How Home Plate Lives Up to Its Name

With a new baseball season upon us, an investigation of home plate's history and meaning

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.

Bing Miller tagged out at home plate by Muddy Ruel, 1925 (Wikimedia Commons)

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.

That baseball became most popular in America during periods of foreign war lends even more symbolic gravity to the notion of coming Home. It might be said that baseball is the perpetual drumbeat keeping time through American history, or so goes the mythos James Earl Jones proclaims from homemade bleachers in Iowa. During World War II the professional game reflected the experiences of American culture at-large. Many star players enlisted in the armed services, perhaps none more famously than Ted Williams, who left in the prime of his baseball career to take his eagle vision as a Marine pilot. While the connections between militarism, nationalism, and baseball were sown long before the 1940s, the return of baseball stars after the end of World War II helped tighten those threads. The rise in popularity of the more violent sport of American football over the past forty years may reflect shifts in militaristic ideology, from the Cold War to current overseas conflicts. Nonetheless, the metaphor of “returning home” persists in a yearly charitable event at Fenway Park benefitting veterans, or by a young girl’s surprise reunion with her military father at a Tampa Bay Rays game. Symbolically as much as mechanically, baseball is a game about “coming home.”

Home plate even resembles a home, at least in its most archetypical, crayon drawing form. The pentagonal shape was adopted in 1900 to help pitchers and umpires to better visualize the strike zone. There is no indication that the switch to the house-like pentagonal shape was inspired in any way by the name “Home” but it’s a remarkable coincidence nonetheless. As an impressionable young child playing baseball from age seven, I assumed that part of why Home was so-named was because it looked like every drawing I had ever made of a roofed house.

And why shouldn’t it look like a simple depiction of a child’s vision of home? Though baseball generates billions of dollars, it is still an important childhood game. Though these days one is less likely to happen upon a throng of neighborhood kids playing stickball in the streets and alleys of Brooklyn, many children around the world still play versions of baseball as part of organized little-leagues or among ad-hoc groups at a sandlot. As a youthful, oversimplified vision of a mid-century suburban ideal, Home is an allegory of a home. It evokes the game’s long-term connections to place, to dwelling, to comfort.

Even if such symbolism evokes the nostalgic pastoralism often associated with baseball, it is also a misconstrued from the perspective of history. It is far more likely that a skyrise or apartment building was the reality of home for the child living in urban centers like Boston, Chicago, St. Louis and especially New York that served as crucibles for the development of the sport in America. Baseball is lacquered with images of suburban Americana, Norman Rockwell and Apple Pie, but its early history is urban. The detached suburban home of Home plate is a symbol for an incomplete vision of American baseball, a vision that belies the game’s cultural significance in the urban communities that originally gave the sport life. As downtown baseball fields become overgrown and the Home plates there become buried beneath decades of neglect, some of baseball’s vitality has been lost. Ticket prices to professional games have soared. And corporate baseball marches on, streaming to tablets into the homes of those who can afford to watch. We’re left wondering, whose home does Home represent?

Frequently throughout a game, the lead umpire will pull from his pocket a small palm sized brush. I imagine it to be made of horsehair and ivory or something else expensive. He turns his back to the field and meticulously dusts off Home. Ostensibly, the act is conducted so that both umpire and pitcher can more clearly visualize the strike zone, I prefer to see the act as ritual. Maybe the umpires do it to stall, buying some time between action in the game as the dust literally settles on the field. Maybe it’s an opportunity to stretch out his legs and walk around a little bit—I suspect umpires’ backs hurt after a long few hours crouching down behind the catcher in a half squat. Cleaning home might just be a functional act, but it is also a bow of supplication. An act of reverence.

In the game of baseball, Home is rugged, fixed into the earth, trod upon, but precious. Home is an altar. It is protected. It is defended. It is cleaned. Home plate represents the sacred amidst the profane. Like a religious icon, Home is a symbol of baseball and a symbol in baseball. Home carries the rhetorical complexity of its name, matching the polysemy of a game that has, over its history, evolved into a deeply meaningful and conflicted reflection of the cultures in which it is played.

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