Today, the Baseball Commemorative Half Dollar Coin remembers the beginnings of baseball and the first published rule book, 170 years ago.
Published in 1889, the Athletic sports in America, England and Australia by Harry Clay Palmer, J. Austin Fynes, Francis C. Richter, William Ingraham Harris and Henry Chadwick included those first rules:
The first code of rules for baseball was adopted by the Knickerbocker club September 23d, 1845.
Here they are:
The bases shall be from ” home” to second base, 42 paces; from first to third base, 42 paces, equidistant.
The game to consist of 21 counts or aces, but at the conclusion an equal number of hands must be played.
The ball must be pitched and not thrown for the bat.
A ball knocked outside the range of the first or third base is foul.
Three balls being struck at and missed, and the last one caught, is a hand out; if not caught is considered fair, and the striker bound to run.
A ball being struck or tipped, and caught either flying or on the first bound, is a hand out.
A player, running the bases, shall be out, if the ball is in the hands of an adversary on the base, as the runner is touched by it before he makes his base; it being understood, however, that in no instance is a ball to be thrown at him.
A player running, who shall prevent an adversary from catching or getting the ball before making his base, is a hand out.
If two hands are already out, a player running home at the time a ball is struck cannot make an ace if the striker is caught out.
Three hands out, all out.
Players must take their strike in regular turn.
No ace or base can be made on a foul strike.
A runner cannot be put out in making one base when a balk is made by the pitcher.
But one base allowed when the ball bounds out of the field when struck.
From these primitive rules have grown up the present elaborate manual of the game.
Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly from October 1921 provided more background on the early game:
Playing rules differed greatly prior to 1845.
The games that had left their impress on the elemental game of baseball were handball, barnball, one old cat, two old cat, three old cat, four old cat, town ball, and round ball or the New England game.
Townball was played with from ten to twenty on a side.
The influence of handball was shown in the fact that when the first rules of baseball were adopted by the Knickerbocker Baseball Team in 1845, and played up to the first convention of ball players, a game consisted of twenty-one counts or “aces.”
The desire for some form of outdoor sport seemed to follow the nation’s drift toward manufacturing. As cities were built up, something was demanded which would afford both exercise and relaxation to the thousands in those new centers of American life.
In one of his earliest articles written on the subject of the possibilities of baseball, Mr. Chadwick said:
“The physique of Americans has long been a vulnerable point for the attacks of foreigners on the weaknesses of our countrymen, and hitherto we have only too well merited the palpable hits made by our healthy, outdoor-sport-loving cousins of England. . . . Baseball will bring back the physical standards of our forefathers, whose well-exercised muscles enabled them to lay low the forests of the Western wilderness.”
Many illustrations were brought up, showing the relation of baseball and temperance. Said one editorial writer in an early-day guide:
“Baseball demands the skill of billiards without the necessity of remaining in a heated room with the temptation of a drinking bar ever before one’s eyes.”
In one of the first of the guides, before the professional era, one finds the initial imprint of slang as applied to the game. There are elaborate explanations of such items as “a liner,” “a hot one,” “a muffed ball,” and “a grounder.”
In such fashion did the baseball “language” have its beginnings. Baseball readers of today require no keys to colloquial descriptive articles which are shrouded in deepest gloom so far as the uninitiated are concerned.
After the standardizing of the rules, and the general adoption of what was known as the New York game, baseball progressed rapidly in popular favor.
Some sturdy teams were developed in all parts of the country.
The better known teams were the Atlantics (the Spalding collection includes an Atlantic score book of 1860) and the Knickerbocker, Harmony, Empire, Mutual, Eckford, Charter Oak, Putnam and Liberty clubs.
Elysian Fields, Hoboken, was a favorite place for these historic struggles.
The Baseball Commemorative Half Dollar Coin shows against an image of an Elysian Fields baseball game, circa 1859.