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Q&A

The illusion of how to play baseball

MLB’s official historian discusses how the sport’s rules have changed, why we should have stuck with the ‘Massachusetts’ version

David Ortiz of the Red Sox is known for his elaborate process for calling for time at the plate.
David Ortiz of the Red Sox is known for his elaborate process for calling for time at the plate. Barry Chin/Globe Staff/file 2013/Globe Staff

At the start of spring training, a rule change had David Ortiz heated up. The Red Sox slugger used colorful language to express his displeasure with a new policy that will require him to keep one foot in the batter’s box at all times or face fines.

This and 10 other baseball rule changes this year are designed to increase the “pace-of-play” in an effort to get those easily distracted digital natives to keep at least one eye on the national pastime.

As revolutionary changes go, this clutch of clock management tweaks is not exactly the designated hitter, the now-42-year-old American League invention that, depending on your generation, is either common sense or an abomination.

This got us thinking: Why, compared to other major sports, does baseball seem to treat its rules as if they’re written in stone?

John Thorn has been the official historian of Major League Baseball since 2011. That same year, Thorn published “Baseball in the Garden of Eden,” in which he took a close look at the origins of the game.

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Thorn talked to Ideas by phone from his home in Catskill, N.Y.

THORN: Your basic premise, that baseball doesn’t change its rules, is of course wrong.

IDEAS: OK. But doesn’t it change less often, or more slowly?

THORN: Well, baseball changes less radically than other sports, not more slowly. Because, if you track the progress of innovation from 1845 forward, you’ll see that nearly every year produces some significant rule change . . . for the first 60 years. From 1845 to 1905, we have some regular and radical changes.

IDEAS: And then it settled down?

THORN: The radical nature ceased to characterize the sport. So we have the pleasant illusion that if Great Grandpa could be revived from the days of McKinley to sit alongside us in the bleachers, he would instantly recognize the game as the same one he had played as a boy.

This is part of the charm of baseball. And, baseball’s little lies are much of its appeal to us. It makes us think that we are not getting older. That this thing we have cared about ever since we were in short pants has stayed with us, and has almost cared about us and tracked our changes while undergoing few of its own.

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IDEAS: You’re the guy who found an early mention of baseball in Pittsfield in 1791. Playing baseball and other games was prohibited around the just-completed, Charles Bulfinch-designed town hall. This lets us date baseball in Pittsfield prior to 1791 because, as you said somewhere, you don’t ban something that’s just been invented.

THORN: Exactly, it had been prevalent for some time. The best estimate I came up with . . . was that baseball was probably played in New England in the 1730s. And when I say baseball, I don’t mean a game that resembles one today.

IDEAS: The “Massachusetts game” and the “New York game” were two early strains of baseball. Even though the Massachusetts version lost out, you’ve said that it’s in some ways more fun. In this version, you don’t have to run the bases in order? Is that right?

THORN: No, you have to run them in order, but there’s no restriction on the necessity to stay in the base line. So, if somebody is chasing after you with ball held aloft and he’s about to throw it at you to record an out, you can lead him on a merry chase into the outfield.

IDEAS: Do you have to stay in bounds?

THORN: There’s no bounds. There’s no foul territory. . . . So, people in New York, trying to advocate for their version of the game, call the Massachusetts game a childish, silly game. And unmanly, right?

IDEAS: Because you have people sort of scurrying all over the place.

THORN: But the Massachusetts game required a good deal more bravery and more skill with overhand throwing to the batter at shorter distance than in the N.Y. game. So the idea is get batters on, force them to run, force them to evade and elude. Force fielders to risk throwing the ball at some distance into the outfield if they miss the runner with their thrown ball.

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The essence of the Massachusetts game is intricate relays . . . so that eventually a fielder can throw the ball at a runner from a very short distance.

IDEAS: To actually hit the runner with the ball?

THORN: Yes. You could not retire a runner by getting the ball to the base before him. You could not retire a runner by tagging him.

IDEAS: So, in that period, 1845-1905, when rules were changing constantly — everything from the number of balls required for a walk to the dimensions of the pitcher’s box (not yet a mound), were in flux. But then the pace of change slows, right?

THORN: The dramatic change was the introduction of the foul strike [adopted by the National League in 1901 and the American League in 1903]. Far more so than the designated hitter, that was a radical change.

IDEAS: Wow. Yeah, that makes sense, because without that you could foul off forever, I guess?

THORN: Correct. And there were batters who were adept at this, tiring out the pitcher.

And then you had the regrettable loss of life for Ray Chapman [who was hit in the head by a pitch] in 1920, and people imagine that this led to the elimination of the spitball. But the spitball had been banned the season before. . . . [But] the ball still continued to be discolored and mushy into the sixth and seventh innings.

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It was deemed that Chapman’s failure to recognize that Carl Mays’s ball was headed right at him was in part because of the cloudy day or dusky time and the discolored ball. So, after August of 1920, umpires were instructed to remove discolored balls. As you got new balls into the game much more frequently, that made home run hitting easier.

So I went through this story just to illustrate the point that I make now: Which is that baseball no longer needs to make radical changes in order to affect dramatically the quality of play.

In 1969, the first year after the mound was decreased . . . to 10 inches, you had an immediate 10 percent increase in major league offense. You know, Archimedes, said, “Give me a lever long enough and I can move the world”? We are at that stage of baseball. We can really rock baseball’s world with very little effort.

IDEAS: Are the current pace-of-play rules a radical change? This pitch clock — or not quite a pitch clock — the whole thing seems a little convoluted.

THORN: I, as a historian, might be expected to be fuddy-duddyish about this and pooh-pooh all such changes, but baseball has always tinkered with the rules and generally to good effect.

IDEAS: What about players like Ortiz who say they are going to resist the change?

THORN: Ortiz may grumble, but he will conform. No player, not even [Babe] Ruth, has been bigger than the game.

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IDEAS: You’re the second-ever MLB historian, what are your duties and/or obligations?

THORN: I work with marketing, I work with promotions — not that I am a marketer or a promoter. I try to keep Major League Baseball, to the extent that they call on my services, on the historically correct path.

IDEAS: Have you been consulted on rule changes from a historical perspective?

THORN: I have such conversations with people in the commissioner’s office. But ultimately a rule change is not a panel discussion.

IDEAS: So have there been any significant pace-of-play adjustments before in baseball history?

THORN: The idea that pitches should be delivered within 20 seconds of each other? This was legislated in 1901. . . . Almost everything that we can imagine in baseball has precedent.

IDEAS: Finally, you said adding the foul strike was bigger than the designated hitter. Where do you come down on the DH?

THORN: I was against it until I was for it. . . . Over time, I came to think that I disliked the designated hitter less than I disliked watching National League pitchers hit. You know, it’s how I learned to love the bomb.

Sebastian Stockman is a lecturer in English at Northeastern University. Follow him on Twitter @substockman.

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