Baseball is a bat-and-ball sport played between two teams of nine players each. The goal of baseball is to score runs by hitting a thrown ball with a bat and touching a series of four markers called bases arranged at the corners of a ninety-foot square, or diamond. Players on one team (the batting team) take turns hitting while the other team (the fielding team) tries to stop them from scoring runs by getting hitters out in any of several ways. A player on the batting team can stop at any of the bases and hope to score on a teammate's hit. The teams switch between batting and fielding whenever the fielding team gets three outs. One turn at bat for each team constitutes an inning; nine innings make up a professional game. The team with the most runs at the end of the game wins.
Baseball on the professional, amateur, and youth levels is popular in North America (particularly in the United States), Central America, parts of South America and the Caribbean, and parts of East Asia and Southeast Asia. The game is thought to have originated in England some time before 1755, as noted by William Bray, a lawyer from the period whose diary historians have recently authenticated. The consensus of historians is that it evolved from earlier bat-and-ball games, such as cricket and rounders. Baseball was then brought to North America by British and Irish immigrants. This is contrary to the popular belief that the game was invented in North America during the eighteenth century. However, by the late nineteenth century, baseball was widely recognized as the national sport of the United States. The game is sometimes referred to as hardball in contrast to the very similar game of softball.
In North America, professional Major League Baseball teams are divided into the National League (NL) and American League (AL). Each league has three divisions: East, West, and Central. Every year, the champion of Major League Baseball is determined by playoffs culminating in the World Series. Four teams make the playoffs from each league: the three regular season division winners, plus one wild card team. The wild card is the team with the best record among the non–division winners in the league. In the National League, the pitcher is required to bat, per the traditional rules. In the American League, there is a tenth player, a designated hitter, who bats for the pitcher. Each major league team has a "farm system" of minor league teams at various levels. These teams allow younger players to develop as they gain on-field experience against opponents with similar levels of skill.
The story that Abner Doubleday invented baseball in 1839 was once widely promoted and widely believed, but there was and is no evidence for this claim, except for the testimony of one man decades after the fact, and there is a great deal of persuasive counter-evidence. Doubleday left many letters and papers, but they contain no description of baseball or even a suggestion that he considered himself a prominent person in the history of the game. His New York Times obituary makes no mention of baseball, nor does a 1911 encyclopedia article about Doubleday.
The distinct evolution of baseball from among the various bat-and-ball games is difficult to trace with precision. Oina, a very similar bat-and-ball traditional game played in Romania was mentioned for the first time during the rule of King Vlaicu Voda, in 1364. Typically, consensus was that today's baseball is a North American development from the older game rounders, however a 2005 book Baseball Before We Knew It: A Search for the Roots of the Game, by David Block, and historical evidence argues against that notion. Several references to "baseball" and "bat-and-ball" have been found in British and American documents of the early eighteenth century. The earliest known description is in a 1744 British publication, A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, by John Newbery. It contains a wood-cut illustration of boys playing "base-ball," showing a baseball set-up roughly similar to the modern game, and a rhymed description of the sport. However, on September 11th 2008, the Surrey County Council's History Centre gave documentary proof that the game was being played by the British before anywhere else and have written to Major League Baseball explaining this. The diarist William Bray recorded a game of baseball on Easter Monday 1755 in Guildford. The earliest known unambiguous American discussion of "baseball" was published in a 1791 Pittsfield, Massachusetts town bylaw, which prohibited the playing of the game within of the town's new meeting house. The English novelist Jane Austen made a reference to children playing "base-ball" on a village green in her book Northanger Abbey, which was written between 1798 and 1803 (though not published until 1818).
The first full documentation of a baseball game in North America is Dr. Adam Ford's contemporary description of a game that took place in 1838 on June 4 (Militia Muster Day) in Beachville, Ontario, Canada; this report was related in an 1886 edition of Sporting Life magazine in a letter by former St. Marys, Ontario, resident Dr. Matthew Harris.
In 1845, Alexander Cartwright of New York City led the codification of an early list of rules (the so-called Knickerbocker Rules), from which today's rules have evolved. He had also initiated the replacement of the soft ball used in rounders with a smaller hard ball. While there are reports of Cartwright's club, the New York Knickerbockers, playing games in 1845, the game now recognized as the first in U.S. history to be officially recorded took place on June 19, 1846, in Hoboken, New Jersey, with the "New York Nine defeating the Knickerbockers, 23–1, in four innings.
On June 3, 1953, the United States Congress officially recognized Cartwright as the inventor of modern baseball.
Compared with the present day, games in the early part of the 20th century were lower scoring and pitchers were more successful. The "inside game", whose nature was to "scratch for runs", was played more violently and aggressively than it is today. Ty Cobb said of his era especially, "Baseball is something like a war!" This period, which has since become known as the "dead-ball era", ended in the 1920s with several rule changes that gave advantages to hitters and the rise of the legendary baseball player Babe Ruth, who showed the world what power hitting could produce, altering the nature of the game. Two of the changes introduced were the construction of additional seating to accommodate the rising popularity of the game, which often had the effect of bringing the outfield fences closer to the infield in the largest parks; and the introduction of strict rules governing the size, shape and construction of the ball which, coupled with superior materials becoming available following World War I, caused the ball to travel farther when hit. The aggregate result of these two changes was to enable batters to hit many more home runs.
In 1884, African American Moses Walker (and, briefly, his brother Welday) had played for the Toledo Blue Stockings of the major league American Association. An injury ended Walker's major league career, and by the early 1890s, a "gentlemen's agreement" in the form of the baseball color line effectively barred African-American players from the majors and their affiliated minor leagues, resulting in the formation of several Negro Leagues. There was never any formal segregation rule in baseball, which presented an opportunity for integration for someone bold enough to attempt it. The first crack in the unwritten agreement occurred in 1946, when Jackie Robinson was signed by the National League's Brooklyn Dodgers and began playing for their minor league team in Montreal. Finally, in 1947, the major leagues' color barrier was broken when Robinson debuted with the Dodgers. Larry Doby debuted in the American League the same year. Although the transformation was not instantaneous, baseball has since become fully integrated.
Major League baseball finally made it to the West Coast of the United States in 1958, when the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants relocated to Los Angeles and San Francisco respectively. The first American League team on the West Coast was the Los Angeles Angels, who were founded as an expansion team in 1961.
Pitchers dominated the game in the 1960s and early 1970s. In the early 1970s the designated hitter (DH) rule was proposed. The American League adopted this rule in 1973, though pitchers still bat for themselves in the National League to this day. The DH rule now constitutes the primary difference between the two leagues.
Despite the popularity of baseball, and the attendant high salaries relative to those of average Americans, the players have become dissatisfied from time to time, as they believed the owners had too much control and retained an unfair share of the money. Various job actions have occurred throughout the game's history. Players on specific teams occasionally attempted strikes, but usually came back when their jobs were sufficiently threatened. The throwing of the 1919 World Series, the "Black Sox Scandal", was in some sense a "strike" or at least a rebellion by the ballplayers against a perceived stingy owner. But the strict rules of baseball contracts tended to keep the players "in line" in general.
This began to change in 1966 when former United Steelworkers chief economist (and assistant to the president) Marvin Miller became the Baseball Players Union executive director. The union became much stronger than it had been previously, especially when the reserve clause was effectively nullified in the mid-1970s. Conflicts between owners and the players' union led to major work stoppages in 1972, 1981, and 1994. The 1994 baseball strike led to the cancellation of the World Series, and was not settled until the spring of 1995. During this period, as well, many of the functions — such as player discipline and umpire supervision — and regulations that had been administered separately by the two major leagues' administrations were united under the rubric of Major League Baseball.
The number of home runs increased dramatically after the strike. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa both surpassed Roger Maris's long-standing single season home run record in 1998. In 2001, Barry Bonds established the current record of 73 home runs in a single season. In 2007, Bonds became MLB's all-time home run leader, surpassing Hank Aaron's total of 755. Even though all three sluggers (McGwire, Sosa, and Bonds) have been accused in the steroid-abuse scandal of the mid-2000s, their feats did do a lot at the time to bolster the game's renewed popularity.
Currently, baseball makes up around 20 percent of the franchise sports industry. The team with the highest average game attendance is the New York Yankees, with 51,848 spectators. The New York Yankees are closely followed by the Los Angeles Dodgers (46,400) and the New York Mets (42,327). The 30 Major League Baseball teams earned $5.11 billion in revenue in 2006.
The first formal baseball league outside of the United States and Canada was founded in 1878 in Cuba, which maintains a rich baseball tradition and whose national team has been one of the world's strongest since international play began in the late 1930s. Professional baseball leagues began to form in other countries between the world wars, including the Netherlands (formed in 1922), Australia (1934), Japan (1936), and Puerto Rico (1938). After World War II, professional leagues were founded in Italy (1948) and in many Latin American nations, most prominently Venezuela (1945), Mexico (1945), and the Dominican Republic (1951). In Asia, Korea (1982), Taiwan (1990), and China (2003) all have professional leagues.
Many European countries have pro leagues as well, the most successful beside the Dutch being the Italian league founded in 1948. Compared to those in Asia and Latin America, the various European leagues and the one in Australia historically have had no more than niche appeal. Recently, the sport has begun to grow in popularity in those nations, most notably in Australia, which won a surprise silver medal in the 2004 Olympic Games. In 2007, the Israel Baseball League, featuring six teams, was launched. Competition between national teams, such as in the Baseball World Cup and the Olympic baseball tournament, has been administered by the International Baseball Federation since its formation in 1938. As of 2004, the organization has 112 member countries.
Since the early 1970s, the annual Caribbean Series has matched the league-winning clubs from Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic. The Confédération Européene de Baseball (European Baseball Confederation), founded in 1953, organizes a number of competitions between clubs from different countries as well as national squads. The inaugural World Baseball Classic, held in March 2006, had a much higher profile than previous tournaments featuring national teams, owing to the participation for the first time of a significant number of players from Major League Baseball.
The 117th meeting of the International Olympic Committee, held in Singapore in July 2005, voted not to hold baseball and softball tournaments at the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, but they will remain Olympic sports during the 2008 Summer Olympic Games and will be put to vote again for each succeeding Summer Olympics. The elimination of baseball and softball from the 2012 Olympic program enabled the IOC to consider adding two different sports to the program, but no other sport received the majority vote required for inclusion. While baseball's lack of substantial appeal in much of the world was a factor; more important is the unwillingness of Major League Baseball to have a break during the Games so that its players can participate, something that the National Hockey League now does during the Winter Olympic Games. Because of the seasonal nature of baseball and the high priority its fans place on the integrity of major-league statistics from one season to the next, it would be more difficult to accommodate such a break in Major League Baseball.
A single game is played by two teams, who, during the course of a game, alternate playing offense and defense. Each alternation is called an "inning", and there are usually 9 innings in a game. A "season" is played over the course of many months by a group of teams, called a league. Each team in the league plays all the other teams in the league a fixed number of times, though it is not always in round robin format. At the end of the season, the team with the most wins is the winner of the regular season.
The goal of a game is to score more points, which are called "runs" in the language of baseball, than the other team. Each team, usually composed of 9 players, attempts to score runs while on offense, by completing a tour of the bases, which form a square-shaped figure called a "diamond." A tour starts at home plate and proceeds counter-clockwise. See the image below.
Baseball is played in a series of (usually 9) "innings", each of which is divided into two halves (called "top" and "bottom" in that order: hence the phrase bottom of the ninth). In each half-inning, the offensive team attempts to score runs until three of its players are put "out" (removed from play by actions of the defensive team; discussed below). After the third out, the teams switch roles for the other half of the inning. The "home" team plays defense first, and so plays defense in the top of every inning and offense in the bottom of every inning.
At the beginning of each half-inning, the nine defensive players arrange themselves on the field. One defensive player is called the "pitcher" and stands at the center of the diamond on a designated spot, called the mound or the rubber - a reference to the rectangular rubber plate at the center of the mound. Another defensive player is called the "catcher" and stands on the other side of home plate from the pitcher. Typically four more players are arranged along the lines between first, second, and third bases, and the other three are in the outfield.
Runs are scored as follows: starting at home plate, each offensive player attempts to earn the right to run (counterclockwise) to the next base (corner) of the diamond, then to touch the base at that corner, continuing on to each following base in order, and finally returning to home, whereupon a run (point) is scored. Often an offensive player will achieve a base but be forced to stop there; on future plays (usually in concert with other runners), the player may continue to advance, or else be put out.
A play begins with an offensive player called a "batter" standing at home plate, holding a bat. The batter then waits for the pitcher to throw a "pitch" (the ball) toward home plate, and attempts to hit the ball with the bat. If the batter hits the ball into play, the batter must then drop the bat and begin running toward first base. (There are other ways to earn the right to run the bases, such as "walks" or being hit by a pitched ball.) The catcher catches pitches that the batter does not hit (either by choice or simple failure to make contact) and returns them to the pitcher.
A pitch that is not hit into the field of play is called either a "strike" or a "ball". A batter is out if he gets 3 strikes. He walks to first base if he is thrown 4 balls. If the ball is hit over the outfield and exits the field there, it is instead (one type of) a "home run": the batter and all other offensive players on bases may complete a tour of the bases and score a run. This is the most desirable result for the batter.
A strike is called when one of the following happens:
A ball is called when the pitcher throws a pitch that is outside the strike zone, provided the batter has not swung at it.
When a batter hits the ball in field of play and he begins running, he or she is then referred to as a "runner". Runners attempt to reach a base, where they are "safe" and may remain there. The defensive players attempt to prevent this by either catching the ball (if it has not bounced) or by putting the runners out by fielding and throwing the ball back to a base the runner is attempting to reach. Runners put out must leave the field (returning to the "bench" or "dugout", the location where all the other inactive players and managers observe the game).
There are many ways that the team on defense can get an offensive player out. For the sake of simplicity, only the five most common ways are listed here:
Any baseball game involves one or more umpires, who make rulings on the outcome of each play. At a minimum, one umpire will stand behind the catcher, to have a good view of the strike zone, and call each pitch a ball or a strike. Additional umpires may be stationed near the bases, thus making it easier to see plays in the field. In Major League Baseball, four umpires are used for each game, one near each base. In the all-star game and playoffs, six umpires are used: one at each base and two in the outfield along either foul line.
In recent decades, observers have criticized professional baseball for the length of its games, with some justification as the time required to play a baseball game has increased steadily through the years. At the turn of the 20th century, games typically took an hour and a half to play. In the 1920s, they averaged just less than two hours, which eventually ballooned to 2 hours and 38 minutes in 1960. Though this average dipped to 2 hours 25 minutes in 1975, by the turn of the 21st century, games had become so long that Major League Baseball's goal in 2004 was to get the average game down to 2 hour and 45 minutes, after coming close in 2003 at 2 hours and 46 minutes.
The lengthening of games is attributed to longer breaks between half-innings for television commercials, increased offense, more pitching changes, and a slower pace of play. In response, Major League Baseball mandated a maximum break between half-innings, while instructing umpires to be stricter in enforcing speed-up rules and the size of the strike zone.
Although the official rules specify that when the bases are empty, the pitcher should deliver the ball within 12 seconds of receiving it (with the penalty of a ball called if he fails to do so), this rule is rarely, if ever, enforced. The umpire also has the option of calling a ball if there are runners on base, but this is also rarely, if ever, enforced. The official rules also require the batter to remain in the batter's box at all times when at bat—another rule that is "observed in the breach".
Because of this flexibility, there are numerous variations in park configuration, from different lengths to the fences to uneven playing surfaces to massive or minimal amounts of foul territory. The differing styles create a unique sense of ambiance in each location, something that many fans find alluring (and even a source of civic pride). All of these factors, as well as local variations in altitude, climate and game scheduling, can affect the nature of the games played at those ballparks. Certain stadiums eventually get labeled as either a "pitcher's park" or a "hitter's park", depending on which side benefits more from the unique factors present. Some ballparks, notorious for both strong and frequently shifting wind currents, such as Chicago's Wrigley Field can be either, depending on the wind direction at any given time.
In the end, the lack of a consistent, standardized playing field has caused some debate, particularly when comparing players' statistics and career records. For example, hitting a fly ball to the warning track at one field may result in an easy catch for the outfielder, while at another the same hit could result in a home run.
As with many sports, and perhaps even more so, statistics are very important to baseball. Statistics have been kept for the Major Leagues since their creation, and presumably statistics were around even before that. General managers, baseball scouts, managers, and players alike study player statistics to help them choose various strategies to best help their team.
Statistics are more important to baseball than to other sports for a variety of reasons. Primary among them is the fact that every play has only a finite (and relatively limited) number of possible outcomes, unlike sports like hockey, basketball, soccer, and to a lesser extent American football, all of which are more fluid and open. This facilitates a statistical analysis of baseball, and allows a deeper level of mathematical study than that provided by other sports.
Traditionally, statistics like batting average for batters—the number of hits divided by the number of at bats—and earned run average—approximately the number of runs given up by a pitcher per nine innings—have governed the statistical world of baseball. However, the advent of sabermetrics has brought an onslaught of new statistics that perhaps better gauge a player's performance and contributions to his team from year to year.
Some sabermetrics have entered the mainstream baseball statistic world. On-base plus slugging (OPS) is a somewhat complicated formula that some say gauges a hitter's performance better than batting average. It combines the hitter's on base percentage—hits plus walks plus hit by pitches divided by at bats plus bases on balls plus hit by pitches plus sacrifice flies—with their slugging percentage—total bases divided by at bats. Walks plus hits per inning pitched (or WHIP) gives a good representation of a pitcher's abilities; it is calculated exactly as its name suggests.
Also important are more specific statistics for particular situations. For example, a certain hitter's ability to hit left-handed pitchers might cause his manager to give him more chances to face lefties. Some hitters hit better with runners in scoring position, so an opposing manager, knowing this statistic, might elect to intentionally walk him in order to face a worse hitter.
There are some other statistics, perhaps less important than those mentioned. For hitters, these include at-bats, the number of hits and extra-base hits, and runs batted in (RBI). For pitchers, these include total innings pitched, strikeouts per nine innings, walks, and the pitch count.
Baseball's largest national market is the United States, where it is currently the second most popular sport, behind American football. Baseball was long the most popular sport in the country, and since the 19th century, it has been popularly referred to as the "national pastime." In addition, Major League Baseball has been given a unique monopoly status by the Supreme Court of the United States. This popularity continues with Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig commenting that baseball is currently more popular now than it has ever been.
Worldwide, baseball is estimated to be one of most popular sport, along with Association football (soccer), cricket, field hockey, tennis, volleyball and table tennis. However, in July 2005 the IOC decided to drop baseball from the 2012 Olympics.
Baseball is played at a number of levels, by amateur and professionals, and by the young and the old. Youth programs use modified versions of adult and professional baseball rules, which may include a smaller field, easier pitching (from a coach, a tee, or a machine), less contact, base running restrictions, limitations on innings a pitcher can throw, liberal balk rules, and run limitations, among others. Since rules vary from location-to-location and among the organizations, coverage of the nuances in those rules is beyond this article.
Organized baseball leagues exist in the Americas, Asia, Europe, and Oceania.
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