'Origins' thrills with fascinating baseball facts

10 fun takeaways from Belsky and Fine's trivia-laden book

'Origins' thrills with fascinating baseball facts

Many tomes have been written about the origins of baseball, from apocryphal tales to the thorough research of scholars. Now, as another season dawns, a fresh perspective arrives with the new book "On the Origins of Sports" (Artisan Books), delving into the startup history and earliest rules of 21 sports you know and mostly love.

"The more we know about the origins of the games that obsess us, the more we enjoy them," write the authors, Gary Belsky and Neil Fine, who begin aptly with baseball as chapter one and sprinkle further references throughout the book. For those of us who truly obsess over these matters, here are 10 fun facts you can learn:

1. Players used to leave their gloves at their positions in the field at the end of half-innings, a routine practice for the first 75 years of the modern game's history. Major League Baseball banned this tradition in 1954 "for many reasons, not least because opposing players could trip on the left-behind equipment."

2. Why a "diamond?" Credit the standard deck of playing cards. The infield, when viewed from home plate to second base, looks like the suit of diamonds in a deck of traditional (French) cards. The authors note that the French actually described the suit as "carreaux" (or tiles), and English-speaking card players of the 15th and 16th centuries thought the pointed shapes resembled diamonds.

3. Kickball owes its roots to baseball. "Blatantly and unabashedly derivative" is how the authors describe this sport's creation in the 1910s by Nicholas C. Seuss (no relation to Dr. Seuss), a Cincinnati park playgrounds supervisor. He initially called it "Kick Baseball Ball" as the rules borrowed greatly from the popular national pastime. Kids kicked a basketball since they couldn't kick a baseball, and soon kickball became a popular way for schools to teach baseball rules.

4. Speaking of kickball, the book lists 35 types of spherical balls used in sports, and that sport's ball comes in as the largest. The smallest is a squash ball, at five inches in circumference. Where does today's Rawlings baseball rank? At No. 14, measuring nine inches in circumference.

5. This fall will mark the 49th presentation of the Commissioner's Trophy to a World Series champion. It is highlighted in a look at the origins of major sports hardware, including how MLB finally came around to awarding a large trophy in the first place.

"For most of baseball's long history, no official trophy was awarded to the World Series champion," the book says. "Instead a commemorative object, usually a ring, was given to players, coaches and employees by the winning team." The first presentation was to the Cardinals in 1967, and in 1999 Tiffany redesigned it.

6. Now that the Play Ball initiative by MLB and USA Baseball is into its second year as a way to get more kids to play any kinds of diamond sports, it is an especially auspicious time to explain how Wiffle ball got its start. The book devotes five pages to that, documenting the rules -- who knew there were official rules? -- and explaining how it all began.

Former semipro pitcher David Mullany of Fairfield, Conn., got the idea to create a plastic ball that would be lightweight and "amenable to curving." He had watched his 12-year-old son "messing around" by hitting a thrown plastic golf ball with a broomstick. "Mullany happened upon the spherical plastic packaging for Coty perfume" and cut eight holes into one side, causing the big breaks. The name derived from "whiff" but they forgot the "h."

7. Everyone knows the safe/out gestures made by an umpire when there is a play at the plate. But what happens if a runner scores and a safe call is not needed? You may see an umpire simply point with a straight arm toward the plate. That is his indication that a run has scored, and if you do not see him point at the plate, technically that would mean the runner failed to touch the plate. "That miscue is in any case the obligation of the opposing team's manager to note and report."

8. In 1870, Cincinnati Red Stockings catcher Doug Allison became the first pro player to use a glove, as protection for an injured hand. St. Louis Brown Stockings first baseman Charles Waitt tried a fingerless pair in 1875 and was mocked for absence of macho. Alas, Albert Spalding, the Chicago White Stockings first baseman and future sporting goods magnate, copied Waitt, and all pros wore them by the turn of the century. Bill Doak's 1920s model brought webbing and padding, leading to today's multitude of styles.

9. Home runs used to be fouls. "A ball knocked out (of) the field, or outside the range of the first or third base, is foul," said the 10th rule of the "Rules and regulations of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club" in 1845. The regular playing area at that time -- Elysian Fields, located in Hoboken, N.J., across the Hudson River from Manhattan -- was right next to the river. Balls hit out of bounds got wet, and because balls were expensive then, "irretrievable shots were discouraged."

10. With a nine-person lineup for baseball and softball, the diamond sports rank in the middle of the listings for number of players per side during action. Australian Rules Football leads the way with a whopping 18 per side, compared with two for beach volleyball, rowing (various), sailing (various) and track cycling (Olympic sprint, women's).

For a comprehensive look at the origins of baseball, see "Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game," the 2011 work by MLB official historian John Thorn.

Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. Read and join other baseball fans on his MLB.com community blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.