Understanding Baseball Through Its Mysterious, Magical Words: Home, Base, Run

John ThornGuest ColumnistMarch 17, 2011

The Elysian Fields in Hoboken, N.J., believed to be the site of the first organized baseball game.
The Elysian Fields in Hoboken, N.J., believed to be the site of the first organized baseball game.

See Part 1, "More Story, Less Sabermetrics"

The old mysteries were visible in baseball's earliest names, numbers and practices, and it has seemed to me in recent years that to understand the action on the field, most of which we have elected to measure, we might profit from peeling back the layers of complexity and examining, with the same intensity we may devote to stats, some of the game's most fundamental terms. 

Base and ball and home and run, for example, and such odd linguistic vestiges as box and score, and the blatant misnomers pitch and diamond. As all Americans came from somewhere else, so did these names, from other games and times and places.

When baseball began it was primarily a game for runners and fielders rather than batsmen; the pitcher (who ceased to “pitch” by 1872 as the underarm toss began its inexorable drift toward overhand throwing) was an insignificant feeder of balls delivered for the batter's convenience. 

The game of baseball took its name from its hallmark feature: safe havens where a runner could not be put out by a ball thrown at his person, as was the custom in baseball prior to 1845 or so. The base symbolized a bay or harbor and was a feature of ancient board games such as Pacheesi (we know it as Parcheesi thanks to Parker Brothers) long before it came into field games; the circuit of the base paths evoked the Return Myth of Odysseus and others. 

Originally “base” was a running game (absent bat and ball, those time-honored symbols of the male and female principles) that was well known when cricket was young. Spenser, in his “Faerie Queen,” alluded to it as follows: “So ran they all as they had been at bace, They being chased that did others chace.” The innovation of baseball was to combine the running of that old game with the batting of “cat” games and the fielding of cricket.

Baseball has never been played on a diamond, which would have two acute angles and two obtuse ones; in fact it has been played in a circular pattern on a square that was turned on point. 

“Town Ball” games were played on irregular pentagonal schemes, with four bases plus a striker's point, but the circular course of the base paths was evidenced in the original name for what came to be known as the Massachusetts Game: round ball. (The name did not refer gratuitously to the shape of the ball.)

What about that evocative name “Home”? Well, Ulysses returned home to Ithaca to complete his earthly circuit. The rest of us go to our eternal reward, returning to Our Maker, as I believe is indicated by baseball's home. Some national variants of the game of Hop Scotch are illustrative. In England and America the end space is termed Home; in Germany it is called Paradise; in Austria it is the Temple. 

In France, too, the end space is Paradise or, with echoes for our national game, the Elysian Fields

Tomorrow: How numbers have shaped baseball on the field.

John Thorn's new book, Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game,debunks the myth of Abner Doubleday inventing baseball in Cooperstown and traces the game's real roots in the 18th century. You can buy it at Amazon.