Academic journal article Base Ball

The Adoption of the Fly Game, 1856-1865

Academic journal article Base Ball

The Adoption of the Fly Game, 1856-1865

Article excerpt

Is a batter out on a ball caught after the first bounce, or must the ball be caught on the fly? This question was the subject of recurring debate for nearly a decade. The early rules of baseball, as codified by the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of New York in 1845, granted an out when a fielder caught a ball either on the fly or after the first bound. This rule came to be known as the "bound game." The modern rule, in which the fielder must catch the ball on the fly to get an out, was known as the "fly game." The fly game was first proposed in 1856 and after years of debate finally adopted for the season of 1865.

This campaign has received its share of attention from baseball historians, most notably Melvin Adelman and Warren Goldstein.1 Both suffer, however, from having overlooked the only sporting newspaper of the day to take an editorial stance against the innovation. This results in a distorted picture of the debate, with only one side given voice.

There is also a Whiggish tinge to much baseball history. Whiggish history in its classic form is the interpretation of past events as a tale of progress from a primitive state to the perfection that is Victorian England. Persons and events which advance this climb are praised, while those which impede it are denounced. In its baseball incarnation the progression is from a primitive boy's game to the perfection that is modern Major League Baseball (or, more typically, baseball of a Golden Age, with Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays standing at the pinnacle of history). To the modern eye the fly game seems natural. It is easy to accept its proponents as the forward-looking agents of progress and dismiss its opponents.

The argument for the fly game was not nearly so good as is typically imagined today, nor the argument against it nearly so bad. Quite the contrary: examination of the arguments from both sides and from the perspective of antebellum baseball shows that for the fly game to be strikingly weak, while the argument for the status quo was sensible and pragmatic. This article seeks to present the argument, showing both sides and in the context of the day, and to explain why the fly game finally prevailed.

The Sporting Press

The most important sources for baseball history of this period are the weekly sporting newspapers of the day. A few dailies carried baseball items, but it was a handful of weeklies that took up baseball as a specialty. They reported not only game accounts, but gossip and organizational activities, and sought to influence the baseball fraternity. The number of baseball clubs in and around New York expanded rapidly beginning in 1855 as the interest shown the game by the weeklies encouraged new players to take up the game, which in a virtuous cycle further expanded the papers' circulation. This gave the papers seats in baseball councils, with different papers advocating different positions.

The two most important baseball papers at the beginning of this story were the Sunday Mercury and Porter's Spirit of the Times. The Sunday Mercury was an established paper, founded in 1839. Its publisher and editor, William Cauldwell, was the first true baseball journalist. In 1856 it was by far the most influential baseball paper. Others would rise to challenge it, but it was influential throughout the period of the adoption of the fly game. Porter's Spirit of the Times was founded in 1856 by William T. Porter, along with his protégé George Wilkes. Porter had for many years edited The Spirit of the Times, where he had long promoted American cricket. After a falling out, he founded his new paper. In its inaugural issue Porter's described baseball as "this noble American game." Instantly it was a rival to the Sunday Mercury. Porter would die in 1858. Wilkes left the following year and founded Wilkes' Spirit of the Times. Porter's carried on for a few years, but faded in influence. Wilkes carried extensive baseball news, but never held the influence of its predecessor. …

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