Home Runs: They Ain’t What They Used To Be


From the Knickerbocker Rules Change Timeline at Baseball Almanac, we have selected only those identifiable rules that we felt have made the most direct impact on the production of home runs. One could argue that almost every rules change has either a substantive indirect or oblique impact on the production of home runs, but we weren’t aiming to use baseball to prove that old philosophical truth about changing the angle, location, or presence of an individual stick in a pile of “pick-up-sticks”. – Remember that one? It say: any one change, changes all.

Here’s the link to the Baseball Almanac Rules Change Timeline: http://www.baseball-almanac.com/rulechng.shtml

And here are the rule changes on the list that we think fit our arguably direct impact list. We are sure that all the rules governing how pitchers threw the ball, banning foreign substance pitches, and changing mound heights could be added, but they would head us in the “pick-up-sticks” waste of time direction. We are interested in the most obvious factors. The five we found on the BA list fit the requirements of our search, even if they fail to answer all our questions:

  1. 1893: Pitching distance increased from 50 feet to 60 feet 6 inches. The 60 feet 6 inch pitching distance has been the standard for measuring variation in annual home run production since 1893. That a big constant factor, no matter how many other intervening variables have come along to effect production since that time.
  2. 1910: The cork center was added to the official baseball. Prior to the introduction of the cork center, the so-called “Dead Ball Era” game was dominated by Punch-and-Judy hitters who understood that hefty swings most often produced short high fly ball outs.
  3. 1920: The batter was given credit for a home run in the last of the ninth inning if the winning run was on base when the ball was hit out of the field. This one change only answered one of the three rules changes we thought we would find in a complete timeline, but it is very important. Prior to 1920, a batter who hit a ball over the fence in the bottom of the 9th only got credit for a home run if his contact with the plate in scoring occurred as a run that was no more than the winning run. If his team had the bases loaded when he hit the ball out, but his team only needed a single run in the bottom of the inning to win the game, he would not be given credit for a Grand Slam home run. He would have been given credit only for a single because all his club needed for the win was the runner scoring from third base. – Bad rule. Great change. (More on the two unanswered rules changes after we cover the final two important factors from the list.)
  4.  1925: The minimum home-run distance was set at 250 feet. A fairly clear impact factor. Short fences invite cheap homers. Oppositely, the cavernous fence distances of many 19th century dead ball era parks pretty much limited home runs to those inside-the-park rollers that managed to sneak between the outfielders on a distant bounce to the hinterlands.
  5. 1959: Regulations were set up for minimum boundaries for all new parks, 325-400-325 feet. Makes sense, but how then did Minute Maid Park (ne: Enron Field) get approval for the construction of a field that contained a 315 feet field fence distance from home plate in the year 2000? Maybe that’s common knowledge to many of you, but it isn’t to me. If you do know, please supply the rest of us with the answer via public comment at this column.

The other two home run rules questions that were not answered in the timeline were these:

  1. Abolition of the bouncing ball home run over the fence. Until some point in the 1920s or 1930s, balls that bounced over the fence were not considered to be “ground rule doubles”, they were counted as home runs. When did that change? And did it require a formal rules change – or was it accomplishable by some reinterpretation of the existing rule? If you know the answer, please comment here too.
  2. The foul line home run call. Today the foul poles, when they aren’t selling chicken, are constructed with that little attached metal webbing on the interior fair side to aid the umpires in separating the close home runs from the long foul balls. All the batted ball has to do to be counted as a homer – is to cross that foul pole on the fair side to register in the books as a home run. It wasn’t always so. As late as 1918, umpires followed the flight of the baseball as far their eyes could see – or sometimes, because of an horizon blocked by the stadium on very long batted balls, they conjecturally had to assume from their last glimpses of it, where the ball was going to land. – In other words, it didn’t matter if the ball passed the foul pole in fair territory. – It had to land in fair territory – somewhere out there on the road from home to infinity. If the umpire judged it did not, it was just a monumentally long distance foul ball. – Babe Ruth apparently lost a few homers in his early Red Sox days because of that interpretation. Balls hit down the line have a physical spin tendency to float await from fair territory down both lines. – Again, that changed, but it is not noted as a rules change. Same questions again: Is that an omission from the list? – Or was it changed by some formal change in the fair/foul interpretation of homers hit down the lines? Same request: If you know, please comment.

Of course, wood bats – as opposed to metal alloy bats – is a major factor in home run productions. We personally would prefer to see metal bats eliminated from amateur baseball use because of the distortion effect that metal bat power stats have upon prospect evaluations and, even more importantly, the adaptation issues that the change to wooden bats places upon young professional players is one of those extra things that could be removed from the list of unavoidable tests that all players go through at the start of their professional careers. Of course, the politics of big money and the political market power of those who make metal alloy bats will never allow that to happen.

At any rate, those are all the rules and major questions that arise for us about the most direct reasons we have more home runs today. Like all research questions in baseball, one can hardly ever expect to answer any single question without discovering or raising several others. Our bigger, faster, stronger 21st century sluggers would have had trouble hitting home runs under the conditions that existed in baseball back in 1876.

The Obvious Bottom Line: Home runs are no longer the freakish different-creature rarity they were in the 19th century. In the 21st century, anybody in the lineup may deliver one at any time. The question is larger. Has baseball simply become the “hit or sit” HR/K outcome for 90% of the batters in the game? If so, we think, it does not bode well for the once beautiful game that was so much more than interesting when players knew and could execute the fundamentals of situational hitting, base running, and defensive teamwork.

Maybe it’s just a problem that some of us greybeards mostly share. I also like George Gershwin, Louis Armstrong, and Cole Porter much more than I do any of today’s so-called music geniuses. And I prefer a 1951 Olds to any of the new look-alike oval motor jewels. I’ll also take Ernest Hemingway over J.K. Rowling and put me down for character driven movies over special effect crash and burn car chase films – any day, all day, all the time, for as long as we can come up with new ways to say “forever”.

Have a nice weekend, everybody!


Bill McCurdy

Publisher, Editor, Writer

The Pecan Park Eagle

Houston, Texas





2 Responses to “Home Runs: They Ain’t What They Used To Be”

  1. Tom Hunter Says:

    Occasionally I hear comments about outlawing the shift, giving even more advantage to the offense. If today’s hitters have become so obsessed with “power through the zone” that they are unable to hit the ball to the opposite field or lay down a bunt, why punish the defense?

    I notice that even youngsters try to hit the ball as hard as they can rather than just make contact. The great game of Pepper was a perfect way to learn bat control and to be able to hit the ball directly to several fielders stationed around the batter.

    I agree with your last paragraph, Bill, about the preferences of us greybeards regarding music, old cars, classic literature, and crash-and-burn car-chase movies. Eternally.

  2. Cliff Blau Says:

    The bounce home run rule was changed in 1931.

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