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The Laws of Base Ball - The Magna Carta of Our National Game

Thousands of documents throughout time have shaped the course of history. The US and other countries have put into words their ideals, their intents and laws that have determined the lifestyle of their citizens, dictated wars won and lost, and generally molded modern civilization. From the Declaration of Independence to the Emancipation Proclamation, these famous documents provide today’s historians insight into the greatest ambitions of our forefathers. Some original incarnations of our world’s most influential documents exist in tangible form, however most are lost to time.

The world of sports has known few transcendent foundational documents that have surfaced in original form for public offering. Among them are Naismith’s 1891 Original Rules of Basketball (sold for $4.3 million) and The 1859 Original Rules of Soccer (sold for $1.4 million).

Among baseball historians, some scholars have long wondered about the possible existence of a document of parallel importance in their field, one that set the course for a burgeoning yet unfettered game to blossom into America’s National Pastime. Authored in 1857 by Daniel Lucius “Doc” Adams, President of the New York Knickerbockers, “The Laws of Base Ball” is that document. Adams “Laws” were drafted for presentation at the Base Ball Convention of 1857, an event referred to by historians as “…perhaps the most important meeting in the history of baseball…” Presided over by Adams, the purpose of the Convention according to William Ryczek (in Baseball’s First Inning) “…was to standardize the rules of the game, which, contrary to legend, were not established for all time by Alexander Cartwright on a magical day in 1845”. At the most critical stage of the game’s early development Adams’ Laws of Baseball set forth a codified blueprint to govern match play. The Laws of Base Ball included some of the game’s most elemental rules that are hallmarks of the game that endures today: one of nine innings, nine men per side, and ninety-foot basepaths. Indeed, if we were to be transported in time to 1857, we would recognize Adams’ game as our modern baseball. A period report on the Baseball Convention of 1857 in Porter’s Spirit of The Times on March 7, 1857 discussed Adams’ rule changes and how they were necessary to the development of baseball stating that it was good that “…the rules of base ball are fixed for the present, and will meet a fair trial in the first match game between two clubs, and experience will settle all doubts as to their working…In any case, the game will be more popular than ever…”

Over the last century and a half The Laws of Base Ball has proven to be the most vital doctrine ever produced in the evolution of baseball. The stabilizing efforts of Doc Adams elevated the game he played and loved and enabled it to grow into an American institution. Adams’ pioneering contributions to the development of the game won for him, in 2015, the most votes of any Veterans Committee candidate for the Baseball Hall of Fame. For his role in making baseball the success it is, renowned baseball historian John Thorn has stated, “Doc Adams may be counted as first among the Fathers of Baseball.” According to Thorn “…if this document had been discovered 6 months earlier, the case for Doc Adams enshrinement into the Baseball Hall of Fame would have been even more compelling. This should help his chances immeasurably when he comes up for vote again in 2018.”

Drafted in 1857, The Laws of Base Ball were long ago recorded and have been transcribed, reprinted and referenced in various forms. The existence of Adams’ original draft and the handwritten transcription presented at the Base Ball Convention of 1857 has been largely unknown.

SCP Auctions is honored to present the original Laws of Base Ball, The Magna Carta of Our National Game.

John Thorn's 'Our Game' Blog

Read Thorn’s captivating entry about the 1857 'Laws of Base Ball' manuscript that goes up for auction from April 6th - 23rd. Click here.

Article 1. LAWS OF BASE BALL ORIGINAL DRAFT - Written by Daniel Lucius “Doc” Adams, 1856 [3 pages].

Imagined by Daniel Lucius “Doc” Adams and recorded in his own hand in December 1856, these three sheets (almost certainly of four, with the last failing to survive the passage of 160 years) gave Americans a game they would recognize today. Providing for nine men, nine innings, and ninety feet—innovations erroneously ascribed to Alexander Cartwright in 1845—this document particularly confirms The Good Doctor’s genius. Several points were modified in the “Laws of Base Ball” Grenelle transcript (Article 3) as presented to the 1857 Convention, but the essence is here.

Article 2. RULES FOR MATCH GAMES OF BASE BALL - Attributed to the hand of William Grenelle with Adams attributed corrections, 1856-57 [4 pages, 2 with back content].

William Henry Grenelle, who would be, like Adams, a Knickerbocker delegate to the convention of 1857, recorded a substantially different iteration as “Rules for Match Games of Base Ball.” This document addresses many issues about the playing grounds that were left to one side in the formal Knickerbocker Base Ball Club document presented to the convention. The pencil corrections, almost certainly in Adams’ hand, are particularly revealing, as they point to the state of the framer’s mind when he arrived at nine innings (having crossed out “twelve”); and ninety feet as the distance between the bases, rather than 74 or 89 or some number in between, as all prior calculations were based on 42 paces across the diamond from home to second base and from first base to third. For the historian with a bent for detective work, this is a particularly rich document.

Article 3. LAWS OF BASE BALL as presented at the Base Ball Convention of 1857. Transcribed by William Grenelle from Adams draft (Article 1) with working corrections attributed to Convention proceedings, January 22, 1857 [14 pages, 5 with back content].

This formal, handsomely penned document, scripted elegantly on blue paper was the one presented to the convention in its opening session, on January 22, 1857, and thus is the only one of three documents that might have been expected to survive. The number of innings is noted as nine, as Adams had favored, but is corrected in pencil to seven, as this was the number recommended by the Knickerbocker club and affirmed in the convention. In one of the few variances between the draft rules and those ultimately accepted by the other clubs at the convention, “seven innings” was overturned in preference to nine. Prior to these documents surfacing, the only resource available to researchers has been published reports about the Convention. None of these contemporaneous accounts document the significance of the contribution to the meeting of Doc Adams and the Knickerbockers. With the discovery of these documents it is very clear that Doc Adams and the Knickerbockers were the dominant influence at the Convention. Nearly all of the originally proposed Laws were adopted by the convention as drafted by Doc Adams and transcribed by William Grenelle. An analysis of this document relative to a published report on the Convention in Porter’s Spirit of the Times on March 7, 1857 shows that all of Doc Adams foundational proposals were adopted largely unchanged by the Convention. This supports the importance of Doc Adams and the Knickerbockers in the founding of our modern game.

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Current Bidding (Reserve Has Been Met)
Minimum Bid: $100,000
Final prices include buyers premium.: $3,263,246
Number Bids: 42
Auction closed on Sunday, April 24, 2016.
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