If you’ve ever wondered what perfect foresight and planning looks like, or serendipity at the very least, look no further than the baseball diamond.
When the rules of the game were drafted in 1857, Daniel “Doc” Adams specified that the bases were to be set 90 feet apart. In the 160 years that have followed, athletes have gotten faster and the sport has become both an industry and pastime, but the distance remains at 90 feet.
And with that perfect, magical distance, nearly every routine play at first base is decided by a split second and every stolen base attempt is a hold-your-breath moment. If the bases were set at 100 feet, no player could leg out a grounder to first base. At 80 feet even the average baserunner would look like Rickey Henderson, and the stolen base would be ho-hum instead of thrilling.
That distance, among other rules and regulations, is in a recently unearthed document known as the “Magna Carta of America’s national pastime,” which will be on display for the first time at the Oregon Historical Society in Portland from July 1 to October 9. The handwritten document brought the many baseball clubs of the time onto the same page, so to speak. Some were playing to 21 runs instead of nine innings, some had as many as 11 players on the field instead of nine, and there was no set standard for the basepaths.
From that document leagues were formed, new clubs emerged and the sport entered into the American consciousness.
The Pioneer Baseball Club of East Portland was formed in 1866, and was the first baseball club in the Northwest. Portland has never been home to a major league club, but if you’re interested in the city’s history with the sport there’s a Netflix documentary called “The Battered Bastards of Baseball” about the Portland Mavericks of the 1970s, who were shunned by organized baseball but developed a rabid following thanks to a roster of colorful characters.
The Oregon Historical Society’s museum at 1200 S.W. Park Ave. is open Monday-Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m.
— Daniel Wattenburger