As the 2011 major-league baseball season begins, imagine yourself sitting in the stands with new friends from India. The questions they ask aren’t going to be those of the lifetime fan – "Will the Giants repeat as champions?" "Will the Pirates snap their 18-season losing streak?" etc. – but rather those aimed at the very basics of the game. In other words, will you be prepared to explain why the bases are run in a counterclockwise, rather than a clockwise, direction?
Probably not, but explanations for why baseball is played the way it is are often fascinating. The base-running direction, for example, was established by an influential New York team, the Knickerbockers in the mid-1800s, when heading off to the right toward first base worked well for most right-handed hitters and made throwing to first more natural for right-handed fielders.
This revealing tidbit is typical of the information compiled in the revised and expanded one-volume paperback edition of A Game of Inches: The Story Behind the Innovations That Shape Baseball. This impressive 600-page resource is written by Peter Morris, one of baseball’s foremost historians, who acknowledges his debt to many fellow members of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR).
A former national and international Scrabble champion, Morris first published this work in a two-volume hardcover edition in 2006, when it was the first book awarded both of the genre’s most coveted honors, SABR’s Seymour Medal and Spitball magazine’s Casey Award.
The more compact paperback not only benefits from revisions and additional research, it has a thorough index to assist in finding entries on a myriad of topics, from baseball’s peculiar pitching distance (60 feet, 6 inches) to the history of the nine-inning game and curveballs to bullpen carts, pitching rubbers, hat catches, and so on.
The origins of many of the baseball firsts date so far back that they can be murky, at best, but “A Game of Inches” doesn’t resort to oversimplification. When there are conflicting accounts that can’t be sorted out, Morris acknowledges them.
Despite a total absence of illustrations, the text-heavy pages aren’t a turnoff because the content is so well organized and the entries so numerous that readers can plunge in anywhere.
For instance, a search for “home plate” focuses on the origins of the name, which has nothing to do with dinner plates. Au contraire, home bases of mid-1800s were marked by circular iron plates. A one-square-foot shape was eventually adopted, then rotated so that a corner pointed toward the pitcher. This served to widen the strike zone.
Over time, the rules specified the plate to be made of rubber and have beveled edges. By 1899, the five-sided plate that is standard today was adopted. It essentially fuses the shape and orientation of earlier incarnations into a plate that makes it easier for umpires to gauge the strike zone while maintaining the tradition of at least one pointed corner.
To see 10 pieces of baseball history that I learned from "A Game of Inches," click here.
Ross Atkin is a Monitor staff editor.