Baseball revolves around number nine

Baseball revolves around number nine

1.01 Baseball is a game between two teams of nine players each, under direction of a manager, played on an enclosed field in accordance with these rules, under jurisdiction of one or more umpires.
-- The first rule of baseball

Nine.

It is the number of baseball.

How it happened exactly, no one can say, not even the most dogged baseball researchers and historians. It became the numerical infrastructure of baseball simply through evolution and trial and error, rather than any magical visions or events. It is a number that truly became synonymous with the national pastime, because more than anything else, it just felt right -- as it does today. On Sept. 9, 2009 -- or 9/9/9 -- we pause to celebrate the number because it is our number.

MLB.com and fans of the national pastime will be celebrating this crazy confluence of time together -- in the hours leading up to the numinous number nine, from morning to night on Wednesday, and then for weeks thereafter as all club sites will give you an exclusive opportunity to decide your favorite all-time lineup for each of the 30 clubs.

The celebration also will include: Video tributes to Teddy Ballgame and Roger Maris; a lesson on the art of filling out a lineup card by living legends Tony La Russa of the Cardinals, Bobby Cox of the Braves and Joe Torre of the Dodgers; a special MLB.com Shop area with all things $9.99; a debate between MLB.com columnists Mike Bauman and Hal Bodley on the best nine ever; 99-cent live out-of-market games with MLB.com At Bat 2009 on your iPhone or iPod Touch; ninth-inning walk-off hits to re-live; and some special surprises.

Many people worldwide on this day will honor The Beatles, simply because they repeated the lyrics "number nine" in their 1968 experimental and controversial song "Revolution 9." We remember seeing Paul McCartney -- who was supposedly dead if you played those lyrics backward -- very much alive in the front row at Yankee Stadium during the American League East leaders' last homestand, and we remember him and the rest of the Fab Four rocking Shea Stadium in 1965 and Dodger Stadium a year later.

Nine is the sheet music for the song, the canvas for the painting, the stump for the orator. It is what makes highlights and leisurely days and nights possible.

Nine is a starting lineup and the number of players in the field.

Nine is the number of innings, whereas other sports use clocks.

Nine is the official scorekeeping designation for the right fielder.

Nine is the jersey number worn by perhaps the game's all-time best hitter, Ted Williams, a.k.a. The Splendid Splinter, a.k.a. Teddy Ballgame, a.k.a. The Kid.

Nine is Roy Hobbs. When you create the most magical mythical figure possible in baseball, as Bernard Malamud (in his 1952 novel) and Barry Levinson (in his 1984 film) did with "The Natural," you give him the Knights' jersey No. 9.

Ninety feet is the chosen distance between bases, because Alexander Cartwright's famed New York Knickerbockers proscribed in the mid-1800s that there should be "42 paces" between home and second, and "42 paces" between first and third -- "equidistant." It ultimately felt right to make it a standard 90 feet from base to base, in accordance with that crossing distance.

Nine is three strikes times three outs. On July 23 of this season, White Sox pitcher Mark Buehrle walked out from the dugout to the mound nine times, and in each of those innings he retired the three Tampa Bay hitters who came up to face him. He was perfect, like the number nine.

9/9/9 is a time for baseball.

Nine was "The First Nine" -- Harry Wright's original Cincinnati Red Stockings, who went 65-0 and made a $1.39 profit as baseball's first fully professional team in 1865. In the Library of Congress is a tobacco wrapper from those days, with the image of that vaunted team and the words: "Manufactured from the best Havana Tobacco by Henry Koop of Cincinnati Ohio."

According to the book "Baseball: An Illustrated History" by Geoffrey Ward and Ken Burns, a Cincinnati fan that year told a visiting reporter: "Well, I don't know anything about base ball, ... but it does me good to see those fellows. They've done something to add to the glory of our city."

Nine of a kind
Jim Gates, library director at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., put together this honorary All-Star team of No. 9s.
Pos
Name
CGabby Hartnett
1BJoe Adcock
2BBill Mazeroski
SSCarlos Guillen
3BGraig Nettles
OFTed Williams
OFReggie Jackson
OFRoger Maris
PCatfish Hunter (died on 09-09-99)
MGRJoe Torre
"There are many players such as Bob Feller, Joe DiMaggio and Bobby Doerr who wore No. 9 for one season, but they are recognized for wearing a different number and were left off this list," Gates said. "Everyone on this list wore No. 9 for several seasons -- except for Hunter, who made the list for other reasons."
Torre is probably more recognized for the No. 6 he has worn while managing the Yankees and currently the Dodgers. But he wore No. 9 as a player and as a manager for the Mets, Braves and Cardinals.

Right there in those words is where you find the true magic of the number nine. It is an association of pride in your favorite nine, and that feeling of being part of a nine yourself. Even if you are the ninth hitter, even if you are the last player picked and standing amid daisies out in right field on a rural pasture, you are part of something special.

It is a number that feels right, and the most amazing thing of all is that no one person ever decided that it should be this important. Yes, nine innings was adopted as the length of the game on March 7, 1857, by the rules committee formed at the meeting that led to the creation of the game's first organizing body, the National Association of Base Ball Players. Yes, some have speculated that the number of players was settled on nine to match the number of innings. But then there is the reality of how it all happened. From town to town, it was whatever felt right, it was however many guys showed up and however long they wanted to play, and, gradually, a standard emerged -- for the most part.

It just happened over the course of American history.

"America didn't wake up on a particular day in history and all of a sudden all these rules were there," said Jim Gates, library director at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y. "Over time they went back and forth and eventually it reached the game we see today.

"All things of baseball are derived from evolution, not magical events. Over time, nine innings seemed to be a nice length for a game. That worked well. One thing I've heard, and never seen confirmed, is that it may have dated to a time when there was only one out per inning, and having nine innings let every player come to bat at least one time.

"So, you see, even then, the standard three outs per inning was evolution."

Gates is also an official scorer for the Oneonta Tigers of the Class A New York-Penn League, and he noted that they played a doubleheader last Wednesday that included two seven-inning games. His point is that while nine is an iconic fixture, keep in mind that it is at its roots a less absolute game, one where the majority decides, and most commonly on nine. "The nine-inning standard is nice, but not always held to," he said.

Indeed, nine is only viewed as the minimum requirement in standard terms. If a game is tied after nine innings, then the teams stay on the field as long as possible until it is resolved. They are called "extra" innings, because nine is the norm.

Gates said the "biggest evolutionary period of the game" was between the 1840s and 1880s: "Things really started to settle out in the late 1880s and early 1890s."

Along the way, nine was very gradually cementing itself as a foundation. It was one thing for a trailblazing club or organization to decree a rule; it was another for baseballers in Michigan or Kentucky or Kansas to go with the flow. It became easier with westward expansion and especially with print newspaper consumption, and once baseball was known well enough across the land, it was more natural for everyone to be in sync with what felt right.

"There were some clubs playing with nine men in the 1840s, and some with more in the 1870s and 1880s, with seven to 15 men on the field," Gates explained. "So the standard nine, I would debate, is still not a rule. In the American League today there are 10 men in the starting lineup. There is no real magic date, kind of an evolutionary thing by which nine most commonly appeared. It seems so natural now to have nine men on the field, but in the early days it was a variety.

"Let's say Club A challenges Club B to a game. Each club has different rules. They would have a rules committee meeting to decide by which rules to play. Then a team might play three games in a row and each game might be played by a different set of rules. It was the creation of a standard set of rules to where you can have things like standings or comparable statistics, and that's when the game became magical. It evolved over time to the nine-men game we think of today."

In his 1989 book "Playing for Keeps," author Warren Goldstein noted that the term was clearly influenced by cricket's "eleven." The first known usage of "nine" in reference to the number of men on a field was in 1860, in the minutes of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club. But as Gates noted, it was common to find other numbers of fielders back then.

Today, the lore of nine in baseball will be evident not merely in what happens on a baseball field, but also by everyday jargon. On July 24, 1989, a USA Today article mentioned this: "President [George H.W.] Bush's proposed capital gains tax has entered the ninth inning." Indeed, this has become a common feature in the English lexicon, similar to so many other phrases that President Obama recently referred to as "inside baseball." Whenever you say a company is in the ninth inning, that's usually not a good sign for its employees. It means the party's almost over.

Alas, it's never over till it's over. Yogi Berra assured us of that, because he knew the importance of the No. 9 in length of game. And in our 9/9/9 coverage we will show you some classic walk-off hits you have to see again to believe.

Berra was No. 8 himself, and that number had everything to do with the No. 9.

The Yankees before him originally wore uniform numbers 1 through 9 to correspond with their slot in the batting order. Babe Ruth batted third and Lou Gehrig batted cleanup, so they spent the remainder of their careers with jersey Nos. 3 and 4, respectively.

Nine also makes us think of Ruth, Gehrig and the rest of the '27 Yankees lineup known as "Murderer's Row." It is generally regarded through the years as the best team in baseball history. But was it really the best? Even in their era, as pioneers in greatness, those aforementioned 1865 Reds certainly could make a case as the most dominating team ever assembled. It's hard to argue with unbeaten. And Connie Mack's '29 A's can make a case.

If you love one favorite team -- as most of us do -- then you probably recite your own favorite "nine" by heart. In the National League, the pitcher is batting on your nine. In the American League, the DH is mixed in and the pitcher doesn't get a turn at-bat. Either way, it is nine. That is how many slots the manager fills in while ceremoniously making out a lineup card.

Billy Martin sometimes would literally draw a lineup out of a hat if the Bronx Bombers were struggling to win. Witness the time Dave Winfield batted sixth and cleanup man Reggie Jackson hit second; Martin's team swept a doubleheader from the Indians.

The one thing you can change about the number 9 on a lineup card is the color. Legendary Orioles manager Earl Weaver liked to make out his lineup card each day with a red pen, but if the team lost, he would switch to blue or green to help implement a winning streak.

When you think of nine, you think of the number on Roger Maris' back as he brazenly took on Babe Ruth's single-season home run record and bashed No. 61 in '61.

You think of the 99 on Manny Ramirez's back today. Dodgers fans certainly do, anyway.

You think of Bobby Thomson's 1951 "Shot Heard Round The World" in the bottom of the ninth at the Polo Grounds; Kirk Gibson's Miracle Homer in the bottom of the ninth off Dennis Eckersley in the 1988 World Series; Joe Carter's homer in the bottom of the ninth to end the 1993 World Series in Toronto; and other beautiful walk-off hits in the ninth.

That walk-off hit was not always a fact of life in baseball history, either. It feels right today, but it didn't feel right to players back in the day.

Before 1879, it was customary for teams to finish all nine innings no matter what. It was considered poor sportsmanship to give up despite knowing you are trailing the home team entering the bottom of the ninth. That year, however, the Nine Spots of Sturgis led the Adrian Club 5-4 in the bottom of the ninth in aptly-named Blissfield, Mich., in a two-day tournament. But a two-run single won the game and the tournament for Adrian.

The Nine Spots glumly walked off the field and the umpire ruled the game a 9-0 forfeit (giving them each run that had been scored). Newspapers criticized the club for the shocking breach of etiquette. Walk off a field before it's over? That paved the way for what became the "walk-off" hit. That and similar incidents made it obvious that a custom once intended for good sportsmanship was instead causing angst. The rule was finally changed that offseason, according to the Dec. 13, 1879, Stevens Point (Wis.) Journal, so that "if the side at bat in the ninth inning secures the winning run, the game is to be called without putting out three men as heretofore."

And so it was the following year, on Opening Day of the National League, that the first "sudden-death" victory occurred in what would become MLB history. Chicago rallied at home against Cincinnati with two runs in the bottom of the ninth to win, 4-3. The Chicago Tribune reported gleefully: "It was nobody's victory till the last moment."

Today, all over the world, they will play baseball games with nine players in the field, nine batters in an order, for at least nine innings, with nine strikes per inning and with bases 90 feet apart and all will be right with the world again. It is the number of baseball.

Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.