The Cincinnati Base Hit

This article was written by Norman Macht

This article was published in the Road Trips: SABR Convention Journal Articles


This article was originally published in “Baseball in the Buckeye State,” the 2004 SABR convention journal.

 

The evolution of baseball’s playing and scoring rules was a slow and turbulent process beginning in the nineteenth century. Apart from the early establishment of such basics as four bases and their 90-foot separations, there was plenty of experimenting along the way. Nor was consistency in place when the American League broke in in 1901. At various times, the foul strike, infield fly and balk rules differed between the leagues. World Series games, as today, were played by different rules in the NL and AL parks.

The lack of uniformity infected the scoring rules even more. Lacking an authoritative code, individual scorers used their own judgment and predilections, which raises questions of the validity of comparing certain stats from one era to another. There were times and places, for example, where base runners got credit for steals even if the pitch they ran on was put in play by the batter.

Later the leagues differed over what constituted an earned run. There were no standards for assigning wins and losses to pitchers; it was up to the official scorer. The autocratic Ban Johnson sometimes overruled a scorer and changed a WP or LP days or weeks after a game.

In 1913, when the number of complete games declined sharply in the American League, Philadelphia writer William Weart complained, “When there are so many changes in the box as there have been this season, it is more than the human mind can do to figure out who has won and who has lost the game. The won and lost column is bound to lead to ceaseless arguments.”

As if there wasn’t enough chaos, NL president John Heydler once suggested that scorers add errors of judgment to the box scores. The major league meetings in February 1913 were dull. There was little news. The two leagues spent more time discussing ways to speed up the game than anything else. (Truly, nothing has changed in baseball.) Average times in 1912 had been just under two hours.

The baseball writers spent most of their meeting wrangling over the lack of uniformity among the scorers. They agitated for someone to establish standards for pitchers’ wins and losses, and railed against the varying heights of pitchers’ mounds.

But the most contentious issue was the disparate treatment of a play in which the batter hit a ground ball to an infielder, with men on base, and the fielder attempted to throw out a base runner other than the batter, and failed. Example: man on second, one out, grounder to shortstop, runner heads for third, shortstop throws to third, runner slides in safely. Some scorers gave the batter a hit; some called it a fielders choice; some scored it as a sacrifice, since it advanced the runner.

Jack Ryder of the Cincinnati Enquirer was the most outspoken advocate for crediting the batter with a hit. He spoke so earnestly on the subject that the play was quickly dubbed a “Cincinnati Base Hit.”

Fred Lieb, New York Press, supported him. William Hanna, New York Sun, led the opposition, calling the idea “ridiculous.” At least one writer declared that he would never score it as a hit unless the league ordered him to do so.

Chairman Tom Rice, Brooklyn Eagle, appointed a committee to try to straighten out and reconcile the conflicting interpretations of the play. In addition to Rice, Lieb, Hanna and Ryder, the committee included George McLinn, Philadelphia Press. The committee failed to come to an agreement. So, in the interests of uniformity—not reason—Ban Johnson decreed that the Cincinnati base hit would be the official way to score the play. The Sporting News supported the decision, asking only for a clearer definition of the rule.

It lasted for one season.

During its lifetime, the rule resulted in the rare occurrence of a batter singling into a triple play. The Athletics were at Cleveland on May 16. In the bottom of the seventh, Doc Johnston was on third,

Ray Chapman on second, and Ivy Olson at bat. Olson hit a grounder to short. Barry bobbled the ball slightly. Johnston stuck close to third, but Chapman started toward third. Johnston then started for home. Barry threw to the catcher and Johnston was caught in a rundown. The catcher, Thomas, threw to Baker, who chased Johnston and threw to the pitcher Houck, who had come over to the third base line. Houck threw back to Barry who was now covering third. Barry tagged out Johnston. Chapman had held up between second and third. Meanwhile, Olson was heading for second. Barry threw to Collins, who tagged Olson for the second out. While that was going on, Chapman had rounded third and headed for the plate. Collins threw to Baker, who was now standing on home plate. Left fielder Rube Oldring, seeing third base unguarded, raced in from his position, took the throw from Baker and tagged Chapman trying to get back to third.

The official scorer gave Olson a single, one of only three known instances of a batter singling into a triple play.

The last Cincinnati base hit occurred on a play in which Fred Merkle was embroiled in another boner, less-remembered than his fateful 1908 base running adventure. It happened in the last game of the 1913 World Series between the Giants and Athletics. In the top of the third, the A’s had Eddie Murphy on third and Rube Oldring on second with one out. Frank Baker hit a dribbler down the first base line. Merkle raced in and picked it up. Baker started toward first, then stopped. Murphy started toward home, then stopped. A bewildered Merkle held the ball. The action froze like a tableau vivant. Murphy inched back toward third, then suddenly dashed for the plate. By the time Merkle woke up and threw to McLean at home, it was too late. Murphy scored while Baker sprinted past Merkle to first base. The official scorers credited Baker with a single.

The play provoked William Hanna to comment in the Sun,

“The absurdity of the Cincinnati base hit never was more clearly illustrated than in the fifth game of the World Series . . . Under the obnoxious scoring rule, Baker received credit for a base hit, when as a matter of common sense it should have been scored as a fielders choice. The attempt to give batsmen hits under such ridiculous conditions is decidedly unfair to pitchers and the rule has been condemned by practically all the managers and scorers.”

The Sun declared the Cincinnati base hit “doomed.”

And it was.

The Cincinnati Base Hit never made it into the official scoring rules. At the time Ban Johnson decreed it, nothing in the rules could be taken as either permitting or prohibiting it.

That winter the BBWAA conducted a mail vote on several proposed rule changes. The 187 members approved all the changes except the one that would have legitimized the Cincinnati Base Hit. Instead, they approved rule 85 section 4, defining a fielder’s choice in such a way as to seal its doom.

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