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While the infield specifications are non-negotiable, the rules regarding fence distances are more flexible. All fences must be a minimum of 250 feet from home plate, but it is said to be “preferable” for the foul lines and center field fences to be at a distance of at least 320 feet and 400 feet, respectively.
There is a legal concept known as the “grandfather clause”–an exception that allows for circumstances that existed before the passage of a particular law.
Grandfathering is a fine thing in the case of fences, since it has allowed for some older exceptions, one of them being Boston’s beloved Fenway Park. Its right field line was a mere 302 feet. (The Green Monster in left that supposedly loomed so close was 315 feet away.) All parks built or remodeled after 1958 are obliged to have at least 325 feet down the lines and 400 feet in center. In practice, this has meant that as the antique fields are demolished one by one and new parks replace them, more and more fields are meeting the preferred specs.
Rules are rules, but there’s always room for change when the game’s gray heads convene. With a multi-year trend of improved pitching and decreased hitting at its peak, a number of moves were made in the late sixties to give the batter an edge: one was the innovation of the designated hitter. Another was a short-lived minor league experiment in 1970 to angle the foul lines outward from the first- and third-base bags. The lines flared out an extra three degrees, a change that added roughly three percent to fair territory. Used in the Gulf Coast Rookie League, it didn’t catch on, so today we still have the same geometry that Alexander Cartwright laid out in 1845, when he codified his rules for the Knickerbocker Club of New York.One adjustment–not to the rules but within the rules–that has made it to the majors numerous times over the years is the old move-the-fences trick. It was put to use wholesale in 1969. Oakland Athletics owner Charlie Finley (he of the mule mascot, “Charlie O”) moved his fences that year, as did the White Sox, Braves, Dodgers, and Phillies. Years earlier, when Bill Veeck was chief showman at Cleveland he was said to have had his fenceposts located in sockets in the ground so that he could move them from game to game.
The prototypical fence-mender was Frank Lane, general manager of the White Sox in 1949. The previous year, the White Sox as a team hit a mere 55 homers, while pennant-winning Cleveland led the league with 155. Lane decided he had seen enough (that is, not enough), so he brought in the left and right field fences twenty-two feet.
Then in early June the Senators came to town. They’d hit a pathetic thirty-one as a team the previous year, but by the end of the three-game series with the Sox, fourteen round-trippers had been hit. The fences moved back, but legend has it that it wasn’t the opposition’s home-run output that led Lane to end his experiment. It was his own Floyd Baker, a man described in the press as a “notorious banjo hitter.” Contrary to his billing, Baker hit one out that weekend–the only homer of his career. Lane reportedly screamed upon seeing Baker’s ball leave the field, “Take [the fence] down! Throw the thing into Lake Michigan.” That year Lane’s White Sox hit forty-three homers, the least in the league. One upshot of Lane’s move is that today a team may not move its fences or otherwise alter the playing field during the season.
Moving fences seems to have become something of a tradition at real estate-rich Comiskey Park. In 1981 the White Sox returned from spring training to a center field shortened from 445 to only 402 feet, and the center field distance at Comiskey has been changed in at least sixteen different seasons. In 1991 the White Sox ownership went their predecessors one better: they moved the club into an all-new Comiskey Park.
The imaginary line from home to second should be on an east-northeast axis, and the lines on the field should be of “wet, unslaked lime” or of another suitable white material.