Overview of Vintage Base Ball Rules:
As observers of the River Hogs can tell you, no two of our games are ever the same.  This could also be said of the match rules, which vary like the clubs and the venues we play at.  Prior to all of our matches, the two captains of the clubs and the umpire meet to discuss the accepted match rules and procedures.  The captains then relay that information to the ball players who are eager to see what kinds of liberties they will be allowed.  This accepted custom is actually mandated in the published rules, no matter what era of base ball is played that day. 

Matches we play in are governed by one of the published rules of 1858, 1860, 1864, or 1867.  The Rules of 1860 are the most widely accepted among vintage base ball clubs that we face.  Even if later rules are agreed upon, the basic premise of the game is taken from the 1858 rules.  Highlights of the various rules include:


  • Playing field dimensions are defined, including 4 yard wide pitching and 3 yard wide striking lines (hence the phrase, “Striker to the line!”).  Bat and ball measurements, length to the bases, inning length, and match length are established and are mostly unchanged to this day.  The playing territory may contain trees or other obstacles. 
  • Smooth, underhand pitch delivery of the ball with a straight arm, sending the ball over the plate to the striker’s preference, designed to “strike” the ball into play.
  • Strikes are called on a missed swing or if the striker allows good pitches to pass without swinging after an umpire’s warning.  Three strikes results in an out.  No balls are called on bad pitches. 
  • Fouls are defined by the location where the ball is caught or bounces first.  The ball may land in fair territory and then roll foul and still be considered fair.  Fouls are not strikes. 
  • Striker may be put out when the ball is caught from the air or the first bound. 
  • Players over-running first base are doing so at their own risk and may be tagged out. 
  • Trees or obstacles may be considered in the playing territory. 
  • Three missed swings results in an out for the striker.  However, a muffed third strike is considered a fair hit that must be run out by the striker, a technicality still enforced in the modern game. 
  • Base runners may not be put out on a foul ball until after the ball is first pitched to the striker. 


  • Base runners may be put out on a foul ball after being returned to the pitcher.  Base runners must also return to their bag when the ball is caught on the fly without the opportunity of advancing. 


  • Runners may advance after a caught fair ball after tagging the base of origin. 
  • The umpire may call balls when the pitcher repeatedly pitches the ball to unplayable areas.  Three unfair balls allow the striker to advance to first base (not yet defined as a “walk”). 
  • Two lines define the box where the pitcher may pitch.  He is restricted to this area for a few rare occurrences to put a dead ball back in play. 


  • Fair balls must be caught on the fly in order to put the striker out.  Foul balls may be caught on the fly or first bound for an out. 
  • The striker must stand on the striking line and not step forward or backward in the act of striking.  (This unpopular rule was rescinded the next year)
  • The “Professional Player” is acknowledged in the rules for the first time and is banned from participation in amateur clubs. 

The basic premise of our vintage matches is one of the codified sets of rules from the National Association of Base-Ball Players. 


Strangely enough, there was never anything specifically written in the rules of this era (nor the current rules of Major League Baseball) regarding stealing.  The only documented rule in the 1860’s is that one may not advance on a foul ball.  Custom dictates that it is rarely, if ever, a part of the gentleman’s game of 1860.  Only when the ball is overthrown or a pitch is muffed by the catcher could a base runner consider advancing.  In 1867 rules games, stealing occurs at an alarming rate, just as it was documented in actual games of that year.  Generally, the topic of stealing and leading off is a major point of discussion during the meeting of the managers prior to the match. 

Bunting is not an acceptable form of striking.  One must swing the bat fully to count it as a strike.  One of the earliest methods of playing small ball would be to swing at the ball in a downward chopping motion.  This would cause the ball to bounce fair and spin in strange directions, sometimes behind the catcher.  This axe swinging motion to hit was commonly referred to as the “Baltimore Chop” at the turn of the century. 


The role of the umpire is established in the rules.  “He shall be the judge of fair and unfair play.”  He is to call out, “In a distinct and audible manner,” all foul balls and baulks, “unasked, immediately upon their occurrence.”  He will issue warnings and strikes to the striker about allowing too many good pitches to go by.  In later years, he issues warnings and balls to the pitcher for not delivering quality pitches. 

Decisions on the field are generally handled by the players.  When one knows he is out, he is a gentleman and walks off the field without protest.  If the players can not come to a decision regarding a call, the captains convene.  When the captains of the two ball clubs are at an impasse in a dispute on the field, the umpire serves as final arbitrator and provides a call on the field. 


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