Who invented the bunt?
In a Red Sox game in 2012, the leadoff batter for the visiting team bunts for a hit; the ball initially lands in fair territory a few feet from the plate, but, the spin on the ball causes it to roll over the 3rd base foul line and it is ruled: “FOUL BALL !” by the home plate umpire.
But, back in 1856, it was a very different story: a ball that landed in FAIR territory and then went FOUL [before reaching 1st or 3rd base] was STILL IN PLAY; it was a FAIR ball and referred to as a “foul-FAIR” ball.
Since such a struck ball could roll a long way in foul ground, it was nearly impossible for the 1st or 3rd baseman to field it and make that long throw to 1st base to beat the runner; it was a field day for batters who could guide the ball with a bit of spin off the bat.
Also, it was a tough play for the catcher to make; especially since catchers stood well behind the plate, until masks were introduced in July 1877 by Peter Hotaling of the Syracuse [N.Y.] Stars, who wore it because he was recovering from being struck on the eye by a foul tip in a previous game.
But, when did players start bunting in baseball?
One answer is that the bunt came into fashion after batters became so successful at cleverly swinging the bat and putting some “English” on the batted ball. By causing the ball to spin off the bat, the skillful batter could get the ball to drop into fair territory and then skitter into foul territory; thus, the batter could easily make it to first base safely.
Up to this time, it was assumed that batters would swing to strike the ball as hard as they could to get a hit, until Dickey Pearce of the Brooklyn Atlantics invented the “sure single” strategy called the “FAIR-foul” hit.
Here is an early description of the “FAIR-foul” hit from the March 10, 1888 issue of The Sporting News:
“It was Dickey Pearce who conceived the idea of touching the top of the ball with his bat and making the famous foul-fair hits.”
To add to Pearce’s advantage, until the rules were changed in 1894, a ball that went directly foul was not counted as a strike, so Dickey and his followers could wear a pitcher out with a series of attempts at a “FAIR-foul” hit.
Although spectators of that era considered his near-bunt technique unmanly, the prominent “expert” of the game, Henry Chadwick, saw the “trick” as an innovation:
“…requiring the most skillful handling of the bat, and a quick eye and a steady nerve, besides.”
[New York Clipper, 4, 12, 1873]
Four years later the scions of baseball eliminated the “FAIR-foul” hit and the Chicago Tribune noted that the new rule created a new type of hit:
“By the new rule of this year a ball which strikes foul ground first, and then bounds into fair ground before passing first or third bases, is a fair ball. Inasmuch as it struck foul ground first, it must be called a ‘foul-FAIR.’ “[4, 29, 1877]
Thus, the “foul-FAIR” hit was born, and the “FAIR-foul” hit was dead; but, the success of the now outlawed “foul-FAIR” technique started players thinking about other ways to get to First base in such a way, but within the rules.
There is some controversy about which came first, the “foul-FAIR” or the bunt. One theory is that the bunt was used during the “foul-FAIR” era as a strategy to keep the defensive team from over-committing [close to the plate] to be able to field a “FAIR-foul” ball.
For example, some Third basemen positioned themselves way more than half way toward home plate in an attempt to get to the spinning ball, after it took its initial bounce in fair ground.
Also, a foul ball caught on the first bounce was out.
As a counter-move, batters would strike the ball harder with a bunting gesture to get it past the Third baseman. One can only imagine what mayhem would have ensued if a right-handed batter took a full swing with the Third baseman standing so close to the plate.
In an era when gentlemen were expected to play honorably and swing as hard as they could to hit the ball, the bunt was seen as near-cheating and definitely unmanly. It was initially called the “baby-hit” by fans and writers.
But the Brooklyn Eagle defended the technique:
“The object of the batsman is to reach first base, and if by any style of hitting he can send the ball fairly on the field…he earns his base by skilful [sic] scientific hitting.” [7, 23, 1873]
It was either Dickey Pearce or his Brooklyn Atlantic team mate, Tom Barlow, who “invented” the bunt, but it was definitely Barlow who introduced the “baby bat,” which was said to be about 24” in length.
The Boston Globe sniffed at Barlow, his miniature bat, and his bunting method and disdainfully wrote that Barlow’s attempt to bunt was “a rather weak one for a professional club, [and was] a failure.” [9, 9, 1873]
The New York Clipper took a more even tone:
“Barlow, amid much laughter and applause, ‘blocked’ the ball in front of the home plate and reached first base before the ball did.” [June 15, 1872]
The origin of the term “bunt” might have been an article in the Louisville Courier-Journal:
“[the batter] made a ‘baby-bunting’ hit near home plate.” [7, 12, 1877]
There is some speculation that this reference derived from a popular lullaby, “Little Baby Bunting.” [SEE: Peter Morris, Comments on Etymology, vol. 34, no. 1 [October 2004], pp. 2-4.]
The bunt suddenly went out of the game, when the baby bats were banned, Dickey and Tom, “Wright Brothers of the Bunt,” abandoned their invention.
“Pierce [sic] and Barlowe [sic], not realizing that a bunt could be made with a long bat, gave up the bunt hits and became ordinary players.”
[Kalamazoo Evening Telegraph article: “Forty Two Years of Base Ball: Wonderful Life Story of Jim O’Rourke,” March 3, 1910]
For about a decade bunts were out of fashion and nearly forgotten, until another innovation arrived: the “flat bat.” A diagram in the Sporting Life [February 25, 1885] showed that only about 1/6th of the bat was flattened.
The National League legalized the “flat bat” in an effort to:
“…do away with so many foul tips and high fly balls, and in a measure improve batting.” [New York Times, 11, 21, 1884] and increase offense by allowing the batter to control the direction of the struck ball; “placing the ball will be made easier.” [Sporting Life, 12, 3, 1884]
The “flat bat” had another, unintended, outcome: it brought back the bunt.
By 1886 bunting–with the advantage of the flat bat–became so effective that there were calls to ban the technique; instead, flat bats were banned in 1893.
[NOTE: In 1880 the governing body of amateur baseball legalized “square bats,” that were four-sided.]
Three of the best bunters in MLB history were Ty Cobb, Rod Carew, and Mickey Mantle.
Here’s The Mick explaining how he used his legendary “drag bunt” with great success:
PART TWO: Bunches of Bunts
Primary source: A GAME OF INCHES: The Game on the Field, Peter Morris.