THE SPORT OF BASEBALL – AN OVERVIEW
Baseball is a sport that is so popular in the United States that it is often called the national pastime. Every spring and summer, millions of people throughout the country play this exciting “bat and ball” game. Millions also watch baseball games and closely follow the progress of their favorite teams and players.
There are organized baseball teams for every age group from 6-year-olds to adults. The teams that attract the most interest are those of the two major leagues: the American League and the National League. These teams are made up of men who rank as the world’s best players. Every year, about 50 million people flock to ballparks to watch major league baseball games. Many more millions watch games on television, listen to them on radio, read about them in newspapers, and discuss them with their friends.
Baseball began in the eastern United States in the mid-1800’s. By the late 1800’s, people throughout the country were playing the game. The National League was founded in 1876, and the American League in 1900. Through the years, baseball spread from the United States to other parts of the world. Today, it ranks as a major sport in such countries as Canada, Italy, Japan, Taiwan, the Netherlands, South Africa, and many Latin-American nations.
This article discusses Baseball (How the game is played) (Baseball leagues) (History) (Baseball around the world).
How the game is played
A baseball game is played on a large field between two teams of 9 or 10 players each. The teams take turns at bat (on offense) and in the field (on defense). A player of the team in the field, called the pitcher, throws a baseball toward a player of the team at bat, called the batter. The batter tries to hit the ball with a bat and drive it out of the reach of the players in the field. By hitting the ball, and in other ways, players can advance around the four bases that lie on the field. A player who does so scores a run. The team that scores the most runs wins the game.
The information in this section is based on the rules of major league baseball. Most other leagues follow much the same rules. The section on Baseball leagues later in this article lists some exceptions. For information on softball, a popular game based on baseball, see Softball.
Players and equipment
Players. National League baseball teams include nine players: a pitcher, catcher, first baseman, second baseman, shortstop, third baseman, left fielder, center fielder, and right fielder. Each player plays a defensive position when his team is in the field and takes a turn as the batter when his team is at bat.
American League teams include the same players, but they may—and almost always do—use a tenth player. This player, called the designated hitter (dh ), bats in place of the pitcher. The dh does not play a defensive position. All other players except the dh and the pitcher both bat and play in the field. The American League adopted the designated hitter rule in 1973.
Baseball teams also have substitute players. A substitute may replace any player except the pitcher at any time. A pitcher must face at least one batter before leaving the game. A player who leaves a game for a substitute may not return to the game.
Other members of a baseball team include a manager and several coaches. The manager decides which players will play in the game and directs the team’s strategy. The coaches assist the manager.
Equipment. A baseball is a small, hard, round ball. It measures from 9 to 9 1/4inches (23 to 23.5 centimeters) in circumference and weighs between 5 and 5 1/4ounces (142 and 148.8 grams). A tiny cork ball forms the center of the ball. Tightly wrapped layers of rubber and yarn surround the cork. Two strips of white cowhide sewn together with thick red thread cover the ball. Until 1974, the cover was made of horsehide, rather than cowhide. For this reason, baseballs are sometimes called horsehides.
Abaseball bat is a long, rounded piece of wood. Most bats are made of ash wood, but some are made of hackberry or hickory. A major league baseball bat may not measure more than 42 inches (107 centimeters) long or 2 3/4inches (7 centimeters) in diameter at its thickest point.
Each defensive player wears a padded leather glove, and uses it to catch the ball. There are three kinds of gloves: the catcher’s mitt, which is worn by the catcher; the first baseman’s glove, which is worn by the first baseman; and the fielder’s glove, which is worn by all other players.
All players wear shoes with spikes on the soles so they can stop and start quickly. Most players wear shoes with metal spikes. But some wear shoes with synthetic rubber spikes when they play on fields covered by artificial turf. Players also wear uniforms, which include socks, knickers, a jersey, and a cap. The batter wears a special plastic cap called a batting helmet. The helmets are designed to avoid injuries to batters who are hit in the head with a ball.
A catcher wears special equipment for protection. A metal mask protects the catcher’s face. A chest protector of padded cloth covers the catcher’s chest and stomach. Plastic shin guards protect the catcher’s legs.
A baseball field includes three sections. They are (1) the infield, (2) the outfield, and (3) foul territory. The infield and outfield make up fair territory. Walls or fences surround the baseball field. The size and shape of the outfield and foul territory vary from ballpark to ballpark. However, the infield has the same size and shape in every ballpark.
A baseball field is covered partly by grass, or artificial turf, and partly by dirt. The diagram in this article shows a typical field. But some of the newest fields have artificial turf, rather than dirt, between the bases. A small, dirt sliding pit surrounds each base.
The infield is a square area with a base at each corner. The bases are—in counterclockwise order—- home plate, first base, second base, and third base. Each base lies 90 feet (27.4 meters) from the next one.
Home plate is a slab of white rubber sunk into the ground so that its top is level with the ground. The front of the plate—the part that faces the rest of the infield—is 17 inches (43 centimeters) wide. The plate tapers off to a point in the back.
First base, second base, and third base are white canvas bags filled with kapok or some other soft material. Each bag is 15 inches (38 centimeters) square and from 3 to 5 inches (8 to 13 centimeters) thick. Spikes anchor the bags to the ground.
White lines made by chalk, lime, or some other material mark the boundaries of a batter’s box on the left and right sides of home plate. Each box is 6 feet (1.8 meters) long and 4 feet (1.2 meters) wide. A catcher’s box 5 feet (1.5 meters) long and 3 feet 7 inches (1.1 meters) wide lies behind the plate. Technically, the catcher’s box lies in foul territory. But it is usually considered part of the infield.
A straight white line called a foul line extends out from each side of home plate. These lines run past first and third base to the walls or fences at the end of the outfield. Each foul line is 3 inches (8 centimeters) wide.
A pitcher’s mound rises near the center of the infield. The mound measures 18 feet (5.5 meters) in diameter and reaches a height of 10 inches (25 centimeters) at its center. A slab of white rubber called the pitcher’s rubber is sunk into the ground at the center of the mound. The plate measures 24 inches (61 centimeters) by 6 inches (15 centimeters). It lies 60 feet 6 inches (18.4 meters) from home plate.
The outfield lies between the infield and the walls or fences farthest from home plate. Technically, the outfield begins directly behind first, second, and third base. But people usually think of the area just behind the bases as part of the infield. They consider the grass line the dividing point between the infield and the outfield. The grass line is the part of the field where the dirt beyond the bases ends and grass or artificial turf begins. In fields that have an artificial turf infield, a white line marks the location of the grass line.
The size of the outfield varies from field to field. But a major league rule sets minimum sizes. The rule requires that in ballparks opened before June 1, 1958, the outfield must be big enough so that the distance from home plate to the left and right field walls or fences at the foul lines is at least 250 feet (76.2 meters). The distance for ballparks opened after that date must be at least 325 feet (99.1 meters) down each foul line and at least 400 feet (121.9 meters) in center field.
Foul territory is the part of the field behind home plate and across the foul lines from the infield and the outfield. There is no standard size for foul territory. But the major league rule book recommends that the distance between home plate and the wall behind it be at least 60 feet (18.3 meters).
Two dugouts –one for each team—re built into the wall in foul territory. One lies behind first base, and the other behind third. Usually, the managers and other team members not required to be on the field sit in the dugouts.
White lines outline two coach’s boxes in foul territory—one near first and one near third. The boxes measure 10 feet by 20 feet (3 by 6.1 meters).
An on-deck circle 5 feet (1.5 meters) in diameter lies between each dugout and home plate. The batter who follows the one at bat awaits a turn at bat in the circle nearest the dugout of the team at bat.
A field also includes a bull pen for each team. These areas have space where substitutes can warm up (practice) before entering the game. In some ballparks, the bull pens lie in foul territory across the foul lines from the outfield. In other parks, they are located beyond the outfield walls or fences.
Player positions. The pitcher of the team in the field stands on the pitcher’s mound. The pitcher must have one foot in contact with the pitcher’s rubber when throwing the ball. The catcher crouches behind home plate, within the boundaries of the catcher’s box. The catcher makes hand signals that tell the pitcher what kind of pitches to throw and catches balls that pass the batter. The pitcher and catcher are called the team’s battery.
The first baseman and second baseman play between first and second base, and the shortstop and third baseman between second and third. These players, called infielders, try to catch balls hit short distances by batters.
The left fielder, center fielder, and right fielder spread out across the outfield. Called outfielders, these players try to catch balls hit past and over the heads of the infielders.
The batter of the team at bat stands in a batter’s box. Left-handed batters stand in the box to the right of home plate. Right-handers stand in the box to the left of the plate.
A coach of the team at bat stands in each coach’s box. The coaches receive hand signals regarding strategy from the manager. They relay the signals to batters and base runners.
Umpires serve as the officials of baseball games. In most major league games, there are four umpires. One umpire stands near each base.
Basically, baseball matches the skills of the pitcher against those of the batter. But fielders and base runners also play key roles in the game.
Pitching. A good pitcher can throw a variety of pitches. The most common pitches are the fast ball, the curve ball, and the slider. A fast ball thrown by a major league pitcher may travel more than 90 miles (145 kilometers) per hour. A curve ball thrown by a right-handed pitcher breaks sharply to the left and downward as it reaches the batter. A left-hander’s curve breaks to the right and downward. A slider looks like a curve ball. However, the slider seems to “slide” rather than break sharply, and it does not move downward. Other pitches include the screwball, which breaks just like—but in the opposite direction from—the curve ball; the sinker, which drops sharply as it reaches the batter; and the knuckle ball, which may break to the left or right, or downward. See Bernoulli’s principle.
Batting. Many experts believe that a batter’s job of hitting a ball thrown by a major league pitcher is the hardest thing to do in any sport. The ball reaches the batter in a fraction of a second. It may move in any of the ways described above as it reaches home plate. Even so, batters are able to follow the flight of the ball, whip the bat around quickly, and drive the ball sharply into the field. A batter may take a full swing and try to hit the ball as far and hard as possible. Or, a batter may take less than a full swing and try to poke the ball between fielders. This batting strategy is called place hitting.
Fielding. Good fielders can catch almost any ball hit near them and race far after balls and catch them. They can also throw the ball with great speed and accuracy to put out runners. A single outstanding play by a fielder can win a game for a team.
Base running. Good base runners can steal bases, and take an extra base (one more base than usual) on batted balls. They can quickly judge when to try to advance and when to stay near the base. A base runner, like a fielder, can win a baseball game with one outstanding play.
Before a baseball game begins, the manager of each team makes a list that shows that team’s line-up and batting order. A line-up tells which player will play each defensive position. A batting order shows the order in which the players will take their turns at bat.
The team on whose field the game is played is called the home team. The other team is the visiting team. The visiting team takes the first turn at bat and the home team players go to their positions in the field. The team’s turn at bat lasts until its players make three outs. Every time a player advances around the bases during the turn at bat, the team is credited with a run. When the visiting team’s turn at bat is over, the home team comes to bat and the visitors take the field.
One turn at bat by each team is called an inning. A regulation baseball game lasts nine innings. The team with the most runs at the end of the game wins. If the two teams have the same number of runs after nine innings, they play extra innings until one of them scores more runs than the other in an inning.
Each player who comes to bat during a baseball game tries to reach base and advance around the bases. The pitcher and other players of the team in the field try to put each batter out. There are many ways in which the players make outs, reach base, and advance around the bases.
Outs by batters. Most batters make outs in one of three ways—by strikeouts, groundouts, or fly-outs.
Strikeouts. A batter strikes out by making three strikes during a turn at bat. There are four kinds of strikes— swinging strikes, called strikes, foul strikes, and foul tips.
A batter makes a swinging strike by swinging at a pitch and missing it. A called strike occurs when a batter takes (does not swing at) a pitch and the home plate umpire rules that the pitch was within the strike zone. A pitch within the strike zone is one that passes over any part of home plate in a zone that extends from the midpoint between the shoulders and the belt to just below the batter’s kneecap.
A batter makes a foul strike by hitting a foul ball when there are fewer than two strikes against the batter. Foul balls include all batted balls that: (1) settle in foul territory between home plate and first base or home plate and third base, (2) bounce or roll past first or third in foul territory, or (3) land in foul territory beyond first or third. Usually, a foul ball hit after two strikes does not count as a strike. But if the batter bunts (taps the ball) foul after two strikes, it does count as a strike.
A foul tip occurs when a batter hits a ball directly back to the catcher and the catcher catches the ball on the fly. All foul tips count as strikes, no matter how many strikes the batter already has.
Groundouts. A batter grounds out after hitting a fair ball that touches the ground by failing to reach first base before a fielder holding the ball touches the base or tags the batter with the ball. Fair balls include all batted balls that: (1) settle in fair territory between home plate and first base or home plate and third base, (2) bounce or roll past first or third in fair territory or hit either base, (3) land in fair territory beyond first or third, or (4) pass over an outfield wall or fence in fair territory. Almost all groundouts result from balls hit to infielders or the pitcher.
Fly-outs. A batter flies out after hitting a fair ball or foul ball if a fielder catches the ball on the fly. The foul tip, described earlier, is an exception to the fly out rule. Foul tips count as strikes, rather than outs.
Fly-outs hit short distances and high into the air are often called pop-ups. Those hit hard and on a fairly straight line are line-outs.
Other outs. There are several less common ways in which batters can make outs. For example, batters are out if they hit a fair ball and run into the ball, or if they bat out of turn and the opposing manager points out this violation to the home plate umpire.
Reaching base. Most batters reach base through base hits. A batter makes a base hit by (1) hitting a fair ball that is not caught on the fly, and (2) reaching first base before a fielder holding the ball touches the base or tags the batter with the ball. A batter who makes a base hit may continue to run around the bases. But if a fielder tags the batter with the ball while the batter is off base, the batter is out.
A base hit that enables a batter to reach first base is called a single. One on which a batter reaches second base is a double, third base a triple, and home plate a home run. Most singles result from balls hit into the infield or past the infielders but in front of the outfielders. Most doubles and triples are made on hits that get past outfielders. Almost all home runs result from batted balls hit over an outfield wall or fence. A batter who makes such a hit can simply trot around the bases, and cannot be tagged out.
A batter who hits a ball and reaches base because of a fielder’s mistake is credited with a hit on error, rather than a base hit. One who reaches base because the fielders tried to put a base runner out is credited with a fielder’s choice.
Batters can also reach base without hitting the ball. The most common way is to receive a walk, or base on balls. A batter walks if the pitcher throws four balls (pitches outside the strike zone) during that batter’s turn at bat. A batter who walks goes to first base. A batter also goes to first base if the pitcher hits that batter with the ball. In addition, a batter goes to first on catcher interference. Catcher interference occurs when the catcher touches the bat when a batter is swinging.
Base runners —advancing and outs. A batter who reaches base becomes a base runner. Base runners try to advance around the bases and score runs for their team. The defensive players try to put the base runners out.
Base runners may try to advance at any time. But they usually wait until the batter hits the ball, and then decide whether or not to try to advance. If there are no outs or one out and a batter hits a ball that is likely to be caught on the fly, base runners stay near their bases. They do so because they must tag up (touch their bases) after a fly out. If a runner fails to tag up before a fielder holding the ball touches the runner’s base or tags the runner with the ball, the runner is out. After tagging up, a runner can try to advance to the next base. The runner must reach the base before being tagged with the ball by a fielder, or else the runner is out.
When there are two outs, runners usually try to advance as soon as a fly ball is hit. They do so because their team’s turn at bat ends as soon as a fielder catches the ball.
Base runners do not have to tag up if a batter hits a ball that touches the ground. But depending on the situation, runners may stay near their bases or run toward the next base on a ground ball. They stay near their bases if they judge that they will not be able to reach the next base before being tagged with the ball. This situation usually occurs on ground balls hit sharply to infielders. If runners believe they can get to the next base before being tagged, they run toward the base. They are out if they fail, and safe if they succeed.
In some situations—called force situations —base runners must try to advance to the next base. A force situation occurs when a batter hits a ground ball and a runner occupies a base another player is entitled to. A batter who hits a ground ball is always entitled to first base. As a result, a runner on first is forced to advance on a ground ball. If a team has runners on first and second base—or on first, second, and third base—all the runners are forced to advance on ground balls. In such cases, each runner forces the runner on the next base. The runners make a force-out if they fail to reach the next base before a fielder with the ball touches the base. The fielder does not have to tag the runner in order to put the runner out.
Sometimes, base runners run with the pitch. That is, they race toward the next base as soon as the pitcher throws the ball. This strategy has both advantages and disadvantages. If the batter takes the pitch, and the runner gets to the next base before being tagged with the ball by a fielder, the runner is safe at the base. This play is called a stolen base. But if the runner fails to reach the base before being tagged, the runner is out. A runner who runs with the pitch can often advance farther on a hit than one who waits until the batter hits the ball. However, the runner risks being put out on a fly ball. Such a runner may end up so far from the base that it is impossible to get back to tag up before a fielder holding the ball touches the base.
Base runners can make outs and advance in other ways than those already described. For example, a runner is out if hit by a batted ball while in fair territory and not on a base. A runner on first base advances to second if the batter walks or is hit by a pitch. If the team also has a runner on second—or runners on second or third—those runners also move to the next base.
Umpires. Most major league games have four umpires. They are the home plate umpire, first base umpire, second base umpire, and third base umpire. The home plate umpire has the most important job. Every time a batter takes a pitch, the home plate umpire must decide whether it was a ball or a strike. This umpire also decides whether runners trying to reach home plate were safe or out. The first base umpire rules on plays at first base, the second base umpire on plays at second, and the third base umpire on plays at third. The first base and third base umpires also decide whether balls hit down the foul lines were fair or foul.
Many people play baseball on an informal basis. They get together with their friends, choose up sides, and play a ball game. But millions of people also play on a formal, organized basis. They join teams that belong to a league. The teams play regularly scheduled games against other teams in their league. The team with the best record at the end of the schedule, or the team that wins a play-off, becomes the league champion.
Baseball leagues range from those for players as young as 6 years old to leagues for adults. The adult leagues include the major leagues and the minor leagues. These leagues are professional leagues. Almost all other leagues are amateur leagues.
Major league and minor league teams consist entirely of men. Almost all players on most amateur teams are boys or men. But in the 1970’s, many girls began demanding the right to play on boys’ teams. Some teams now allow girls to join their teams.
There are two major baseball leagues, the American League and the National League. The American League consists of 14 teams, and the National League consists of 16 teams. The teams in each league are divided into three divisions—East, Central, and West. Of the 28 teams that play in the major leagues, 27 are in the United States. The other team is in Toronto, Canada.
Regular season. Every major league team plays 162 games during the regular season. The major league season starts in early April and ends in late September or early October. During the regular season, each major league team plays all the other teams in its league. Teams in both leagues play half their games at home and half on the fields of their opponents. The teams that finish with the best record in each division win the division championships.
Play-offs. Four teams in each league qualify for play-offs after the regular season. They are the three division winners and the second-place team with the best record. In the first round of the play-offs, the second place team plays a division winner and the other two division winners play each other. The first team to win three games moves to the next round of play-offs. The first team in this round to win four games wins the pennant (becomes the league champion).
World Series. The American and National League pennant winners meet in the World Series. The first team to win four series games wins the world championship. The World Series is one of the world’s major sports events. Played every year since 1903—except in 1904 and 1994—it captures the interest of millions of people. Many people who have only a small interest in baseball follow the series. TV and radio stations send play-by-play coverage of the series throughout the United States and to many other countries.
All-Star Game is a special game played during the regular season. It matches outstanding American League players against star players of the National League. Baseball fans choose the starting line-ups—except the pitchers—for the two teams. The managers of the teams select the starting pitchers and all substitutes.
Minor leagues serve as training grounds for major league baseball players. Most minor league teams are owned by, or have a working agreement with, a major league team. Under a working agreement, the major league team helps support the minor league team, usually by paying that team’s salaries. In return, the minor league team trains players for the major league team.
There are 17 minor leagues with a total of about 200 teams. The classifications—from the highest to the lowest—are Class AAA, Class AA, and Class A. Most players start their career in a Class A league. As they improve, they move to a higher league, and some eventually reach the major leagues. Most minor league teams play in the United States. A few play in southern Canada. Mexico also has a league. Each year, the major leagues hold a draft to select new players. The teams select players primarily from high school and college teams. The new players are normally assigned to a minor league team to gain experience.
A number of national and regional organizations administer amateur baseball programs for young players. They include the American Amateur Baseball Congress, Babe Ruth Baseball, Little League Baseball, and Pony Baseball. Players can join leagues in some organizations when they are 6 years old. The players may advance to other leagues in the program until they are in their late teens. Local organizations, such as park districts, have similar programs for young players.
Teen-agers also play amateur baseball in American Legion leagues and Babe Ruth leagues. Most high schools and colleges have baseball teams that belong to a league. The National Baseball Congress sponsors amateur leagues for adults.
Most amateur baseball leagues follow the same rules as the major leagues, but some have special rules. For example, the teams of leagues for young players play on fields that are smaller than those of the major leagues. Also, the games of these teams may be scheduled for fewer than nine innings. Some leagues allow players to use aluminum bats to hold down the cost of equipment. Wooden bats sometimes break when a batter hits the ball, but aluminum bats do not. High school leagues allow starting players to leave and return to the game once. This rule enables more players to participate.
Baseball around the world
Baseball has become popular in a number of countries outside the United States and Canada. It is especially strong in Latin America and Japan. Many of the biggest stars in American major league baseball have come from Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and such Caribbean countries as Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Baseball is one of the most popular sports in Mexico, exceeded only by soccer. Many Mexicans play on baseball teams in amateur leagues, and Mexico also has professional baseball leagues.
In Japan, baseball has become the national sport. An American teacher at the Kaisei School in Tokyo introduced the game to Japan in 1873. Baseball grew rapidly in popularity among students. Today, thousands of secondary schools and colleges field baseball teams. Professional baseball in Japan began in 1934, when the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants team was organized. In 1935, the Osaka Tigers team was founded. In 1936, seven teams formed the Japan Professional Baseball Federation, which was disbanded during World War II (1939-1945). Since 1950, two professional leagues, each consisting of six teams, have competed. The champions of each league then compete in a seven-game tournament for the national championship.
Baseball has also spread to some European countries. In 1953, European countries formed the European Baseball Federation to organize the European Baseball Championship. Nine countries take part—Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.
Baseball is widely played in Australia. Visiting American miners introduced baseball to Australia in 1873. Five states began competing for the Claxton Shield in 1934. The game increased in popularity after it changed from a winter sport to a summer sport in 1965. Australia became a member of the Baseball Federation of Asia in 1970.