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Ask Athlon Sports: Baseball History

Q: In baseball, the names of the different positions — catcher, pitcher, first base, second base, etc. — seem to make sense. But what is the origin of the term “shortstop”?

— John Daneluk, Beverly, Mass.

A: There are two theories that appear to have some merit. One is that the player known as the shortstop was positioned there to field batted balls; the other supposes that the player’s primary purpose was to field throws from the outfield.

Considering that most players in the game’s infancy were right-handed hitters, and there were no Nolan Ryan fastball-type pitchers, most balls in play went to the left side of the field. There were players assigned to cover each base, and because most balls were hit toward the left side, players soon discovered that by positioning themselves between second and third they could stop balls short of the outfield. Given the condition of most playing fields, it is easy to assume that most balls that hit the ground were quickly and abruptly slowed by tall, unmanicured grass. Therefore, this position stopped many ground balls short of the outfield.

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The other theory is presented well by historian John Thorn as he writes about Daniel Lucas “Doc” Adams, one of the original players for the New York Knickerbockers before 1850. Thorn quotes Adams himself from interviews given when the former player was an advanced age near the end of the century: “I used to play shortstop,” Adams reminisced, “and I believe I was the first one to occupy that place, as it had formerly been left uncovered.”

But when Adams first went out to short, it was not to bolster the infield but to assist in relays from the outfield. The early Knickerbocker ball was so light that it could not be thrown even two hundred feet, thus the need for a short fielder to send the ball in to the pitcher’s point…When the ball was wound tighter, gaining more hardness and resilience, it could be hit farther and, crucially, thrown farther. This permitted the shortstop to come into the infield, which Adams did.

So, there you have it. Did the position and name originate as a fielder or a cut-off man? It’s difficult to disagree with Thorn, one of the foremost historians in baseball, but logically, the other theory makes for a better story to the derivation of the name.

— Charlie Miller, Editorial Director

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