A pitcher throws underhand in this illustration of the early game of professional baseball, which celebrates 150 years in 2019. Batters could actually call for a high or a low pitch in the early days. (Library of Congress)

KidsPost readers may have noticed that Major League Baseball (MLB) players are wearing a patch on their uniforms: MLB 150. The patch celebrates the 150th anniversary of the first openly professional baseball team, the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings.

Recently, I have been reading about baseball in the 1800s in a wonderful book, “The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract.” Back then, baseball was very different from baseball today. How different? Take a look.

In the 1870s, pitchers didn’t throw overhand. They threw underhand
(like softball) from a pitcher’s box about 45 feet from home plate.

And get this, the batter could order a high or a low pitch. They moved the pitcher’s mound to the current 60 feet
6 inches in 1893, and the batter couldn’t order the pitch he wanted after about 1887.


A poster advertising a pro game in Maine features a catcher wearing no glove. (Library of Congress)

It has always been three strikes you’re out, but in the early days of baseball it took nine (!) balls to get a walk. After changing the rule several times, they decided in 1889 on the current rule of four balls for a walk. And until 1901, a foul ball was never a strike. It was just a do-over. So there were not a lot of strikeouts or walks.

But there were plenty of errors because not all the fielders wore gloves. Some tried to field the ball barehanded. Ouch!

The last position player to play without a glove was Jerry Denny, who retired (barehanded) after the 1894 season. Denny played third base for the Louisville Colonels.

Denny was ambidextrous, meaning he could throw right-handed or left-handed. He usually threw right-handed, but if he fielded the ball with his left hand and was in a hurry, he would throw with his left hand.

Players’ responsibilities were different in the old days. They were expected to pitch in for the business. For example, if you went to a game back then, a player might take your ticket at the gate. Imagine handing your ticket to Max Scherzer or Anthony Rendon at Nationals Park.

In addition, the players would sometimes help the owners build the ballparks. Of course, the parks were simpler in the 1800s. They were usually made of wooden fences and wooden grandstands.

The big problem with ballparks was they often burned down. James reports “several parks as usual” burned down during the 1890s.

In the early days of baseball, the home plate was made of stone, iron or wood. Players kept getting hurt by the plate. So a player — Robert M. Keating — invented the white, rubber home plate with a black border that is still used today.

Finally, some of the teams had weird names or nicknames. There were the Boston Beaneaters (1893-1906), Brooklyn Bridegrooms (1888-1891, 1896-1899), Chicago Orphans (1898-1902) and St. Louis Perfectos (1899).

One-hundred-and-fifty years of professional baseball have meant a lot of changes. Imagine what the game will be like 150 years from now.