Why do baseball pitchers stand on a mound?

Charles Tips:

1884 was a banner year in professional baseball.

  • It was the first year pitchers could legally pitch overhand.
  • It was the season that set the stage for the World Series.
  • It was the year that baseball gloves made their debut.
  • Also, Charlie “Old Hoss” Radbourn set the most unassailable record in baseball that year with 62 (counting his post-season victories), 60 or 59 wins as a pitcher, according to various interpretations of the rules. And that was in a 112-game season.

Old Hoss’s Providence Grays won the National League with a record of 84 and 28 over the runner-up Boston Beaneaters at 73 and 38. They then swept the New York Metropolitans, champions of the American Association, three games to none at the Polo Grounds in a series billed by tabloids as the first “world championship” of baseball. Old Hoss recorded all three wins.

That’s Old Hoss Radbourn pictured above, I believe from the ’86 season after many of the Grays were acquired by the Beaneaters. As the picture hints, Radbourn held a second historical distinction, the first man photographed, not once but twice, unambiguously “shooting the finger.” He was a legendarily fierce competitor.

This was bare-knuckle, bare-hand baseball. There were no relief pitchers. In fact, the rules forbade substitutions for any player not pretty much totally incapacitated. You start the game, you finish the game, even if it went extra innings.

The changes that began in 1884, especially allowing overhand pitching, reverberated through baseball to produce the modern game. It soon led to the pitcher’s mound but a lot more besides.

Hello, Pitcher’s Box

Yes, Old Hoss pitched underhanded, though occasionally in 1884 overhanded, but think of the style of a Kent Tekulve, Dennis Eckersley, Dan Quisenberry, Chad Bradford, or Byung-Hyun Kim to get a better idea of what batters faced.

He, like all other pitchers of the day, pitched from a box using a run-up. The box was level with the field, 4-feet wide and 6-feet long. The front of the box was a mere 50 feet from the plate.

Bye-Bye, Upper Strike Zone

One of the curiosities of baseball is the strike zone.

Rule 2.00: The Strike Zone

The STRIKE ZONE is that area over home plate the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the kneecap. The Strike Zone shall be determined from the batter's stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball.

The rules clearly state to this day that the upper limit of the strike zone extends to the middle of the chest; yet, as every fan knows, umpires won’t call a strike much above the belt, if that. What gives?

What gives is that in 1884 there were two strike zones—upper and lower. On taking his turn at bat, a batter would inform the umpire (there was only one per game then, which also led to some interesting baseball rules) which zone to call, and the umpire would duly inform the pitcher. As overhand pitchers grew to dominate, the upper strike zone fell out of use.

Hello, Gloves

By 1884, protective masks had been around for some few umpires and catchers for a year or two. However, a hard-hit foul ball straight to the mask would often snap the fencing wire used to fashion these homemade affairs, lacerating the wearer’s face. They were not widely adopted.

1889 photo of the hands of retired bare-handed catcher Doug Allison.

But toward the latter part of the 1884 season, Grays’ second baseman Jack Farrell broke two fingers on his non-throwing hand, leading him to make a cushioned leather glove so that he could continue to play. Given that he was a star player on the championship team, beginning the following season, young players started imitating him, despite the derision of their teammates. Within a few seasons, mitts, gloves and proper chest protectors and masks for catchers and umpires were standard equipment.

Bye-Bye, Pitcher’s BoxHello, Mound

It was 1893 that the pitcher’s box was replaced by a pitcher’s rubber, an actual slab of rubber a foot wide, moved back to 60 and a half feet from the plate. The rubber could be on a mound raised above field level.

Overhand pitching had so come to dominate baseball that it was felt that the added distance together with the lack of run-up would re-balance offense and defense. Sure enough, the league batting average shot up 39 points in ’93 and another 29 points in ’94. But by 1904, the rules were changed to limit mound height to no more than 15 inches to counter the fact that some pitchers wanted the mound quite high.

It was not long before teams were gaming the discretion allowed for mound height. “Downhill” pitchers preferred the mound as tall as possible. Submariners, on the other hand, preferred level. The Yankees kept theirs level at all times, but other teams took to rebuilding their mound to favor the home team’s starter on a daily basis—no small undertaking. I believe it was the Cleveland Indians under GM Bill Veeck that finally provoked MLB in 1950 to implement a 15-inch rule—all mounds raised 15 inches above the playing field, period.

That, however, put a premium on the downhill pitching style of pitchers like Bob Feller and Don Gibson. Pretty soon, a generation of dominating downhillers had squelched offense again. Before the 1969 season, MLB lowered all mounds to 10 inches, a move that did get offenses going again, which in turn seemed to please the fans, leading seven years later to the last big rule change—the Designated Hitter in the American League only.

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