The History of Pitching

This page talks about the history of pitching according to the rules, the two pitcher positions and how they have been evolving since the rule book was written in 1845.

8.01a  Legal pitching delivery: There are two pitching positions permitted, the Windup Position and the Set Position, and either one may be used at any time.

The Windup Position: The pitcher stands facing the batter, his pivot foot on, or in front of and touching and not off the end of the pitcher’s plate, and the other foot free. From this position any natural movement associated with his delivery of the ball to the batter commits him to pitch without interruption or alteration. He shall not raise either foot from the ground, except that in his actual delivery of the ball to the batter, he may take one step backward and one step forward with his free foot……

The legal pitching position in 1845 had little similarity to what pitchers use now. Alexander Cartwright’s rules called for a pitcher to stand on a line 4 yards long, 45 feet from home plate, and drawn at right angles to a line from home plate to second base.

In 1863 a 12 x 3 foot box with its front line 45 feet and its back line 48 feet distant from the plate was introduced. At the moment he released the ball, a pitcher had to have both feet within the box’s boundaries. The rear line of the box was moved back one foot in 1866. A year later the size of the pitcher’s box was pared to 6 x 4. In 1879 the box’s dimensions were changed to 4 x 6. Two years later the front line of the box was moved back 50 feet, but the box’s size remained the same until 1886 when it was made 7 x 4. In 1887 the length was reduced to 5 1/2 feet, although the width went unchanged.

The next experiment did not occur until 1893, when the distance was increased to 60 feet, 6 inches and the box gave way to a pitcher’s plate 12 inches long by 4 inches wide. Incidentally, a pitcher can still deliver a ball underhand like a slow-pitch softball hurler. But even though there is no limit on the height of a pitch’s arc, underhand “moon” balls are eschewed because they would be crushed by major league hitters. Cleverly disguised bloopers are another matter. Rip Sewell and Bobo Newsom in the 1930’s and 1940’s both developed excellent bloopers that were very effective when mixed in with their other deliveries. Sewell called his the “eephus” ball, after Pittsburgh Pirates teammate Maurice Ban Robays said the pitch was eephus, which in baseball parlance at that time meant it was nothing. Sewell’s blooper sometimes arced as high as 25 feet, and for years he was able to gloat that no one had every hit a homer off it. In the 1946 All-Star game at Boston’s Fenway Park, Ted Williams ended Sewell’s boast by sending one of his eephus balls into orbit.


The Set Position: Set Position shall be indicated by the pitcher when he stands facing the batter with his entire pivot foot on, or in front of, and in contact with, and not off the end of the pitcher’s plate; his other foot in front of the pitcher’s plate, holding the ball in both hands in front of his body and coming to a complete stop. From such Set Position he may deliver the ball to the batter, throw to a base or step backward off the pitcher’s plate with his pivot foot. Before assuming Set Position he may deliver the ball to the batter, throw to a base or step backward off the pitcher’s plate with his pivot foot. Before assuming Set Position, the pitcher my elect to make any natural preliminary motion such as that known as “the stretch.” But if he so elects, he shall come to Set Position before delivering the ball to the batter…..

THE RULE THAT a pitcher following his stretch, must come to a complete stop before making his delivery, was intended to prevent pitchers from quick-pitching in order to hold runners closer to their bases, but through the history of pitching it has meant chaos each time there is a crusade to enforce it to the letter.

In 1950, when it was first said that a pitcher had to have a pause a full second after his stretch with a runner on, Umpires called 88 balks in the first two weeks of the Pacific Coast League season after there had only been 54 balks in the two major leagues all together the year before. Another such attempt in the late 1970’s saw Frank Tanana set a new American League single-season record for balks in 1978 with 8 and Steve Carlton shatter the National League mark the next year having 11 called. In 1984, with enforcement of the complete-stop rule again not called as harshly, Tanana tied for the AL lead in balks with just 4 and Dwight Gooden and Steve Carlton tied the NL balk title with 7. Several years after that, when umpires were told to come down more effectively on pitchers who were apt to quick-pitch from the stretch position, eight pitchers in the AL alone were charged with 10 or more balks, led by Dave Steward’s 16. Umpires socked American League pitchers with an all-time record 557 balks in 1988. Most were assessed in the early part of the season before officials in the AL and NL understood the situation was becoming crazy, and without notice, asked the umpires to ease the calls up a little.


8.01d  If the pitcher makes an illegal pitch with the bases unoccupied, it shall be called a ball unless the batter reaches first base on a hit, an error, a base on balls, a hit batter or otherwise…..

Having also to learn to pitch within a box where dimensions were always changing, a pitcher before 1893 faced several other restrictions. Most of all, he had to change the way he delivered the pitch in order to keep pace with all the rule changes. Until 1868 a pitcher was made to have both feet in contact with the ground when he threw the ball, and it had to be sent with a straight arm swinging parallel to the body or in much the same manner as the delivery of a slow-pitch softball pitcher. In 1872 pitchers for the first time were allowed to deliver the ball with the elbows bent, making them able to snap their wrists and then throw breaking pitches as long as they kept their pitching hands below their hips when they reached their release point. The rule was changed a little in 1878, having pitchers keep their hand below their waists. The next year it was ruled that a pitcher had to face the batter when he took his position to pitch the ball, thus making it easier for an umpire, as well as a batter, to see more easily when he released the ball.

The 1883 season marked the next attempt to make it easier for an umpire, as pitchers now could throw the ball from any angle or height below their shoulders. But when this modification still proved too hard for umpires to monitor, the National League surrendered in 1884 and permitted overhand pitching at last.

The Spaulding guide for the 1884 season commented: “The League simply allows what experience has taught them they could not effectively prevent.” The surrender to exponents of overhand pitching was a concession that many observers feared would reduce the offensive output of the game to almost nothing.

That prediction did not become the case, but hitters struggle enough in the 1884 season to cause the National League to bring back the ban on overhand pitching the following season. The prohibition once again was so hard to enforce, though, that a month into the 1885 season, the NL changed back to the 1884 rule. Within days, the American Association and the other professional circuits also grudgingly lifted all restrictions on the height from which a pitcher could deliver the ball.

But even though overhand pitching was now universally legal, Will White, Tim Keefe, and many more of the game’s leading pitchers continued to throw with an underhand wrist snap because they felt it saved wear and tear on the arms and they were too far along in their career to make a change. By the early 1890’s overhand pitching became the way it was done as young hurlers like Amos Rusie, Kid Nichols, and Cy Young appeared on the pitching circuit. All of them just rookies in 1885 when the overhand delivery was first allowed throughout baseball, still in the formative stages of learning their style, and so were quickly able to change when the last restriction was lifted on the way a pitcher could deploy to pitch to the hitters.

Also to aid the batters against overhand pitching only 50 feet distance from the plate, in 1887 pitchers for the first time were all permitted to take only one step toward the plate as they threw the ball. Before that time most of the pitchers pitched after a running start, which was allowed as long as their pitch began and stopped within the lines of the pitcher’s box. Arguments as to whether pitchers exceeded the boundaries were always talked about, but with only one ump around to call the violations, the argument always went in favor of the pitcher. In July 1884 the Cincinnati Red Stocking of the American Association, after complaining all season that Louisville’s Guy Hecker was beyond the front line of the box all the time when he threw the ball, finally put a row of stones in front of the pitcher’s box in Cincinnati’s American Park so that Hecker would slip on them if he finished his delivery outside it. In retaliation the Louisville club, after grumbling to no avail that Cincinnati ace Will White stood out of bounds when he started his delivery, planted a wall of stones along the right side of the pitcher’s box in Eclipse Park.

In 1886, the last year a running start was allowed, Baltimore Orioles rookie left-hander Matt Kilroy fanned an all-time record 513 batters and another rookie hurler with Louisville, Tad Ramsey, got 499 hitters to saw the air. The following year, with batters now also given four strikes, Ramsey’s whiff total fell to 355 and Kilroy collected just 217 K’s.

Along with not allowing the running start, MLB officials told umpires to be stricter on pitchers who were not obeying the rule to face the batter when they pitched the ball. In the mid-1880’s both major leagues had their share of jokers. Ed Begley of the New York Giants always kept his back to the batter until the last possible minute before he threw the ball. Peek-a-Boo Veach employed a similar delivery, this is why the nickname. Larry McKeon evolved many deceptive tactics to hide the ball from both batter and base runners but, nevertheless, contrived to lose a rookie-record 41 games for Indianapolis in 1884. By the early 1890’s all three rules were gone from baseball. Good? Maybe because there were as many styles of pitching as there pitchers. Now most are very similar. 



Once the 50-foot pitching distance went the way of the one-bounce out and fair-foul rule in 1893, many pitchers who fashioned outstanding stats before the distance was increased were unable to make the adjustment when they had to add “legs” to their curves and fastballs, but probably none was more miserable than Charles Leander Jones, best know as “Bumpus”. After winning 27 games in the minors earlier in the year, Bumpus Jones was purchased by the Cincinnati Red in time to hurl the closing contest of the 1892 season. His first game in the majors coincided with the final day that hurlers threw from a rectangular box just 50 feet from the plate. On October 15, 1892, Bumpus Jones inaugurated his career distance with a feat that has never been done again. He threw a no-hitter in his first major league game, defeating Pittsburgh 7-1.

Still happy, Jones came to spring training with the Reds in 1893 only to find that he would now have to start his delivery 60 feet 6 inches from the plate. The change was too much for him to overcome. Seven appearances into the 1893 season, Jones toted a 10.19 ERA and he was released. Never again did he enter a major league field as a pitcher.

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