Overview of Vintage Base
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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
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
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
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.