The name “baseball” tells us which objects are important to it. There’s the ball, and there are the bases. Pretty straightforward.
Nowadays the ball gets most of the attention. There’s so much talk about how the pitcher throws it, or the ability of batters to square up and hit it, or how the fielders make dazzling plays to catch it. The ball, it seems, gets all the play. As Walt Whitman noted after observing an 1846 game, early versions of baseball were sometimes called just “Base.” Maybe it’s time to bring some attention back to the bases, those four corners of the diamond that mark the field of play, forming its foundation. Named First, Second, Third, and Home, the bases separate baseball from other, similar ball games—games like stoolball, rounders, and cricket. The bases create much of the sport’s drama. It has become cliché to point out the grinding tension of a long, full-count at-bat with the bases loaded, but the station-to-station build up as the bases fill invokes hand-wringing in spite of the game’s often plodding pace. The bases are important.
But one base stands apart: Home. You’d think we call it a plate because it sits embedded in the dirt of the diamond with only the flat top surface visible, but the name more likely refers to the round iron disks that comprised its first iterations. Home is dramatically unlike first, second, or third. Physically, symbolically, and historically, Home has evolved to become a unique part of the game and sport of baseball. It deserves deeper reflection.
Let’s start with the physical makeup of the plate, and with the material history of Home, so different than the other bases. While the bases rest atop the dirt, Home is fixed, buried into the ground. On professional (or well-funded) diamonds, the numerical bases have a stem that fix the rubber slabs into place. Little-leaguers and beer-league softballers likely recall sliding into a softer, pillowy base that is merely tethered to the spot, the bag flying out of place on contact. Even the well-established colloquialism “bag” suggests the more flimsy composition of these movable bases, as they were constructed as soft, square, canvas pillows from 1877 until almost a century later when the bags were switched to rubber squares in the professional game.
A bag does not a home make, and Home is historically more substantial. As Peter Morris explains in his book A Game of Inches: The Story Behind the Innovations That Shaped Baseball, home was first constructed of rigid, durable material like stone or metal. Imagine sliding into home to find your leg scraped or even sliced by the marble edge of the plate. No wonder sliding didn’t become a popular technique until later in the century. It was not until the 1880s that rubber became the standard material for home plate, with provisions in the National League rules demanding a rubber or marble plate by 1885.
The beveled, rubber plate used in the contemporary game owes much to Robert Keating, an amateur pitcher. Keating had signed with the Washington Nationals in 1887, but he never made it onto the field. Keating played one, single game with the Baltimore Orioles, in which he injured his arm and promptly retired from the sport. When he wasn’t failing at baseball, Keating pursued another career: invention. He sold a few patents for razors in 1886, and made a name for himself after the turn of the century by designing a popular American motorcycle that he named after himself. Keating also redesigned home base for the game he used to play. Keating developed the rubber plate, and patented the design in 1886. As Morris explains, Keating argued that his improvements would help send runners “off on a bound” because of the springiness of the plate, and that tapping the bat would not “jar the batter’s hands.” While the latter is certainly true, it is far more likely that the rubber plate became popular thanks to safety and affordability. A one-line obituary in the January 21, 1922 New York Times refers to Keating as “the inventor of the Keating Bicycle,” and makes no mention of his baseball accomplishments as a player or inventor.
Though the name for Home plate can be traced back to the material history of the object, originating as an iron disk, the nominal difference between the numerical “bases“ and “Home“ also carries some symbolic and rhetorical weight in the context of the game of baseball.
Base is an appropriately name for the game’s numbered marks: runners can be stationed there, literally standing on the bag for safety. Bases offer a refuge from the dangers of the game: to be on base is to be safe, to leave is to risk being tagged out. Not so home. Nobody stays at Home. Batters do not stand on the plate. Rather, they march up from the dugout and stand aside Home Plate in the batter’s box, bat waving through the imagined strike zone created by the Plate’s borders, waiting for the pitch.
Home plate is not so much a station as it is a threshold or boundary. Most obviously, it defines the strike zone through which the ball must pass to be called a “strike,” a fundamental part of the contest between pitcher and batter. But also, and perhaps more symbolically, Home is the point of departure and return for players. Batters who put a ball into play, or draw a walk (or get hit by a pitch) depart from the batter’s box and enter into play. Right-handed batters cross over the plate as they enter into play, and as Robert Keating suggested, the plate could even act as a springboard launching the player into a run. Runners, having successfully survived the journey around the diamond, try to return Home, crossing over and touching the plate to score a run. The metaphorical significance of “coming home” should not be downplayed, nor the impact its name has on idioms like “the home stretch,” metaphors for sex, or songs by Meatloaf.