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In modern baseball, the players always run around the bases counterclockwise (anticlockwise). However, a book written in the 1830's - one of the first to describe the version of the sport we know today - which lays out the rules of the game, says that at that time, players would run around the bases clockwise (The Book of Sports, Robin Carver, 1834).

When and why did baseball players begin to run the bases solely in a counterclockwise direction?

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When? This evolved over time to what we know in modern baseball today. The first known time the players were instructed to run counterclockwise was in 1839 (page 40, Early Professional Baseball and the Sporting Press, R. Terry Furst, 2014).

One mandate regarding running counterclockwise in the MLB was made after Herman Schaefer stole first from second(1). This is covered under Rule 5.09(b)(10) of the 2016 MLB Rule Book.

Any runner is out when:

  • After he has acquired legal possession of a base, he runs the bases in reverse order for the purpose of confusing the defense or making a travesty of the game. The umpire shall immediately call “Time” and declare the runner out;

Why? This article dives into factors that can be summarized by stating that the game of baseball developed into what it is today because the general population is predominately right-handed. This, as a result, influenced specializing skills such as switch hitting and left-handed batting rather than by default (ie, clockwise baserunning, a mirror image of what we know today).

A few quotes from said article:

Clockwise baserunning, therefore, would necessitate that most fielders would have to turn before they threw the ball ... Since a majority of the population would find it easier to throw without first turning, and to swing the bat right-handed, counterclockwise baserunning gradually prevailed.

Now the environment of the game can influence skills that can be learned. Professional baseball evolved with batters standing on either side of the pitcher-catcher axis. ... The left-handed batter stands closer to first base, and this provides his team with an offensive advantage. He can both reach first more quickly, and block the catcher's view of the runner on first.

Baseball developed in a manner favoring the very specialized skill of right-handed throwing, and the less-specialized technique of left-handed hitting. Most ball-players at all positions throw right-handed; many bat left-handed, however, and there have been very few hitters indeed who bat right and throw left. Because of the necessity for speed in throwing, there have been no regular, longtime southpaws at C, 2B, SS, or 3B in this century.

  • Probably worth mentioning Herman Schaefer, who once stole first from second base. – chepner Jul 8 '16 at 19:33
  • @chepner That's a good find. Although running counterclockwise became exclusive sometime in the mid-1800s, Schaefer was the reason a mandate to run counterclockwise was made. – user527 Jul 8 '16 at 19:45
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    I think everyone just assumed it was in the rule book up until that point; otherwise, you'd think someone hitting a slow dribbler up the first base line might try to run to 3rd instead. – chepner Jul 8 '16 at 19:52
  • When I was a kid, I read about Jimmy Piersall's backwards trot to celebrate his 100th career homerun. I always thought he ran clockwise, and they codified the counterclockwise rule at that time, but upon looking it up just now, I discovered (much to my disappointment) that he simply ran facing backwards. – chepner Jul 8 '16 at 19:54
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    @chepner In the modern day rule book, the definition of a run is "the score made by an offensive player who advances from batter to runner and touches first, second, third and home bases in that order." I wonder if that was in the rules back then (which would mandate running counterclockwise, but not mandate the stealing first from second scenario). – user527 Jul 8 '16 at 20:07

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