1846 | HOBOKEN, NEW JERSEY – It’s unlikely anyone will ever figure out when the first game of baseball was played because, in all likelihood, there was no first game. Baseball evolved. Some version of the game dates back to pre-Revolutionary War days, and is based on “ball games” played for centuries. However, a significant contest in that evolution occurred on this date in 1846 in Hoboken, New Jersey.
The Knickerbocker Club of New York organized a game at Elysian Field using rules documented in 1845 by member Alexander Cartwright (Abner Doubleday was nowhere to be found). Cartwright, a surveyor by trade, laid out the dimensions of the field. Club members tinkered with the rules and practiced among themselves before the June 1846 game. Historian Leonard Koppett, author of Koppett’s Concise History of Major League Baseball, says the Cartwright rules “formalized” many of the rules that remain intact today.
Among the 20 rules laid down by the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club in the 1840’s:
- There would be four bases in a diamond configuration.
- The “batter” placed at “home plate” at the bottom of the diamond, if looking from above.
- The game consists of 21 outs.
- Three outs made up a half inning.
- Runner no longer out by having ball thrown at him
- Foul and fair territory established
- The bases shall be from “home” to second base, 42 paces; from 1st base to 3rd base, 42 paces, equidistant.
- The ball must be pitched, and not thrown, for the bat.
- A ball knocked out of the field, or outside the range of 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 a striker is 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 base shall be out, if the ball is in the hands of an adversary on the base, or the runner is touched with 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.
- 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 a ball bounds out of the field when struck.
Reportedly, a team called the New York Nine beat the Knickerbockers 23-1 on that June day in 1846. They played four innings.
Koppett’s Concise History of Major League Baseball, 2004, Leonard Koppett
Baseball in the Garden of Eden, by John Thorn, Simon & Schuster, 2011
LISTEN: John Thorn NPR interview