Why Baseball Dugouts Are Built Below Ground

Alex P. asks: Why are baseball dugouts built below ground?

baseball-dugout2Imagine attending a game with no stadium seating where you have great tickets right near the action on the infield. The pitcher winds up, releases the ball, and as it speeds toward the batter, the runner on third makes an attempt to steal home. When the ball and the runner are halfway to home base you lose sight of them both. You hear half the crowd groan, while the other half cheers, but you don’t know why. Was it a ball? A strike? Was the runner safe at home? Did he slide? Did the catcher miss the pitch or catch it successfully and tag the runner out? You simply Do. Not. Know! This could’ve all been avoided if the dugout was below ground rather than blocking your view of home plate.

And there you have it, the number one reason why dugouts are traditionally built below field level–so spectators near the infield can have an unobstructed view of the game, especially the action at home plate. In the days before giant ballparks with their massive stadium seating, this was even more important than it is today. Not surprisingly from this, around the late 19th century when rules were put in place specifying the area the players hung out at was required to have a roof, side and back walls, digging that area out to keep the structures from blocking fans’ views of the game became a thing.

These “dugouts” also provide protection to players from taunting and unruly fans. In the early days of baseball, players sprawled on the grass along each baseline with the fans right behind them. This provided fans with easy access to those athletes… Too easy. If spectators didn’t like what was going on, they could scream directly behind the players and also weren’t opposed to chucking objects at them. Dugouts with walls and a roof, located below ground, provide much needed separation, as well as protection from the elements.

As a bit of a side bonus, foul balls, which were formerly a bit of a problem to players lounging along the foul lines, were no longer an issue. With the below ground digs, often with a protective railing to lean against while watching the game, players can easily duck down if a ball is rocketing their way.

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Bonus Facts:

  • Henry Chadwick, the creator of the baseball box score, was the first to setup a demonstration proving that the rotation of a baseball could cause the ball to curve.  Before this, some pitchers had already observed and use this to their advantage (even though many of the day considered it cheating), but no one had yet proved that it was an actual effect and not just an optical illusion.  To prove it, Chadwick set up two stakes placed twenty feet apart in a line between the pitcher and batter’s box.  A pitcher, Fred Goldsmith, then threw a ball which ended up being to the right of the first stake, but then curved to end up to the left of the second stake.
  • Chadwick was an outspoken supporter of changing the game to allow extra innings instead of letting games end in a tie as was the rule before his campaign against it. He also argued successfully that the game should be changed so that a hitter was not out unless an opposing player caught the ball in the air.  At the time, the batter was still out if the opposing player managed to catch the ball on the first bounce.  Due to the fact that baseball gloves were virtually non-existent / ineffective at the time, you can see why players would have rather caught it on the first bounce.
  • Chadwick chose the “K” to denote a strikeout because it was the last letter in “struck” as in “struck out.”  Chadwick liked to use the last letter of words instead of the first, particularly when he felt they were more memorable.  In this particular case, Chadwick said “the letter K in struck is easier to remember in connection with the word, than S.”
  • The 1861 Beadle guide, created by Chadwick, listed the total number of games played, outs, runs, home runs, and strikeouts for hitters on prominent clubs.  This was the first baseball statistical database.  His goal in creating this database was to figure out a way to prove whether a particular player helped or hurt a team using statistical analysis.
  • When Chadwick developed the ERA (Earned Run Average) statistic, his goal was not to evaluate a pitcher’s worth, but rather to differentiate between runs caused by batting skill and those caused by lack of fielding skill; the pitcher’s skill was not factored in.  This makes sense considering pitchers of the day tended to just throw the ball right down the middle of the plate with any trickery like curveballs being considered by many to be cheating.  This is one of the reasons teams scoring 30 or 40 runs per game was not uncommon at the time.



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