The German Ball Game

Source: Games to train and relax body and mind
by Johann Christoph Friedrich GutsMuths, 1796
Translation by: Beate Brockmann
For further understanding and terminology check this out.

2. The German Ball Game

This game which has not yet been described anywhere merits very well a detailed description. It is not my goal to be entertaining in this endeavor – try just to understand these dry explanations, entertainment will be found in practicing.

Playing Field:
Drawing 1
Playing Field

Mark on a flat lawn the beginning point X and end point Z of the alley, approximately 30-40 steps apart, and the preparation is done; if you want to be more precise, rip the lines A-B and C-D with a pole/stick into the ground, and mark their ends and also the positions 4 and 5 with poles.

This way, also the width of the alley is defined.

Line A-B will be the batting plate (home plate), C-D the catching plate (“rest base”).

Ball: [This is a lengthy explanation how to produce the ball with material of 18th century Germany, giving several alternatives, and with the result of a ball that can jump 25 feet high if thrown down with force and is supposed to be nearly as good as a rubber ball]

Ballstock (Racquette): It is not good to take a broad-shaped piece of wood, as it resists the air and therefore the hitting cannot be as strong as with a completely round stick that gets thinner towards the handle, made from a trunk of a young spruce tree. Only with those you can successfully hit the ball to go up 80 to 100 feet and nearly 100 steps far. [And some other lengthy explanations how to prepare the handle so that it doesn’t easily fall out of the hand.]

Spiel: A team of eight, ten, twelve or more persons, no matter short or tall, gathers on the playground. The two best players will be appointed leaders, and are to arrange the game, arbitrate in case of disagreements etc. Their first duty is to divide the group in two parties rather equal in capacity. This is to be done following rules in the annex 1. Are both parties made, the decision which one is to be the ‘ruling’ (hitting – the “batting team”) and which one the ‘serving’ (catching – the “fielding team”) shall be made by throwing a coin (see annex1). Now the game can start. Both parties continuously fight against the other: the batting team tries to stay in the batting position; the fielding team tries to win the hit. This is the main idea of the game; but I will first develop the procedure of each team separately before explaining the general rules.

1) The fielding team
We suppose six persons for each team. At each start of the game and each time his team has lost the hitting position, the team leader positions his team in the positions 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6, and the best players are to be put in 1,2,3,6 – because the side positions may be positioned with less able players, but 1 and 2 need to be able throwers, and 3 and 6 able catchers of the ball.

The person in position 1 is called pitcher; he must throw the ball for the batter. To this end he stays two steps in front of the batter who stands in E and throws the ball in the middle between himself and the batter upright in the air, a bit higher than the head. As the ball drops down, the batter has to hit him in the air. All other members of the fielding team in 2,3,4,5,6 have to try to get the ball as soon as possible into the batting plate, and therefore have to run to all sides to catch the ball and throw it to the pitcher. All of this has to be done quickly, therefore everyone should be able to catch and throw well, with right, left and both hands and in all positions, even in a run. The body will become very able, elastic and strong.

While doing this, the main goal of the fielding team is to change their status and switch to the batting position by winning the hit. This happens if a) a fielding team member catches the hit ball out of the air, b) if he throws the ball at a batter who is running from X to Y or back, and he hits him, c) if he can get the ball into the batting plate at a time when not batter is there anymore – the last two cases will be made more clearly in the following.

2) The batting team
They have the privilege to hit the ball, but each hit must be earned by the batter by running from the batting plate X to the resting base X and back.

As the batter cannot run while the ball is in the hands of a person of the fielding team who tries to hit him with the ball, he first has to hit the ball, or, if he fails that, to stay in the batting plate X and wait until one of the follow batters hits the ball and “loosens” him, only then he can run. If he arrives at the resting base Y, and the ball is still not near, he can right away run back to X. In the opposite case he remains behind the resting base Y until a good hit is done which loosens him to get back to the batting plate X.

It happens often that only one of all batters is left in the batting plate, because the others have not hit well or not hit the ball at all, and are therefore still standing in X or Y waiting to run. This last remaining batter is then called the “cleanup hitter”, as he tries to drive home all remaining base runners. He has the right to strike three times, while otherwise only one strike is permitted.

If the „cleanup hitter“ is a bad hitter, he might do his three strikes without hitting the ball; if this happens really without one of the home runners at Y managing by speed and artfulness to get to the batting plate, then the his is lost, because the ball gets to the batting plate without there being a “loosened” batter. The batting team will of course try to prevent that by trying with speed and artfulness to drive one of them into the batting plate, for instance by several of them running at the same time from different sides to the batting plate, and trying to divert the attention of the fielding team. Always try to have the “cleanup hitter” be a good hitter who rarely misses the ball.

At the beginning of the game, when the order of batting is not yet determined, the best batter stays behind and lets everyone else strike before him, so that he can “loosen” his team members. As the game goes on, the order of who will strike next will be defined by which player arrives first from Y to X – therefore the batting team has to make sure that from several players coming back to X the best one enters last, so that he can become “cleanup hitter”. For instance, if a, b, c are bad players and d is a good one, and all four were out at Y, and a strike would “loosen” them to come back to X, then d would have to let the other three get “home” first. Or if a, b, c were at Y and d, e f, as three good players, were still to do their batting in X, then a, b, and c would not be allowed to run “home” once a god hit has been done, but they would need to wait until one of the better three players comes out to Y – this good player has then again to come “home” last, to later become “cleanup hitter”.

The „cleanup hitter“ needs to be sure not to run after he dealt his first hit – other then if he could be sure that the waiting batters could for sure make it back to X from Y before the ball can be brought to the batting plate X. Imagine the “cleanup hitter” ran away after the first little hit, and the fielding party could bring in the ball before the batters come back from Y, the hit would be lost. Now the following rules for the players will be easy to understand.

1. Rules for the fielding team
a) Pitcher: His role is one of the most important, and he needs to be very able. He is the key position in the game, as he has to encourage the fielding team to pass him the ball and to make the batting team not lose time. Doing both, he keeps the game lively. His attention should be focused on
1- the current batter: if the current batter is inclined to send the ball regularly further away than the positions 4 and 5, the pitcher needs to change his position a bit as to prohibit that behavior. The better the pitcher throws the ball for the batters and adapts to their particularities, the more good hits will be done, and the better those hits can be caught by the fielding team.
2- the ball: often, the batter will hit the ball only on the quarter or in its eighth part and sends it only slightly up – these kind of balls the pitcher needs to catch to win the hit.
3- the batters of the batting team in general: he needs to strive to hit with the ball everyone who runs away from X or returns from Y either by himself, or to throw the ball to his team member in position 2, in case this person is nearer to the running batter, so that team member 2 can hit the batter. The pitcher also has to watch the batters standing in X; in case they pass the line A-B with as much as a single foot he has the right to throw the ball at this foot, and even more they trespass the line completely. In case the pitcher hits in such a case, he has won the hit.
4- to himself: he has to step back at least one wide step in the moment where the batter strikes, so as not to be hit by the raquette.
b) The other members of the fielding team have to watch carefully and at all times the ball and the batters. They have to know the habits of each batter – how far, in which directions they drive the ball. In case they predict the ball to come to their position, they have to be even more careful. Each time the ball is hit and gains height, they have to calculate the arch in which it will come down again, and try to quickly reach that spot to catch the ball and either hit one of the runners of the batting team or to pass the ball to a player who is better positioned to hit a runner.
If none of these cases is possible, the players of the fielding team pass the ball to the pitcher, to make the game continue.
Each member of the fielding team also keeps an eye on the lines A-C and B-D to check whether one of the runners of the batting team trespasses them – if this happens, their hit is lost. They should also notice if no “loosened” batter is in the batting plate anymore, because in this case they have to get the ball into the batting plate – this action has to be announced to everyone so that it can quickly be carried out without a batter reaching the batting plate first. Of course, if the ball arrives before the batter, the batting team has lost this hit.

2) Rules for the batting team
None of the batting players should run while the ball is held by one of the nearer players of the fielding team, as the chances are too high he could be hit by the ball and lose the hit. Only then is he allowed to run if there is no good batter in the batting plate anymore who could loosen the other players.
Each player needs to strive to hit the ball well and with strength, because small and week hits will be caught too easily. He has to be able to strike the ball into each direction he wants, and needs to choose the direction in which no good catcher is positioned. Also, he should never drive the ball to Y if his fellowmen are running in this direction, and by all means drive the ball to Y if his fellowmen are running in the opposite direction, towards X the batting plate. In short, he has to take care to drive the ball in such a way that it is far from his teammates, so as to minimizing their risk of being hit by the ball. Of course, if a batter can drive the ball further than the position 6, that would be an ideal solution.
If the ball threatens to hit a batter, the batter must be quick to avoid it – therefore he always looks around him and prefers to go down than to be hit. But the batter must take all the risk to get to the batting plate in the case of the “cleanup hitter” having only one hit left. Of course, the batters also need to make sure they don’t step over the sidelines of the field.

I finish the explanation with a general rule set for this game.

1) Each team has to follow its team leader. If there is a controverse about if a hit has been lost or not, and no agreement can be reached, it will be decided by lot.

2) Who ever goes down loses the hit of his team, if he is a batter. Is he who goes down a fielding team player, his party has to win twice before switching roles and becoming batting party. As punishment, the one who was laying on the ground is not allowed to strike in the next term, but still has to run with the team leader from X to Y and back.

3) If the game changes too often, meaning it is won too often from one, then the other team, one can decide that the fielding team needs to win two or three times in a row before they can become the batting team.

4) No batter is obliged to hit a ball which the pitcher has badly thrown. If no batter is satisfied with the balls a particular pitcher throws, they can ask the fielding team to put a better pitcher in place. If the “cleaning hitter” is about to do his third strike, he is allowed to not strike at all but on purpose let the ball drop, so that the ball is out of the hands of the pitcher for a moment, but he can only do so twice.

5) The series of strikes a team does before they lose the right to strike is called a „Gang“. In order to find out which team has won the game at the end, each team has to count the strikes done aloud and note them after the “Gang” on a blackboard. Small strikes that do not reach higher than a man will not be counted. At the end of the game, when both teams have played the same number of “Gaenge”, all strikes will be added and the team who has the higher number of them has won.

6) A strike gets lost if:
a) If a player of the fielding team catches the ball out of the air. Has the ball already touched the ground, this is not the case – but if the ball has just bounced back from a person or an object, the catch out of the air is still valid.
b) If any player of the batting team gets hit by the ball in between A B C D, no matter under which circumstances. However, the pitcher is not allowed to partake in this throwing if he is inside of the playing field – he has to remain in front of the line A-B, because If he was allowed to partake in hitting the players of the batting team with the ball, he could run after each of them who is slower than he is, catch up with him and hit him, while the other is trying to run from X to Y to get “loosened”.
c) If a player of the fielding team throws the ball into the batting plate while there is no batter present on the batting plate.
d) If a player of the batting team crosses the lines A-C or B-D.
e) If a „cleaning hitter“ has done his three strikes and after the third strike the ball gets quicker into the batting plate than a new batter. This is the same case as c) and happens most often in case the third strike is not hit and the ball falls down in front of the line A-B.
f) If a player of the batting team touches the ball.
g) If a player of the batting team takes the raquette from the batting plate into the playing field on his run from X to Y.
h) If a player of the batting team, after striking, throws away the raquette so quickly and carelessly that one of the other players is hit.
t) If a player of the batting team drops the raquette while striking.

7) If the hit is won by the fielding team, the winner has the right to do the first strike, after him the former pitcher has the right to strike, after this one all of the others no matter in which order. But afterwards, as the game goes on, the order in which the players strike is determined in the order in which they come in from Y. If the case happens that a bad batter is the last one to come in and would normally become “cleaning hitter”, the fielding team is not obliged to accept that this bad batter may strike before to have a better batter become the “cleaning hitter”.

8) The ball is never carried by hand, but has to be thrown from player to player, and then caught out of the air.

From all games for young people, this is one of the best, because it fulfills several goals of physical games. It favors much moving in the open air, and furthers the body’s speed, promptness and strength. Batting and throwing gives ability and strengths to the arm and the running makes flanks and legs quicker. Avoiding to be hit by the ball makes it necessary to be very quick. Also the visual judgment is trained during this game, for instance for hitting the ball the pitcher has thrown, or for hitting a running batter, or for catching the ball out of the air – and this while the ball goes in arches of 70 feet high and 80 steps wide. The game asks for constant attention and brings so much pleasure and interest for young people who are not effete that they will prefer it to any other game, during spring time.

I already said that this game can be played by more and fewer people, even with just 4 persons. This last version which is called “Fourball” is a lot more intense because those four persons have to do just as much as the twelve as described above. Also here, one of the fielding team is the pitcher, the other one stands outside, and one batter becomes the “cleaning hitter” for the other hitter.


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