First Stolen Base - Eddie Cuthbert

Eddie Cuthbert had the first stolen base in baseball as we know it today. The rulebook at that time must of had a rule about a base runner on first being required to advance when the batter put the ball in play. What rule, or lack of rule, allowed Cuthbert to just take off on his own? I would think that if there were a rule stating that a base runner may attempt to take second as soon as the pitcher went into his motion that steals would have been tried as soon as such a rule was instituted. Or did Cuthbert just have a moment of brilliant inspiration, and after accomplishing his surprising feat, a new rule was created?

Or maybe it went some other way?

Based on the article in Wiki, I’d have to say that he simply was the first person who thought to run while the pitch was being pitched.

The rule book was silent about this. Nobody had thought to try it before. This is true of many sports rules. The forward pass in football is a noted example. The infield fly rule in baseball came about because someone was clever enough to figure out the consequences of not having the rule.

One of my favorite stories involved Cap Anson (I believe). He was the player-manager of the Chicago White Stockings (I believe) and when a foul fly was hit near the players’ bench, but out of reach of any of the players on the field, Anson stood up and announced, Cap Anson now catching for Chicago and caught the foul fly. No one had thought to put in a rule that substitution can only take place when the ball is dead. (It still doesn’t in hockey – though it’s a puck there.)

Dribbling in basketball was also invented this way. The Naismith rules said the ball holder could not move with the ball, but it was, of course, legal to pass the ball. Eventually, some wise player realizes that the rule doesn’t say you have to pass the ball to another player, so by bouncing the ball off the floor you can “pass” to yourself and move while controlling the ball.

The stolen base is addressed by Peter Morris in A Game of Inches: The Stories Behind the Innovations That Shaped Baseball. He writes:

Passed balls would occur because there were no called strikes until 1858, so the batter could take as many pitches as he wanted.

The story about substitution to catch a foul pop is told of several players, but is almost certainly apocryphal. Substitution except in case of injury was forbidden until 1889, and rare until 1900, and mid-play substitution would violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the rule requiring fielders to station themselves in fair territory when the ball is pitched (except for the catcher, who must be behind the plate).

Two comments. The 1871 rules on substitutions allowed no substitutions after the fourth inning except for illness or injury. The 1877 rules changed this to after the second inning. In 1881 substitutions were eliminated except for injury or illness.

I can find no indication of when the rule requiring players to be in fair territory got added to the rule book. It would appear to be after 1900.

Cite is “The Rules of the Game” [1845-1900] by Eric Miklich.

I read this same story in the 1980s in Smithsonian magazine. They said the player was named King Kelly. Dunno if it’s true, though.

There still is no rule specifically allowing a stolen base. A baserunner is allowed to try to advance to the next base at the risk of being put out any time the ball is in play. It doesn’t matter whether the ball has been pitched, batted or thrown - if the ball is live you can take off for the next base.

The official scoring rules tell when a player should be credited with a stolen base, but that section of the rulebook only tells how to account for what happens on the field. The scoring rules don’t affect the outcome of plays on the field.

  1. It’s usually attributed to Kelly.

  2. It’s probably false.

  3. Even if Kelly did this (and it was definitely his nature to pull stunts like that) the umpire almost certainly would have refused to recognize the substitution. Even in 1890s baseball, umpires had wide latitude with regards to interpreting the generic “travesty of the game” concept.

Ah, that explains it! When the pitcher begins his motion, the ball is technically in play, right?

The ball comes into play as soon as the pitcher puts his foot on the pitching rubber (the slab on top of the pitcher’s mound). It remains in play until something happens that causes it to become dead - a foul ball, for example.

I attended an A’s vs. Angels game a few years ago that ended with an unusual play. The score was tied in the bottom of the ninth inning with the A’s at bat. A’s catcher Jason Kendall was on third base. Angels pitcher Francisco Rodriguez threw a pitch, but when Angels catcher Jose Molina threw the ball back it tipped off the end of Rodriguez’s glove and rolled behind the mound. Kendall took off for home and scored the winning run before the Angels could react.

Kendall was able to score because the ball was live. The ball didn’t become dead just because the batter hadn’t put the ball in play.

The ball is in play unless an umpire has called “time”. You can steal before the pitcher goes into his motion, although it increases the likelihood of being thrown out.

You can see that play here.

Scroll down to August 11, and click on the video link for “A’s score the game-winner.”