Ever notice how often umpires switch out the ball in baseball games?
It’s almost like a Pavlovian response: pitcher throws a ball in the dirt, catcher offers it up to the umpire, umpire gives him a clean ball. It’s not just a habit. It’s codified in the rulebook.
Rule 4.01 in the “Umpire Duties” section of the MLB rulebook states that an umpire should have “at least two alternate balls and shall require replenishment of such supply of alternate balls as needed throughout the game” in case of instances such as the pitcher requesting a new one, the ball getting hit out of play, and times in which the ball becomes “discolored or unfit for further use.”
That third contingency comes directly from a dark day in baseball history: Aug. 16, 1920. The day Cleveland Indians infielder Ray Chapman was hit in the head by a pitch, fracturing his skull and eventually costing him his life.
Because of a confluence of factors, Chapman didn’t even move as the pitch neared his head, according to contemporary accounts. It was nearing twilight, the pitcher—the New York Yankees’ Carl Mays—had a submarine delivery that made the ball’s location deceptive and, of course, the ball was filthy. It was every pitcher’s job back then to dirty up the ball as much as possible so that it would be hard to see and hit.
The Chapman incident accelerated the phasing out of the spitball…and led to good ol’ Rule 4.01.
“It’s been conditioned that the ball should be pristine and white,” says John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball. “Back in the 19th century, a team would travel with a couple of balls. You would figure on using one ball for the whole game, maybe two if the stitching came loose. The ball being dirty was certainly not a sufficient reason for it being thrown out.”
Now, teams go through about 100 balls a game.
That’s not the only instance of an event galvanizing sports toward rule changes that are still very much part of the game today. The history of major sports is littered with adjustments that made the games the way that they are.
Baseball is a flat circle.
The history of baseball, Thorn says, is one of resistance to change. But once those changes come, they tend to be fairly revolutionary. Sometimes, they’re too drastic, which leads to a course correction back in the other direction.
“Life is not a straight line,” Thorn says. “Life is cyclical, so why would baseball be different?”
If you’re looking for the core, foundational tenets of the sport, you have to look back to the 1800s. The so-called “Magna Carta” of baseball, handwritten in 1857, established some of the things we most associate with the sport today.
Before the document, the two sides came to an agreed-upon number of players involved. After, it was nine to a side. Before, the distance between the bases was “42 paces, equidistant, home to second and first to third.” So, conceivably, the foot size of the pacer could have a lot of say into how much the players would be running that day. After, the distance was 90 feet between each base.
After, teams played nine innings in a regulation game. Before…first to 21 runs wins!
“If you’re looking at the rulebook alone, your most dramatic rule changes came prior to 1920,” Thorn says. “If you’re looking at post-1920, you have custom and practice changing radically. The game changes all the time, in ways so minute that casual fans may continue to think of it as the unchanging game.”
Those constant custom changes often center around one concept: the give and take between offense and defense.
In the early days, foul balls were not considered strikes. So, conceivably, a skilled batter could foul off 30 pitches in an at-bat and wear a pitcher down. In 1903, the league adopted the current rule—fouls are strikes unless the batter already has two strikes—to tip the scales back in favor of the pitchers.
But then pitchers became too dominant. So the league made changes to changes to what pitchers could throw—no more spitballs—and how fresh the balls in play needed to be. Plus, legendary sluggers like Babe Ruth ushered in a new era of swinging for the fences.
That lasted until one of Ruth’s friends and ghostwriters, Commissioner Ford Frick, put a stop to it. He watched Roger Maris break Ruth’s single-season home run record, with 61 in 1961, and decided offense had run amok. So he widened the strike zone to pre-1950 levels and ushered in a new “dead-ball era.”
Fans reacted with yawns. So the league lowered the pitcher’s mound by 5 inches in 1969 and, in Thorn’s words, “order was restored.”
See? Everything old really is new again.
“Hitters are always an endangered species that, when left unchecked, will tend to dominate,” Thorn says.
The Case of the Flopping Goalie
The “flopping” phenomenon—over-exaggerating contact from an opponent in order to draw a foul or a penalty, is most often associated with football and soccer. (Neymar says “Hi.”)
But in the early days of hockey, a different, very particular type of flopping was associated with the sport. It was against the rules for a goalie to leave his feet to make a save until 1918. Until then, “flopping” on the ground to stop the puck from going in was seen as unsportsmanlike, and its main practitioners—including Ottawa Senators Hall of Famer Clint Benedict—would try to play it off as an “accident.”
“Early clublike sticks, they had no flex in them, so it was difficult to raise the puck,” says Eric Zweig, a Toronto-based hockey historian. “There was no booming, blazing wrist shot that would hit the top corner. Lying down across the ice was like cheating: ‘I can’t shoot it over you, so that’s no good.’”
The NHL finally let goalies go to the ground in 1918, paving the way for butterfly-style modern superstars including Patrick Roy. The rival Pacific Coast Hockey Association had already been playing with the rule for a couple of seasons, and the NHL’s reason for following suit was fairly simple, according to Zweig: “This is a silly rule. Anybody else on the ice can do whatever they want. Why shouldn’t the goalies be allowed to do whatever they want?”
Many of hockey’s formative changes came out of the rivalry between the NHL and the more progressive PCHA—among them, hockey’s version of the forward pass.
Starting in 1913, the PCHA painted two blue lines about a third of the way from each end of the rink and allowed teams to pass the puck forward to teammates between those two lines. The National Hockey Association, the early version of the NHL, balked.
Hockey was a game of stick-handling and skating skill, the traditionalists argued. They didn’t want people shooting pucks up and down the ice willy-nilly. It made it all the more confusing when the champions of the PCHA and NHA started playing for the Stanley Cup and rules changed from home ice to home ice.
When the leagues merged, the NHL adopted forward passing on a limited basis. With scoring at an all-time low in 1928-29, the league extended the areas of the ice in which the forward pass was allowed. The “two-line” pass—shuffling the puck from one team’s defensive zone to the other’s—was not permitted until 2005-06.
Sometimes change can move at a glacial pace.
“People were worried that, if you can pass it across the blue line all the way, that’s too radical. Too long, too far, changes the game too much,” Zweig says. “People had been arguing for [the two-line pass] all along, but it never happened.”
Why does the basketball hoop stand 10 feet tall? That height has been around since the dawn of the game, so you might logically surmise that there’s a very good, scientifically sound reason behind it.
You’d be wrong. That’s how far off the ground the peach baskets were when James Naismith hung them off the elevated running track of the YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1891.
The “basket,” though, has evolved quite a bit. After about 10 years, the basket went the way of the dodo and was replaced by a metal rim and closed net. By 1906, someone got the bright idea to cut a hole in the bottom of the net so they didn’t have to make the waterboy climb a ladder and retrieve the ball every time someone scored.
Which is to say that, even though sports are wed to tradition, common sense and the inevitable pull of progress usually win out.
Football, for instance, had a bit of an issue in the early 20th century. Namely, people wanted it gone for good. In 1905, 159 players suffered serious injuries during games at the amateur and professional level, with 18 losing their lives.
The issue was so severe that it got all the way to the desk of President Theodore Roosevelt—an ardent fan of the game himself—who convened a meeting of collegiate football powerhouses (and…you know…egghead schools) Harvard, Yale, and Princeton to come up with some solutions.
One of them was football’s forward pass. The more famous one than hockey.
Saint Louis University’s Bradbury Robinson is credited with throwing the first legal forward pass in a regulation game on Sept. 5, 1906. It fell incomplete and resulted in a turnover under the new rules.
That rule, too, changed rather quickly. Otherwise, Brett Favre—and his 3,869 career incomplete passes—might have had a far different career. The arc of sports history almost always bends toward logic. That’s why, Zweig says, he’s hopeful hockey will soon come to a breaking point on fighting and other blows to the head, even as the game’s traditionalists argue for the essentiality of two dudes whipping their gloves off and playing rock ‘em, sock ‘em robots.
“People want hockey to be tough,” Zweig says. “At some point, someday, we’re going to realize this was insane.”
And Thorn is confident that baseball can deal with all the fancy defensive shifts teams are employing nowadays without legislating, even though many voices are advocating for it.
“Over time, it will strike even the most conservative, most dyed-in-the-wool left-handed slugger that if he bunted the ball hard down the third-base line, it’s a double,” Thorn says. “At some point, you think guys will wake up and take what’s offered. That’s the beauty of the game. If you’re going to overplay in one area, you should be willing to pay a price for it.”