now in an open meeting. The names of Mr. Jones, Dr. Adams, and Mr. Van Cott were proposed. Upon the first ballot, Mr. Jones received 16 votes, Van Cott 15, and Dr. Adams 8. Dr. Adams now declined the nomination and wished his friends to vote for Mr. Van Cott. On the second ballot, Mr. Van Cott received 20 votes, Mr. Jones 17, and Dr. Adams 1. Mr. Van Cott was accordingly declared elected.

After electing the remaining officers the association adjourned until next week when action will be had upon some important amendments relating to the rules of the game of baseball.

The presidential result was superficially a New York-Brooklyn split between William H. Van Cott of the Gotham, a judge, and Dr. Joseph B. Jones, a transplanted Manhattanite, and president of the Excelsior Club of Brooklyn. Without a breakdown of the voting and a list of the delegates in attendance (39 of the potential 50 delegates voted), this cannot be confirmed. The newspapers were already fond of setting New York’s clubs and supporters against those of Brooklyn — the Fashion Race Course games between the two cities were only months away, and “X” had called for such a matchup in the letters published in Porter’s over the winter, and so it may be reasonably suspected.

Porter’s, in finally reporting in its issue of April 3, added detail on the convention’s workings. Describing the opening of the March 24 session:

Considerable desultory discussion ensured, until, in order to get rapidly to work with important business of the evening, a five-minute rule of the oratorical display had to be adopted, which was conceded by the meeting, nomine contradicente. Dr. Jones then presented the report on the Constitution and the By-Laws. …

Porter’s also provided the names of the other officers: Dr. J.B. Jones, Excelsior, first vice president; T.S. Dakin, Putnam, second vice president; J.R. Postley, Metropolitan, recording secretary; T.F. Jackson, Putnam, corresponding secretary; and E.H. Brown, Metropolitan, treasurer. Porter’s also reprinted both the 12 articles of the new Constitution, which stated that the objects of the association were “to improve, foster, and perpetuate the American game of Base-Ball, and the cultivation of kindly feelings among the different members of Base-Ball Clubs,” and the report of the rules committee, under the heading, “RULES FOR MATCH GAMES, TO BE OBSERVED AT EXERCISE MEETINGS,” over the signature of Dakin, the committee chair. Of the 36 sections, amendments to 15 from 1857 were proposed, and one section was new. Of the 15 amended sections, four contained substantive changes:

16. No ace or base can be made upon a foul ball, nor when a fair ball has been caught without having touched the ground; and the ball shall, in both instances, be considered dead and not in play, until it first has been settled in the hands of the pitcher. When a fair ball has been caught without having touched the ground, the players running the bases shall have the privilege of returning to them.

Amendment — By striking out all the latter part of the section, commencing at the words (when a fair ball has been caught, etc.)

27. In playing all matches, nine players from each club shall constitute a full field; and they must have been regular members of the club which they represent, for thirty days prior to the match. No change or substitution shall be made after the game has been commenced, unless for reason of illness or injury. Position of players shall be determined by captains, previously appointed for that purpose by the respective clubs.

Amendment — By inserting after the words (position of players), (and choice of innings).

29. The umpires in all matches shall take care that the regulations respecting the ball, bats, bases, and the pitcher’s position, are strictly observed; they shall be the judges of fair and unfair play; and shall determine all differences which may occur during the game; they shall take especial care to declare all foul balls and baulks immediately on their occurrence. They shall together select a referee, from whose decision — in case of a disagreement between them — there shall be no appeal.

Amendment — The umpire shall take care that the regulations respecting the ball, bats, bases, and the pitcher’s and strikers’ positions, are strictly observed. He shall keep a record of the game in a book prepared for the purpose; he shall be the judge of fair and unfair play, and shall determine all disputes and differences which may occur during the game; he shall take especial care to declare all foul balls and baulks immediately on their occurrence, unasked, and in a distinct and audible manner.

30. The new section: In all matches the umpire shall be selected by the captains of the respective sides, and shall perform all the duties enumerated in Section 28 [actually Section 29], except recording the game, which shall be done by two scorers, one of whom shall be appointed by each of the contending clubs.

31. No person engaged in a match, either as umpire referee or player, shall be either directly or indirectly in any bet upon the game. Neither umpire, referee or player shall be changed during a match, unless with the consent of both parties, except for a violation of this law, and except as provided in Section 27, and then the referee may dismiss any transgressor.

Amendment — By striking out the word (referee) and inserting the word (scorer) in each place where the word referee occurs.

32. The umpires and referee in any match shall determine when play shall be suspended; and if the game cannot be concluded, it shall be decided by the last even innings, provided five innings have been played, and the greatest number of runs shall be declared the winner.

Amendment — By inserting (umpire) for umpires, and striking out the words (and referee).

Section 16 rescinded the privilege of runners to return to their bases without risk when a fair fly ball is caught in the air. Section 27 added the choice of innings at the beginning of a match to the duties of the captains, doubtless reflecting current practice. Section 29 added keeping a record of the game to the umpire’s duties (promptly reversed in the new Section 30!), and enjoined the umpire to call foul balls and balks unasked. The new Section 30 dealt with umpire selection and the duties of scorers. Section 31 (and others) added the scorers to the enumeration of game officials, at the same time dropping the position of referee, eliminated in Section 32 (and others). The number of umpires dropped from two to one.

The change in Section 16 may be seen as further encouragement to fielders to catch flies in the air, allowing the possibility of also retiring runners before they could return to their bases. The elimination of the umpire-and-referee system may reflect an alteration in the practical role of the referee; intended only to resolve occasional differences between the umpires appointed by their clubs, the referee by the close of the 1857 season, the most competitive to date, must presumably have become for practical purposes the sole arbiter.

Porter’s closed its article on the March 24 session with these remarks:

The party of base-ball or cricketers who failed to bring their regular players on the ground should be the losers, and no substitutes should be allowed, by consent or otherwise. Let this law be strictly enforced, and gentlemen who interest themselves in outdoor sports, or who feel any esprit de corps of the clubs they are attached to, will be on the ground to take a hand in case of a deficiency or of the absence of a crack player. Indeed, we should consider it more creditable for a club to have played a losing or uphill game with the loss of a crack player of their own club than to win one with the borrowed aid of an outsider. There is another point that we should wish to submit for the consideration of all lovers of outdoor sports, and it is this: whether there has not grown up of late years rather too much quibbling and special pleading, as to the construction of rules and laws, and the settlement of questions arising out of disputes between players, umpires, and referees. These nice distinctions do not promote that harmony and love of fair play which characterize all the amateurs and patrons of outdoor sports. It is very true that no flagrant departure from the settled rule and laws of any game should be submitted to; but we think it would be better in all cases to assume the referee to be ever in the right, and to bow to his decree whether it be right or wrong than to keep up a continuous series of wrangles, which cannot be made the basis of any satisfactory settlement to either, much less to both parties.

A third session had been scheduled for March 31, at which the rules committee’s report would be taken up for discussion. The New York Evening Express reported briefly on this session in its issue of April 1:

The Base Ball Convention held an adjourned meeting on Wednesday evening, at the Gotham, Bowery — Mr. Wm. H. Van Cott in the chair. A large attendance of delegates was present.

Two delegates (substitutes) were received from Osceola Club, and a vacancy was filled in the Excelsior Club.

The committee on by-laws reported that the code had been re-arranged, and they submitted the same. The report was adopted, and the committee was discharged.

The committee on selecting a place for playing on the Central Park grounds reported progress and was continued.

The chairman named the following committees:

On Rules: D.L. Adams, C. Place, Jr., T.G. Voorhis, G. Van Cott, T.F. Jackson, W.A. Sears, Francis Pidgeon, W. Cauldwell, A.B. Taylor.

On Nominations: A.J. Bixby, T. Tassie, C.W. Van Voorhis.

The report of the Committee on Rules for Match Games was taken from the table and considered by sections.

Dr. Adams amended the title of the report by inserting the name of the association.

Some discussion arose between members of Eckford, Metropolitan, Knickerbocker, Putnam, and Gotham Clubs, as to the propriety of the amendments, and considerable time was consumed upon Section 13, in relation to the science of catching the ball on the fly. The ayes and noes were called for in this case as to amendment to strike out the last clause and lost, and the section as read was adopted.

According to Porter’s, which did not report on the March 31 session until April 10, the convention battled its way through the rules sections only as far as Section 18, perhaps due to the controversy over Section 13, the fly rule. Porter’s reported also that attendance at the convention was down from previous sessions. The Sunday Mercury, which had merely reprinted (without attribution) the Evening Express’s report in its issue of April 4, had by April 11 learned that the vote against amending Section 13 to replace the bound rule with the fly rule had been closed, 18 votes to 15, and on reconsideration, 17 to 13. Its report of the 11th also briefly covered the fourth and final session, held on April 7:

An adjourned meeting of the Base Ball Convention was held at the Gotham, on Wednesday evening last, when the rules of the game, as reported by the committee, were taken up section by section, and adopted. The following additions were made to the rules; otherwise, there was very little change made from the (committee’s) report:

Sec. 37. No person that may be in arrears to any club that he may have belonged to previous to the one he is then a member of, shall be competent to play in a match until such arrears are paid.

The above amendment was proposed by Mr. Pidgeon [Francis Pidgeon, a well-known pitcher of the Eckford Club of Brooklyn, at some point, had become a delegate], as was also the following very excellent rule proposed by M. Voorhis.

Sec. 38. Should a striker stand at the bat without striking at good balls, repeatedly thrown to him, for the apparent purpose of delaying the game, or giving advantage to a player, the umpire, after warning him, shall call “one strike,” and, if he persists in such action, “two” and “three” strikes. When “three strikes” are called, he shall be subject to the same rules as if he had struck at three fair balls.

The rules as amended will be printed in pamphlet form, during the ensuing week, and each of the delegates will be supplied with copies for the use of their respective clubs. …

“M. Voorhis” is Thomas Griffen Voorhis, president of the Empire Club of New York, a non-player since 1856. Porter’s commented on April 17:

This rule (Section 38), although, doubtless, very necessary, is yet calculated to make some troubles, and excite disputes; what one umpire may deem to be “good balls,” another may only consider “from fair to middling,” and their decisions be continually excepted to.

Whether a “very excellent” rule or no, Section 38 was destined to be almost universally ignored by player-umpires. Reasons may perhaps be found in the rulemakers’ failure (until 1864) to provide a parallel penalty for pitchers who repeatedly pitched unfair balls and in the vagueness of this first hint of a “strike zone.”

By the time the Clipper published the new constitution, by-laws, and rules on May 8, further changes to those described in earlier reports appeared: In Section 16, the withdrawal of the privilege of runners to return to their bases after a fair fly was caught had been severely watered down: Runners could return without risk as long as they did so before the first pitch to the next striker. In Section 17, the striker was now considered the striker only until he reached first base, not until the ball was pitched to the next striker. Finally, the prohibition against playing for two clubs at the same time, Section 28 in the 1857 rules, was added to Section 27, returning the total number of sections to 37. The Constitution also had been altered: Three sections dealing with convention delegates were rolled into one, a new article concerning standing committees was added, and new sections were added to the articles governing dues and amendments. Unless both the Sunday Mercury and Porter’s simply ignored these alterations in earlier reports, which seems unlikely, they were inserted after the convention adjourned.

The Sunday Mercury on May 9 editorialized on all the new rule changes, and Porter’s reprinted its comments (again without attribution), with no further remarks, on May 15:

We had determined to publish this week the amended rules and regulations of the game, as adopted by the late base ball convention; but as there is so little difference between the new and the old rules, it is hardly necessary to reprint them in full. We shall merely glance at the amendments that have been made. …

(Section 16) The new rule, it will be seen, affords a possibility for a player running bases to be put out, which was not the case under the old rule; but he must be an “orful slow coach,” who could not return to his base before the ball pass through the operation necessary to render it of legal effect.

(Section 30) Under the old rules, each club engaged in a match had an umpire, whose business it was to be “judges of fair and unfair play, and determine all the differences which might occur during the game,” &c, and in addition to the umpires there was a referee, to decide points in case of a disagreement in opinion between the umpires.

The new rules make shorter work of it. The captains of the contending nines select one umpire only, who performs all the duties of the old referee and umpires combined, except recording the game, which falls upon the scorers appointed by the respective clubs. This is, perhaps, a more arbitrary method of doing the business; but upon the whole, we like it; it is more expeditious, and in the end quite as satisfactory. …

(Section 37) The last section is a very good one, and will, if strictly enforced by umpires, effect a desirable reform. It will do away with the system very much in vogue the last two seasons, of strikers refusing all balls thrown them until the second base is cleared.

The Sunday Mercury printed no wrap up comments on the meetings themselves (or may have on April 25; the issue is missing). Porter’s added to its comments on April 17:

We feel gratification in stating that throughout the discussions of the body the very best of feeling appeared to prevail among the delegates, and they seemed to be only desirous of framing such a set of rules as should tend to the encouragement and practice of a fair season of play at this invigorating and healthy out-door amusement.

At Number 30 Ann Street, where Frank Queen presided over the New York Clipper, they were far less amused:

BASE BALL … A convention of ball players assembled here a few weeks’ since (March 10), to take some action on matters connected with the game of base ball; that convention adjourned until the 24th of March, when 22 clubs were represented. There appears to have been some discussion concerning the junior clubs, and the proceedings were anything but harmonious. Among other business which engaged the attention of the convention, was the report of the committee on Constitution and By-Laws. This document proposes to call the organization “The National Association of Base Ball Players” — a misnomer, in our opinion, for the convention seems to be rather sectional and selfish in its proceedings, than otherwise, there having been no invitations sent to clubs in other States, and the Constitution permitting no one to be a member of the association who is under 21 years of age, as if our younger friends were in no wise interested in the enjoyment and furtherance of the game. National, indeed! Why the association is a mere local organization, bearing no State existence even — to say nothing of a National one. The truth of the matter is — that a few individuals have wormed themselves into this convention, who have been, and are endeavoring to mold men and things to suit their own views. If the real lovers of the beautiful and health-provoking game of base ball wish to see the sport diffuse itself over the country — as Cricket is fast doing — they must cut loose from those parties who wish to arrogate to themselves the right to act for, and dictate to all who participate in the game. These few dictators wish to ape the New York Yacht Club in their feelings of exclusiveness — we presume. Let the discontented, therefore, come out from among this party, and organize an association which shall be National — not only in name — but in reality. Let invitations be extended to base ball players everywhere to compete with them, and endeavor to make the game what it should be — a truly National one.6

The Clipper, of course, had a point, though during the 1857 season clubs outside Greater New York professing to play by New York’s rules were few — the Tri-Mountain Club in Boston (founded by a former Knickerbocker), the Niagara Club of Buffalo (founded by a former Excelsior), a group in distant Detroit, and an abortive beginning in even more distant Minnesota. Local papers in these locations apparently ignored the whole affair. The possibility, which occurs readily to modern observers accustomed to celebrating the joys of inclusiveness, that the NABBP could have been an umbrella organization for all the bat-and-ball games in other parts of the country calling themselves “base ball” — and which the nationally distributed New York Clipper, New York Sunday Mercury, and Porter’s Spirit of the Times all covered under that name — was apparently on no one’s horizon.

The ambition of the NABBP’s founders was to spread the New York code nationwide: the Massachusetts Game, the several forms of town ball, for instance in Philadelphia and Cincinnati, and other, less well-organized codes of play were, instead of being respected and assisted to develop, eclipsed in a short span of years, and relegated to baseball history’s dustbin.

It’s easy to be critical of the convention of 1858, and the press that took notice of it at the time certainly was. The convention was elitist: Opening with only the clubs that had met in 1857 is defensible as an organizational necessity, but the complete exclusion of the juniors, the apparent failure to make the minimal effort needed to reach the few New York Rules clubs outside Greater New York, and the tacit refusal to recognize as legitimate forms of “baseball” the other rule codes played around the country were not. It was secretive: it began with the significant step of forming a “national” association without motion or debate, and ended by apparently amending the new association’s constitution and its own rule changes after the convention had closed.

Finally, it was ineffective: The new called-strike rule would not be enforced by the new single umpires, whose enhanced responsibility for regulating the game on the field was left supported by nothing more than a gentleman’s agreement. The 1858 proceedings left much to be accomplished if the new association was to be successful in its mission to “improve, foster, and perpetuate” the game.

 

Notes

  1. Eric Miklich, “Nine Innings, Nine Players, and Ninety Feet, and Other Changes: The Recodification of Baseball Rules in 1857,” Base Ball 5, no. 1 (Spring 2011): 118-121.
  2. Porter’s Spirit of the Times, October 24, 1857.
  3. New York Sunday Mercury, March 14, 1858.
  4. New York Herald, March 14, 1858.
  5. New York Sunday Mercury, op. cit.
  6. New York Clipper, April 3, 1858.

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