A Dictionary of Documented Base Ball Terms Late 1850s – 1860s

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The use of many terms in base ball has not changed since the 1860s. A few examples: pitcher, catcher, shortstop, first/second/third baseman, base players, infielders, right/center/left fielder, outfielders, umpire, runs, outs, assist, put out, double/triple play, fair ball, foul ball, foul tip, over/wild throws, bases on hits, bases on errors, safe hit, strike out, base on balls (1864 on), pop up, home run, left on base.

The terms provided here are all documented as being in common use in base ball in the era we portray – the late 1850s through the 1860s.

  • Ace: See Run
  • Amateur Players: Chadwick describes two classes of amateurs; the first class are highly skilled (a club’s first, and maybe second, nine), and second class are unskilled but are better than muffins.
  • Appeal: In the modern game an appeal is a claim of violation of the rules made by the defense. In the vintage period, virtually all calls made by the umpire, including calls on the bases, were by appeal, the players typically calling for “judgment” .The exceptions were balks, fouls ball, and the calling of balls (1864) and strikes (1858), which the rules specify the umpire should make “unasked.” However, it’s important to remember that most decisions about outs were not made by the umpire, but were made by the players recognizing the correct outcome of a play.
  • Artists: The most experienced players of a nine, not only physically active and expert, but mentally quick, and shrewd in judgment of the “points” in the game.
  • Ash, Hickory, Timber: Slang terms for bat. The most common 19th century term was the bat. The term willow is an anachronism for our era, as it emerged as a term for bat only in the 1870s.
  • Balk: A balk or baulk is committed when the pitcher fails to deliver a ball after making any of the preliminary movements to deliver it; if he steps outside the lines of his position, before the ball leaves his hand, when in the act of pitching; or, if he jerks or throws the ball to the batsman. (By 1864, it was also a balk if the pitcher had either foot off the ground at the time of delivering the pitch. This was removed from the rules in 1868.) Balk rules were instilled in the original Knickerbocker rules to allow runners a fair opportunity to steal bases.
  • Ball (the object): The period term is the ball. The terms Apple, Pill, Onion, and Horsehide are all 20th century slang.
  • Ball (called): The period term is ball. Only in use after 1864, when called balls were introduced to the rules.
  • Ballist, Base-ballist: Slang term for a base ball player.
  • Base: The period term is also the base. Although the rules specify the field bases be “canvas bags,” the slang terms of sacks or bags are from later.
  • Base ball: It is common for vintage ballists to point out that “base ball was two words back then.” John Thorn, Historian of Major League Baseball has pointed out that on occasion, the word would be printed as base-ball or even baseball, but that the one word version was quite uncommon. It didn’t become the most common form of the game’s name until 1897.
  • Base on Balls: Is the period term. The term “walk” arrives several years after the 1864 rule providing for a base on balls.
  • Bat (noun): The bat was most commonly called the bat. Ash, Hickory, Timber and Club were seen used as slang terms. The term willow is an anachronism referring to a bat. This slang term emerged after 1870.
  • Bat (verb): The period term is bat. Also: go in, strike Batsman: The striker at the bat.
  • Batter: The term arrives at the very end of the 1860s. The more common terms are striker or batsman.
  • Battery: In the mid-19th century, this term referred to the arsenal of the pitcher’s pitches (e.g., “Smith has quite a battery on display today.”). Substantially later it came to refer to the pitcher and catcher together.
  • Bias or Twist: Rotation put on the ball by the pitcher with his wrist, not with the intent for the ball to curve in flight, but for the ball to be misdirected off the bat. The term curving is seen used to describe pitches that are tossed with the curve referring to the arc.
  • Blank, Blank Score: When no runs are scored during a club’s inning. Also a batsman makes a blank score when he fails to score a run in a game. In New York a blank score is also called a “Skunk”, in the West it is also called a “Whitewashing”, and in the East a “Blinder”.
  • Bounder, Grounder, Ground Ball: Technical terms for a bounding ball from the bat which strikes the ground within the lines of the in-field, vs. a daisy cutter which does not bound at all.
  • Clean Home Runs: A home run can include errors and overthrows. A clean home run does not. Chadwick encourages that only clean home runs are recorded as home runs in the box score.
  • Captain: The player that directed the club. In the professional era he became a Manager.
  • Catch: Is also a period term. The ball needed be held (i.e., taken from the air and kept still, without touching the ground) for a catch to be considered completed. If it were trapped under an arm, etc., it was considered held.
  • Catcher: The period term is Catcher. (See also Behind on the Misused Terms page)
  • Caught Napping, Run Out: Picked off base, or out being caught between bases (as in a run down or a pickle, both of which are 20th century terms), or outwitted on a point of play.
  • Chances: Opportunities for a fielder to make an out, such as a pop up, fly ball, or to put a player out at first base. A “chance” is “accepted” (caught, the out made) or “not accepted” (dropped, made an error).
  • Club: Is a period term. In the modern day the terms of club and team are almost synonymous, but in the period; team was a term infrequently used to describe the men chosen to be on the field on the day of the game. A period term would be a nine or side. A club was the entire group or association from which the team or nine were chosen.
  • Country Club: A somewhat derisive term for a rural, less skilled club
    • First Nine: Refers to the best nine players in a particular club. Second Nine would be the next best, etc. depending on the number of men on the club. The Muffin Nine would be the least skilled.
    • A Picked Nine would be a team assembled from various clubs for a particular game. A nine that purported to be a pre-existing club for a tournament, but which was alleged to have been pulled from multiple clubs, was sometimes referred to derisively as a scraped nine.
    • A Non-Playing Member was a member of a club who does not play in matches. Usually such members are not talented enough, do not have time to devote to the sport, or merely want to be associated with the club for its social aspects (maybe umpires, scorers, or simply friends and colleagues).
  • Corker: A hard hit ball.
  • Country Club: A rural, less skilled club.
  • Daisy Cutter, Skimmer: A low pitched ball, hit sharply along the surface of the ground, through the grass, without rebounding to any extent. A grounder that does not bounce.
  • Dead Ball: A dead ball in the modern sense is a ball out of play due to a suspension of play. In the period, a ball could become dead with play continuing. A ball is said to be “dead” when no player can be legally put out by a fielder, such as when a ball is hit foul or stopped by outsiders.
  • Double Play: Has the same meaning in the period.
  • Drawn Game, Tie Game: When the score is equal in a game, and at least five even innings have been played, and there is no opportunity to play the game to a close (generally because of rain or darkness), it becomes a drawn game.
  • Facing For A Hit: Batsman facing the position in the field he desires to send the ball.
  • Fair Ball: Has the same meaning in the period, and could also be referred to as fairly struck. Also used to refer to a ball pitched within the batsman’s reach, in which case it could also be referred to as fairly pitched.
  • Field: Is a period term. Ground or Grounds are also period terms for the playing field. Garden is an anachronism, referring to the outfield. This slang term emerged after 1870.
  • Fielder: Has the same meaning in the period. The commonly used terms were fielder (left, center, right), shortstop (occasionally referred to as the short fielder), and baseman (first, second, third). Ballist and Base-ballist are period slang term for a base ball player.
  • First Nine: Refers to the best nine players in a particular club.
  • Fly Ball: Has the same meaning in the period. Slang period terms for a fly ball are High Ball, Air Ball, Riser, got up a fly, raised a flyer For a high fly ball, period terms are Sky ball, Skyer.
  • Fly Game: Up until the NABBP Convention of (December) 1864, the rules stated that fair and foul balls which were caught on one bounce were considered outs. Any games prior to this that were played by agreement with an out on fair balls only counting on the fly were called “fly games”. Such games do not count as NABBP games as they were not played by official NABBP rules.
  • Forced: When referring to a runner required to advance, the term means the same today as in the era we portray. The use of forced to mean that a runner was out when the ball was held at a base before the runner got to the base (e.g., “the runner was forced at second”) is an anachronism that emerges in the 1870s.
  • Foul Ball: Same meaning as today. Infrequently seen referred to as a foul strike (which is a term that in the 1870s came to have a very different meaning). It is a myth that all or any foul ball was called a foul tick and not a foul ball. A ball straight back from the bat was called a foul tip.
  • Foul Tip: also fly tip. Has the similar meaning in the period. In the modern day a foul tip is a ball that is caught and ruled a strike. In the period, a foul tip that was caught was an out, but you could also hit a foul tip that was not caught for an out. To hit a foul tip which is caught by the catcher was often referred to as having tipped out.
  • Fungoes: Then as today, this term refers to a batsman tossing up balls to hit to the fielders on the fly, as a form of practice.
  • Friendly Match: Refers to a match between two clubs which is not of consequence for any championship or as part of a series. An informal or practice game.
  • Game: Is a period term. A match is period term for a game, or series of games, played between two organized clubs that resulted from a formal challenge and was played for a specific stake (the game ball, or to claim a championship). Although similar to the modern term series, Match is sometimes also used as a synonym for game.
    • Prior to 1860 a match was the best 2 of 3 games.
    • After 1860 a match was decided by a single game, unless mutually agreed upon by the contesting clubs.
    • In 1867, matches reverted to the best 2 of 3 games, unless a single game was mutually agreed on by the contesting clubs.
  • A Friendly Match refers to a match between two clubs which is not of consequence for any championship or as part of a series. An informal or practice game.
  • A Scrub Game was an informal game between members of the same club, or multiple clubs (in which players choose sides and no records are kept).
  • The Fly Game referred to games in which a fair ball had to be caught without it having struck the ground to count as an out. Up until the NABBP Convention of (December) 1864, the rules stated that all balls which were caught on one bounce were considered outs. Any games prior to this that were played by agreement with an out on fair balls only counting on the fly were called “fly games”. Such games do not count as NABBP games as they were not played by official NABBP rules.
  • Get His First/Second/Third: To get his base or make his base. To advance a base by any means. Single/double/triple, or steal second/third base.
  • Ground, Grounds: Slang term for the playing field.
  • Grounder: Has the same meaning in the period. Also a ground ball. A grounder from a low pitched ball, hit sharply along the surface of the ground, through the grass, without rebounding to any extent was often referred to as a daisy cutter or skimmer. The term bug bruiser is an anachronism referring to a sharply hit grounder. This slang term emerged after 1870.
  • Head-Work: Pitcher utilizing his knowledge of a batsman’s weak points to bother them in batting.
  • Hands down, Hands out, Hands lost: The old way of saying outs in an inning. Like ace, this was already an archaic term in 1860 but had not yet disappeared from use. H.L. (for Hands Lost) or H.O. (for Hands Out) continued to appear in some box scores as late as 1869, but Outs had become much more common in both newspaper box scores and game accounts.
  • High Ball, Air Ball: Ball hit high into the air.
  • Home base: Is a period term. Home plate was used by the 1870’s with “plate” referring to the gauge of the iron, not its shape. More often Home Base was used. Dish is not a period term. Home Point is a myth of unknown origin referring to the home base.
  • Home Run: Is a period term. A period distinction was a Clean Home Run. A home run can include errors and overthrows. A clean home run does not. Chadwick encourages that only clean home runs are recorded as home runs in the box score. Four Baser is an anachronism referring to a home run. This slang term emerged after 1870.
  • Hot Ball: A very swiftly thrown or batted ball.
  • Hurrah: A well-documented American cheer of the 19th century was three “Hip, Hip, Hurrahs”. This cheer, for emphasis, was sometimes followed by a “tiger”. This was an ‘additional cheer with greater emphasis’; or “one more” (often the word “tiger”) or a “growl, screech or howl” (1842). (For more detail, see the entry “A note on Cheering” in Misused Terms.)
  • Innings, Rounds: Not frequently seen in the singular (i.e., inning). An innings, in 1860s base ball, is played when three men on the batting side have been put out. The moment the third hand is out, that club’s innings terminates. Each club has 9 innings in a game. Thus, you might say “In the Eckfords’ third innings…” rather than “In the Eckfords’ third inning…” Rounds was a less used slang term for innings.
  • Judgment: In the period, virtually every call was what would be referred to in the modern day as an “appeal play”, in which the umpire only made a decision when an appeal was made. By the 1860s, there were calls added that were to be automatically made by the umpire “unasked”, but the umpire would still not typically make a call on a close play unless asked for “Judgment” by the defensive player (since the assumption is always that the player is not out unless declared out, the offensive team would not request judgment on a close play). Players might also call “How’s that?” when requesting judgment. This is possibly the most underused term in modern vintage base ball.
  • Kicking, Chafing: Slang terms for complaining.
  • Knee High, Waist High, and Shoulder High: These are the three points generally requested by the batsman to show the pitcher where he wants the ball delivered.
  • Left hander: Is a period term. Wrong Hander is a myth of unknown origin. Hook is a 20th century term for a left hander as well as a curve ball. The common period term is left-hander.
  • Line Ball: A ball sent swiftly from the bat to the field almost on a horizontal line. Other period terms are stinger, whizzer, corker, hot shot, shooter, or straight-outer. A hot ball meant a very swiftly thrown or batted ball.
  • Long Balls: This is a common name for balls hit to the outer field.
  • Match: A game, or series of games, played between two organized clubs that resulted from a formal challenge and was played for a specific stake (the game ball, or to claim a championship). Prior to 1860 a match was the best 2 of 3 games. After 1860 a match was decided by a single game, unless mutually agreed upon by the contesting clubs. In 1867, matches reverted to the best 2 of 3 games, unless a single game was mutually agreed on by the contesting clubs. Although similar to the modern term series, Match is sometimes also used as a synonym for game.
  • Muffed Balls, Muff: Muffed balls are treated as errors of fielding. (Interestingly, Muff is still in the scoring section of MLB’s official rules). Also: miss, failed to take.
  • Muffins: Least skilled players.
  • Non-Playing Member: A member of a club who does not play in matches. Usually such members are not talented enough, do not have time to devote to the sport, or merely want to be associated with the club for its social aspects (maybe umpires, scorers).
  • Not Out, In: Safe on the bases. The term safe was not used as the opposite of out until later, although you would occasionally read that a base runner “achieved his base safely”.
  • Obstruction: In the period, a runner, even having been touched with the ball while off the base, cannot be put out if the fielder in any manner hindered him. Even if waiting for the ball or possessing the ball, the fielder must allow full access to the base.
  • Out: Is a period term. Also Hands down, Hands out and Hands lost were in use in the 1860s, and were already considered “The old way of saying outs in an inning.” H.L. (for Hands Lost) or H.O. (for Hands Out) continued to appear in some box scores as late as 1869, but Outs had become much more common in both newspaper box scores and game accounts. Hands was an archaic term yet had not yet disappeared from use.Vintage base ball players also frequently use the term dead instead of out. Dead was apparently used in early forms of the game where a runner would be put out by being plugged or soaked with the thrown ball. Death and dying on the bases still found infrequent use for color in sportswriter’s accounts in early base ball throughout the 19th century. Knowledgeable umpires would have been very unlikely to have used those terms after the first convention in 1857. The common term was out.
  • Outfielder: Is a period term.
  • Over-Pitch: Wild pitch over the heads of the batsman and catcher. A mark of too great an effort to pitch swiftly.
  • Pace: As early as the mid 1850s, pitchers were known to deliver the ball with “exceeding velocity” (Stevens of the Knickerbockers, 1856); the most common term for the speed applied to the ball was pace. Also: swift pitching.
  • Passed Ball, Ball Past Catcher: A ball muffed by the catcher on which a base is run. Through most of the 1860s, ball past catcher would have been the more common of these terms.
  • Picked Nine: A team assembled for a particular game, somewhat akin to a modern all-star game (for example, the 1858 Fashion Course games, which featured picked nines from Brooklyn and New York).
  • Pitcher: The period term is Pitcher. Term originally meant to convey that the ball could not be thrown (i.e., delivered with a bent elbow, either overhand or underhand). (See also the entries for Hurler, Bowler, and Feeder in the Misused Terms document.)
  • Play: As the umpire calling for the game to begin; is a period term.
  • Points: Playing points is having a thorough understanding of the rules and applying that knowledge (strategy) in playing the game. Having a thorough knowledge of the rules, and making use of that knowledge to your club’s advantage, was something that was generally admired, and not seen as inappropriate.
  • Professionals: was a period term. The first professional association formed in 1869. Among professionals; revolvers were players who play for the highest bidder and who change teams frequently. Prior to the late 1860s, professionalism was generally banned by the rules, and payment was often in the form of jobs for which no work was required, or other disguisable means of payment.
  • Punishing The Pitcher: When the pitcher is giving up lots of hits, the offense is punishing the pitcher.
  • Put Some Steam On: Encouragement to run faster. The terms leg it and stir your stumps are myths of unknown origin, possibly created in recent years by vintage base ball players.
  • Revolvers: As early as 1856, “the movement of the ablest players from weaker clubs to stronger ones” was referred to as revolving, and was seen as a problem in the New York game. In later years, revolvers were understood to be players who played for the highest bidder and who changed teams frequently. The use of revolver to refer to a substitute player is not consistent with the usage of the term in the era we portray.
  • Run: It is a myth that ace was used exclusively and run was not. Run was in common use from the 1850s. Ace was used in the Knickerbocker rules of 1845, and was being weeded out as archaic by the early 1860s. Like many archaic base ball terms, it can still be found being used for color in later years. Tally was used in the 1860s as slang for run, most commonly for the cumulative run total of an inning or a game (as in “the tally stood at 5 to 4”). Run was the common term used in the rules. The phrase “Tally your ace” has not been documented as having been used in the 1860s, nor has any requirement to “check in with the scorer” in order to “tally your ace.” Blank and Blank Score were when no runs are scored during a club’s inning. Also a batsman makes a blank score when he fails to score a run in a game. In New York a blank score is also called a Skunk, in the West it is also called a Whitewashing, and in the East a Blinder.
  • Runner: Is a period term. A period call for a runner to run faster may be Put Some Steam On. The terms leg it and stir your stumps are myths of unknown origin. Period terms for a runner advancing to a base would be to get (or make or achieve) his base or to get (or make or achieve) his first (second, third, run) whether he did it by a batted ball, stolen base, or by any means.
  • Safe hit: A batted ball that gives the batsman his base.
  • Scorer: Is a period term. The term Tallykeeper is an anachronism from some archaic forms of base ball. The commonly used term is scorer.
  • Scrub Game: An informal game between members of the same club, or multiple clubs (in which players choose sides and no records are kept).
  • Second Nine: Gentlemen’s Clubs of the middle 19th century sometimes had hundreds of members. The first nine were presumably the best players and represented the club in important games. The second nine were presumably of lesser skills and played against less important clubs or against their own first nine. There may have been third nines, or beyond as well, in larger clubs.
  • Side, Nine, Club Nine: Team.
  • Side Out: End of a club’s innings, three outs.
  • Sky ball, Skyer: High fly ball. Also: riser, flyer, skyscraper
  • Spectators, Audience: When referring to those people witnessing a game of base ball, the most common terms used in the period were spectators or audience, and occasionally you might read about followers. If there were a large group, it might be referred to as a Throng. Fans is an anachronism from much later in baseball’s history. Cranks is an anachronism for our era of base ball, as it emerged only in the 1880s professional era, and even then it didn’t refer to attendees at a game, but rather to the rabid follower of the game (see the Misused Terms document, under Cranks).
  • Steal: A common term, then as now, meaning to take a base with neither a hit, nor a muff, nor a passed ball. Stolen bases were recorded differently than bases taken on passed balls.
  • Stinger, Whizzer: Hard hit ball. Also: corker, shooter, hot shot
  • Strike: Per the rules as of 1858; On balls delivered by the pitcher within fair reach of the bat, the umpire is required, after a warning, to call a strike, when he deems that the striker was allowing such a pitch to pass to delay the game or give advantage to a player – typically one in position to steal a base. Chadwick says this rule “should be strictly enforced” (1860 Beadles)
  • Striker, Batsman: Batter.
  • Stump Match: A game that is a challenge match with another club. Suspended Game: Suspended play due to rain etc. was understood.
  • Tally: See Run.
  • Team: See Club.
  • Tip Out: When a foul ball is caught by the catcher, the batsman is said to tip out.
  • To Bat: The batsmen did not need to be told when they were to bat as there were no infield balls or practice pitches between innings. They were expected to take their position and indicate where they would like their pitch without prompting. We can document a call of “to bat” or “[striker’s name], to bat!” when needed. The call of striker to the line is a myth that was created in the modern day.
  • Triple Play: Is a period term. Also treble play.
  • Umpire: Is a period term. Arbiter and Arbitrator were not in use to refer to umpires.

Language Used for Color and Interest

None of this is to say that those talking and writing about base ball were not creative and clever in their language. One game account notes that “Cornell sent his compliments to third base” (meaning he hit the ball towards third) and that “Witherspoon, by a low ball to first, was put out by the worthy keeper of that hotel.” The language was interesting – often more so than today. But in no case would we think that the first baseman was commonly called a hotel keeper, or that a hit was called a compliment. Following are some such phrases found in period base ball writing. What constitutes a colorful phrase vs. a period term can be a grey area. Some of the very frequently used language is included as a term above.

In the list below, we provide a topic that one might want to talk about, followed by several terms that are documented as having been in use in the era we portray.

  • Catching: “took handsomely” (caught), “nicely caught out”, “promptly secured”, “shut upon”, “grabbed the leather in style”, “fielded prettily to the first baseman’s trap”, “held the swiftest balls like a vise”, “stopped in his hands as if it belonged there”, “bottled it in style”, “thankfully accepted”
  • Excellent Play: crack (as in crack player or crack club (team)), “took handsomely” (caught), “handsome fielding and throwing” “well guided there” (throw), “caught the ball tip top”, “passed it sharply” (throw), “caught on the fly in style” “in the highest style of the art”
  • Muffs: “Fielded the ball poorly to…” (bad throw), “beautifully missed”, “failed to take”, “another chance to miss an easy bound”
  • A Ball Well Struck: Cannon Ball, “sent a strong ball”, “raised a strong one”, “knocked a splendid ball”, “Howitzer shot”, “hit a corker”
  • Playing with spirit: Showing sand, Pluck and perseverance, vim
    For going in to Bat: go in, strike, ‘take a turn at the ball”, “use the hickory”, “throw the club at” Coming in to strike after giving up runs: “do justice to their reputation”, “get square with their opponents”, “hard piece of work cut out for them”
  • Strong hitter: “heavy hitter”
  • Rallying: “presented a bold front”
  • Close Play: ‘close shave’, ‘tight squeak’.
  • Reacting to an umpire’s judgment against you: “accepted with quiet acquiescence” (properly), “roused his dander” or “kicked” (angered, improperly)
  • Picked off base: “his sharp dodge caught him napping” Looking a runner back: “showed the whites of his eyes” Pitching with spin: “peculiar twist put on to the ball”
  • Good Game: “Lively match”, “sharp contest”, “good display”, “well-contested display” “strongly contested”
  • Winning the Game: “Resulted in favor of…”, “Victory perched on the bat-sticks of…”, “Victory perched on the new banner of the Eckford club”, “retrieved their laurels”
  • Complaining: chaffing, kicking
  • Ruffians: short hair class, blackguards
  • Put Out: “sent to the grass”, “took a back seat”, “tame hit, as means of his retirement”