Episode 13: Fair[Foul]

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Take the total number of hits, and divide by the total number of at-bats. That’s batting average. It’s been with the game almost as long as bats and balls. It was adapted from a cricket stat of the same name. For all its faults, it’s still the standard measurement for a hitter’s ability. If a player leads the league in stolen bases for a season, they are the stolen base leader. Strikeouts, home runs? Same thing. Leader. But batting average is so entrenched in the game, such a litmus test for hitting, that if a player has the best batting average at the end of season, he’s not the leader, he’s the champion. He owns a batting title.

A couple of clicks on Baseball Reference will take you to a complete list of players who had the highest batting averages at the end of every season. You can scroll through year after year and see names you recognize right away, and some you may have to think about. Some were singles hitters. Slap hitters. Some had tremendous power to go with their average. Most fell somewhere in the middle. But if you go back, way back to the beginning of the game, you’ll see the name of a guy who, at least on paper, hit for a high average and a good deal of power, but not the way you think.
Before we talk about Ross Barnes’ special talent, we should talk about the rules of baseball in the 1870s. Back then, players didn’t get penalized for foul balls. They just didn’t count. Also, hitters got to call where they wanted their pitch. They got to choose between a high pitch and a low pitch. And because of these odd rules, hitters began learning a certain skill. They would call for a ball low, and they would chop down on the ball with a special stroke that would put a lot of spin on it. English they call it. They would chop the ball into fair territory. But the spin they worked so hard to employ would eventually cause the ball to go foul which, at least in the 1870s still qualified as a hit. This would cause infielders and outfielders alike to run all over — to the edges of the outfield, yards and yards away from the foul line, even under the bleachers where the spectators sat. It made it impossible to throw the runner out at first, or even second or third sometimes. If the ball didn’t start fair, the batter had as many tries as he wanted since fouls didn’t count. So all these batters would chop the ball fair, and let it roll foul. Chop it fair. Roll it foul. Over and over and over. And the ones who could do it best would rack up the hits.
And nobody did it better than Ross Barnes. Charles Roscoe Barnes was born 11 years before the Civil War began, and was one of the early pioneers in organized baseball. He was lauded for his ability to hit the fair-foul ball. He hit over 400 three separate years, he also lead the league in on-base and slugging percentage for three seasons. He even led the league in steals for one season. In 1876, the first season of the National League, he had an OPS of 1.052, 123 points higher than the next guy. His OPS+ ranked him 135% better than the average league player that year. You could not stop Ross Barnes. You could only hope to contain him. And he did it all with his great skill at chopping the ball fair, and then rolling it foul. He chopped and rolled his way to three batting titles, and the admiration of baseball fans and players alike. He was the Barry Bonds of his time, yet almost completely opposite.
And then. It was gone.
The havoc Barnes brought to the field began to cause people concern. He was destroying the competition with his rules exploitation, and something needed to be done. They tried less drastic measures first. They moved the cast-iron home plate (a favorite target for fair-foul hitters) behind the apex of the foul lines so it could no longer be a in play. They moved the batters box back so it became harder to get the initial hit to land in fair territory. But despite the league’s tries, Barnes kept beating them. Henry Chadwick even tried proposing a rule that would add a tenth player  to help combat Barnes and his ilk, but that never caught on.
And so finally in the Fall of 1876, a new rule created by Harry Wright was employed. It made all batted balls that pass outside the foul lines before reaching first base or third base
foul, and all batted balls that strike the ground and remain within the foul lines until they reach either first or third base fair. The same rules we have today. Barnes would hit .272 the following season.
My friend and writer Patrick Dubuque wrote about Barnes: “Every once in a while an athlete comes along and breaks the rules of a sport, by making it too easy in a way no one expected. George Mikan dominated the paint so thoroughly that basketball had to institute the three-second rule; Tiger Woods stretched golf courses by treating Par 5 holes like Par 4s. Ross Barnes broke bunting.”
Baseball today is still partially wrapped up in PED talk. There is a lot of chatter about what things need to change and how, and new guidelines keep getting put in. But Patrick is right. Very VERY rarely do rules change because a player is making it unfair for everybody else simply because he’s so damn good. Ross Barnes did that. He wasn’t a hulk of a man with great power, or a crafty pitcher who doctored the ball to a point beyond recognition. But he changed how baseball was played forever, just by hitting the ball fair, and letting it roll foul.
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Next: Episode 14: Bullpen Culture (with Glen Perkins) »

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