Baseball is a bat-and-ball sport played between two teams of nine players each. The aim is to score runs by hitting a thrown ball with the bat and touching a series of four bases arranged at the corners of a ninety-foot diamond. Players on the batting team take turns hitting against the pitcher of the fielding team, which tries to stop them from scoring runs by getting hitters out in any of several ways.
A player on the batting team can stop at any of the bases and later advance via a team-mate’s hit, or by other means. The teams switch between batting and fielding whenever the fielding team records three outs. One turn at bat for each team constitutes an inning, and nine innings make up a professional game. The team with the most runs at the end of the game wins.
Evolving from older bat-and-ball games, an early form of baseball was being played in England by the mid-eighteenth century. This game was brought by immigrants to North America,where the modern version developed. By the late nineteenth century, baseball was widely recognised as the national sport of the United States. Baseball is now popular in North America, parts of Central and South America and the Caribbean, as well as parts of East Asia.
In North America, professional Major League Baseball (MLB) teams are divided into the National League (NL) and American League (AL), each with three divisions: East, West, and Central. The major league champion is determined by play-offs that culminate in the World Series. Five teams make the play-offs from each league: the three regular season division winners, plus two wild card teams.
Baseball is the leading team sport in both Japan and Cuba, and the top level of play is similarly split between two leagues: Japan’s Central League and Pacific League; Cuba’s West League and East League. In the National and Central leagues, the pitcher is required to bat, per the traditional rules. In the American, Pacific, and both Cuban leagues, there is a tenth player, a designated hitter, who bats for the pitcher. Each top-level team has a farm system of one or more minor league teams.
The Early History of Baseball
The evolution of baseball from older bat-and-ball games is difficult to trace with precision. A French manuscript from 1344 contains an illustration of clerics playing a game, possibly la soule, with similarities to baseball. Other old French games such as thèque, la balle au bâton, and la balle empoisonnée also appear to be related.
Consensus once held that today’s baseball is a North American development from the older game “rounders”, popular in Great Britain and Ireland. Baseball Before We Knew It: A Search for the Roots of the Game (2005), by David Block, suggests that the game originated in England; recently uncovered historical evidence supports this position.
Block argues that rounders and early baseball were actually regional variants of each other, and that the game’s most direct antecedents are the English games of stoolballand “tut-ball”. It has long been believed that cricket also descended from such games, though evidence uncovered in early 2009 suggests that the sport may have been imported to England from Flanders.
The earliest known reference to baseball is in a 1744 British publication, A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, by John Newbery. It contains a rhymed description of “base-ball” and a woodcut that shows a field set-up somewhat similar to the modern game—though in a triangular rather than diamond configuration, and with posts instead of ground-level bases. William Bray, an English lawyer, recorded a game of baseball on Easter Monday 1755 in Guildford, Surrey. This early form of the game was apparently brought to North America by English immigrants. Rounders was also brought to the continent by both British and Irish immigrants.
The first known American reference to baseball appears in a 1791 Pittsfield, Massachusetts, town by-law prohibiting the playing of the game near the town’s new meeting house. By 1796, a version of the game was well-known enough to earn a mention in a German scholar’s book on popular pastimes. As described by Johann Gutsmuths, “englische Base-ball” involved a contest between two teams, in which “the batter has three attempts to hit the ball while at the home plate”. Only one out was required to retire a side.
By the early 1830s, there were reports of a variety of unclassified bat-and-ball games recognisable as early forms of baseball being played around North America. These games were often referred to locally as “town ball”, though other names such as “round-ball” and “base-ball” were also used.
The once widely accepted story that Abner Doubleday invented baseball in Cooperstown, New York, in 1839 has been conclusively debunked by sports historians. In 1845, Alexander Cartwright, a member of New York City’s Knickerbockers club, led the codification of the so-called Knickerbocker Rules. The practice, common to bat-and-ball games of the day, of “soaking” or “plugging”—effecting a put-out by hitting a runner with a thrown ball—was barred. The rules thus facilitated the use of a smaller, harder ball than had been common. Several other rules also brought the Knickerbockers’ game close to the modern one, though a ball caught on the first bounce was, again, an out and only underhand pitching was allowed.
While there are reports that the New York Knickerbockers played games in 1845, the contest now recognised as the first officially recorded baseball game in U.S. history took place on June 19, 1846, in Hoboken, New Jersey: the “New York Nine” defeated the Knickerbockers, 23–1, in four innings. With the Knickerbocker code as the basis, the rules of modern baseball continued to evolve over the next half-century
The Rules of Baseball
A game of baseball is played between two teams, each composed of nine players, that take turns playing offence (batting or hitting) and defence (fielding or pitching). A pair of turns, one at bat and one in the field, by each team constitutes an innings. A game consists of nine innings. One team, customarily the visiting team, bats in the top, or first half of every innings. The other team, customarily the home team, bats in the bottom or second half of every innings.
The goal of the game is to score more points (runs) than the other team. The players on the team at bat attempt to score runs by circling or completing a tour of the four bases set at the corners of the square-shaped baseball diamond. A player bats at home plate and must proceed counter-clockwise to first base, second base, third base, and back home in order to score a run.
The team in the field attempts both to prevent runs from scoring and to record outs, which remove opposing players from offensive action until their turn in their team’s batting order comes up again. When three outs are recorded, the teams switch roles for the next half-inning. If the score of the game is tied after nine innings, extra innings are played to resolve the contest. Many amateur games, particularly disorganised ones, involve different numbers of players and innings.
The game is played on a field whose primary boundaries, the foul lines, extend forward from home plate at 45-degree angles. The 90-degree area within the foul lines is referred to as fair territory; the 270-degree area outside them is foul territory. The part of the field enclosed by the bases and several yards beyond them is the infield; the area farther beyond the infield is the outfield.
In the middle of the infield is a raised pitcher’s mound, with a rectangular rubber plate (the rubber) at its centre The outer boundary of the outfield is typically demarcated by a raised fence, which may be of any material and height (many amateur games are played on unfenced fields). Fair territory between home plate and the outfield boundary is baseball’s field of play, though significant events can take place in foul territory, as well.
Play starts with a batter standing at home plate, holding a bat. The batter waits for the pitcher to throw a pitch (the ball) toward home plate, and attempts to hit the ball with the bat. The catcher catches pitches that the batter does not hit, as a result of either electing not to swing or failing to connect, and returns them to the pitcher.
A batter who hits the ball into the field of play must drop the bat and begin running toward first base, at which point the player is referred to as a runner (or, until the play is over, a batter-runner). A batter-runner who reaches first base without being put out is said to be safe and is now on base. A batter-runner may choose to remain at first base or attempt to advance to second base or even beyond – however far the player believes can be reached safely.
A player who reaches the base despite proper play by the fielders has recorded a hit. A player who reaches first base safely on a hit is credited with a single. If a player makes it to second base safely as a direct result of a hit, it is a double; third base, a triple. If the ball is hit in the air within the foul lines over the entire outfield (and outfield fence, if there is one), it is a home run: the batter and any runners on base may all freely circle the bases, each scoring a run. This is the most desirable result for the batter. A player who reaches base due to a fielding mistake is not credited with a hit, instead, the responsible fielder is charged with an error.
Any runners already on base may attempt to advance on batted balls that land, or contact the ground, in fair territory, before or after the ball lands. A runner on first base must attempt to advance if a ball lands in play. If a ball hit into play rolls foul before passing through the infield, it becomes dead and any runners must return to the base they were at when the play began. Runners may also attempt to advance to the next base while the pitcher is in the process of delivering the ball to home plate, and a successful effort is a stolen base.
A pitch that is not hit into the field of play is called either a strike or a ball. A batter against whom three strikes are recorded will be deemed to have stricken out. Crucial to determining balls and strikes is the umpire’s judgement as to whether a pitch has passed through the strike zone, a conceptual area above home plate extending from the midpoint between the batter’s shoulders and belt down to the hollow of the knee.
The Popularity of Baseball
Writing in 1919, philosopher Morris Raphael Cohen described baseball as America’s national religion. In the words of sports columnist Jayson Stark, baseball has long been “a unique paragon of American culture”, a status he sees as devastated by the steroid abuse scandal.
Baseball has an important place in other national cultures as well: Scholar Peter Bjarkman notes “how deeply the sport is ingrained in the history and culture of a nation such as Cuba, and how thoroughly it was radically reshaped and nativized in Japan.” Since the early 1980s, the Dominican Republic, in particular the city of San Pedro de Macorís, has been the major leagues’ primary source of foreign talent. Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente remains one of the greatest national heroes in Puerto Rico’s history. While baseball has long been the island’s primary athletic pastime, its once well-attended professional winter league has declined in popularity since 1990, when young Puerto Rican players began to be included in the major leagues’ annual first-year player draft.
In the Western Hemisphere, baseball is also one of the leading sports in Canada, Colombia, Mexico, the Netherlands Antilles, Nicaragua, Panama, and Venezuela. In Asia, it is among the most popular sports in South Korea and Taiwan.
The major league game in the United States was originally targeted toward a middle-class, white-collar audience: relative to other spectator pastimes, the National League’s set ticket price of 50 cents in 1876 was high, while the location of playing fields outside the inner city and the work-week daytime scheduling of games were also obstacles to a blue-collar audience. A century later, the situation was very different. With the rise in popularity of other team sports with much higher average ticket prices—football, basketball, and hockey—professional baseball had become among the most blue-collar-oriented of leading American spectator sports.
In the late 1900s and early 2000s, baseball’s position compared to football in the United States moved in contradictory directions. In 2008, Major League Baseball set a revenue record of $6.5 billion, matching the NFL’s revenue for the first time in decades, and a new MLB revenue record of $6.6 billion was set in 2009. On the other hand, the percentage of American sports fans polled who named baseball as their favourite sport was 16%, compared to pro football at 31%. In 1985, the respective figures were pro football 24%, baseball 23%.
Because there are so many more major league baseball games played, there is no comparison in overall attendance. In 2008, total attendance at major league games was the second-highest in history: 78.6 million, 0.7% off the record set the previous year. The following year, amid the U.S. recession, attendance fell by 6.6% to 73.4 million. Attendance at games held under the Minor League Baseball umbrella also set a record in 2007, with 42.8 million; although this figure does not include attendance at games of the several independent minor leagues.