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On This Day: Knickerbocker Club Establishes Rules of Modern Baseball

Last updated: February 15, 2023

On Sept. 23, 1845, the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club was founded. Its bylaws, which included rules on how to play the game, are considered the basis of modern baseball rules.

The Knickerbocker Rules

Early forms of baseball, based on the English games of cricket and rounders, were a popular recreation for many men in 19th century New York, including bank clerk and volunteer fireman Alexander Cartwright. In 1845, Cartwright and a group of fellow players began playing across the Hudson River at the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, N.J.

On Sept. 23, 1845, these men formed the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club. They drafted a constitution and bylaws, which included rules for playing the game of baseball. These rules are credited for forming the basis of modern baseball.

The Knickerbocker Rules implemented several rules to the game that are now familiar to baseball fans. It introduced foul territory and mandated that players must be tagged or forced out at a base rather than pegged with the ball.

The rules are sometimes credited with setting the modern pitching and base distances, but this is not true. The rules do not mention pitching distance and they set the distance between home and second base, and between first and third base, at 42 paces (105 feet), which would leave the distance between each base at 74.25 feet (rather than the modern 90 feet). The rules also do not set a length for the game; the game was over when one team scored 21 “counts, or aces,” meaning runs.

The Knickerbocker Club played its first game on Oct. 6, 1845. On June 19, 1846, it played its first game against an opposing club, losing 23-1 to the New York Club.

Who Created the Rules?

Cartwright is credited with being the architect of the Knickerbocker Rules, which are alternatively known as the Cartwright Rules. However, there is little evidence that Cartwright had more influence in the Knickerbocker Club than any other member, most notably Daniel “Doc” Adams, Duncan Curry, and William Wheaton.

A number of the rules credited to Cartwright were likely created by others. Wheaton claimed in 1887 that it was his idea to make the infield a diamond instead of a square, and to outlaw throwing the ball at runners.

Cartwright left the club in 1849 to search for gold in California. It was after his departure that the number of New York-area clubs began to grow and the need for more defined rules was needed.

In 1857, at a convention of players from 16 teams, it was determined that the game should last nine innings. The next year, Adams set the distance between bases at 30 yards (90 feet), which remains the standard distance, and the pitching distance at 15 yards (45 feet), which was later increased to 60 feet, 6 inches. He also advocated that only balls caught in the air, rather than on one bounce, be an automatic out, a rule that was adopted later.

The Origins of Baseball

Sources in this Story

  • Society for American Baseball Research: The Baseball Biography Project: Alexander Cartwright
  • Society for American Baseball Research: The Baseball Biography Project: Doc Adams
  • Baseball Almanac: Knickerbocker Rules
  • American Heritage: The Man Who Didn’t Invent Baseball
  • The BBC: Baseball’s UK heritage confirmed
  • Base Ball Discovered

The popular myth of baseball’s creation is that Abner Doubleday, who served as a Union general during the Civil War, invented the game in Cooperstown, N.Y., in 1839. Doubleday purportedly used a stick to draw an outline of the field in the dirt, and explained the positions and rules of the game to a group of children.

The source of this myth is a commission formed in 1905 by retired player and sporting goods mogul Albert Goodwill Spalding, who wanted to determine that baseball was invented in America with no influence from English games. The commission, headed by former National League president A. G. Mills, was told the story of Doubleday by Cooperstown resident Abner Graves.

The Mills Commission published the story in its official report, even though there were a number of inconsistencies, particularly that Doubleday never spoke of the game and was not in Cooperstown in 1839.

The true origins of baseball go back to the British games such as cricket, rounders and stoolball, which date to the 16th and 17th centuries. A diary recently unearthed in Surrey, England, makes reference to a game of “base ball” in 1755. The diary, notes the BBC, indicates “the game was a well-established sport in the 18th century and was played by men and women.”

References to the game in the U.S. are made in 18th century. In the 19th century, “town ball,” a variation of rounders, became popular in the East Coast and would soon evolve in baseball.

The rules of the games varied by location, and two popular versions formed: the “Massachusetts Game” and the “New York Game,” codified by the Knickerbocker Club. The New York Game grew more quickly among baseball clubs and would become the national game.

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