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Chalk Talk: A Look Back at Cleveland’s Very Strange Baselines

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As we all know, the foul lines on a baseball diamond run straight through the bases with no interruption. It’s such an obvious thing that I feel silly even spelling it out.

But for a while in the 1990s, that wasn’t the case with the first base line in Cleveland. Check out, for example, this screen shot from a game in the 1996 American League Division Series:

As you can see, the baseline stops a few feet before the bag and then resumes behind the bag. Now, you might be thinking, “The baseline was probably fully intact but then it got erased by the first baseman’s feet.” Maybe, but I don’t think so. Consider, for example, this shot from the 1997 World Series:

It looks like the line comes to a dead stop, and there’s no trace of white residue in the blank area.

Update: Phil has found this photo taken during infield practice prior to Game Four of that World Series:

Still not convinced? This shot from the 1998 American League Championship Series should be the clincher:

As I hope you’ll agree, it is plainly obvious that the baseline was purposefully left incomplete.

This odd phenomenon at Cleveland’s ballpark seems to have happened primarily from 1996 through 1998. Here’s a shot from the 1995 World Series, with the line fully intact:

And here’s one from the 1999 American League Division Series, again showing the line fully intact:

But the incomplete line reappears in this shot from a regular season game on Aug. 5, 2001:


Weird, right? I was completely unaware of this phenomenon until reader Alex Kinkopf recently brought it to my attention, so I asked the Guardians about it. The good news is that, somewhat incredibly, they still have the same head groundskeeper today that they had back then, and they even put me in touch with him. The bad news is that the groundskeeper never responded to my inquiries, and then my PR contact also stopped responding. I’m not sure why these people don’t find an odd-looking baseline from a quarter-century ago as compelling as I do, but I guess it takes all types.

Anyway: I’d love to know more about this. Did it start in 1996, as my video research seems to indicate? When did it stop? Was it ever discussed on TV broadcasts? And, most of all, why?  If anyone has hard info (not just guesses or speculation, like “I bet the groundskeeper got sick of the first baseman messing up the line with his spikes”), I’m all ears.



ITEM! It’s Almost Time for the NHL Season Preview

The NHL regular season begins next Tuesday, which means it’s almost time for the annual Uni Watch NHL Season Preview. It’ll be published tomorrow on Substack and, as usual, will be jam-packed with all the news on this year’s new uniforms, logos, goalie masks, and ice designs, along with some deep-cut info you almost certainly won’t find anywhere else.

You can receive the NHL Season Preview in your email in-box tomorrow morning by becoming a paid subscriber to my Substack. That will also get you full access to my Substack archives, plus you’ll be all set to receive the NBA Season Preview when it’s published two weeks from now.

My thanks, as always, for your support and consideration.



Cans of the Day

Longtime reader Jay Palmer got in touch last week to say that he’d obtained a few old tin cans from a neighbor who was giving them away. He sent me photos of them and asked if I’d like to have them. When I said yes, he packed them up and sent them to Uni Watch HQ! Isn’t that nice?

Here are some additional pics:

Thanks so much, Jay — you’re the best!

Comments (29)

    Here’s a shot from before Game 4. You can clearly see there is no line for a good 3 feet before the bag.


    So here’s one of those things where my mind has been seeing something that (usually) isn’t there for nearly 40 years that I’ve been watching baseball… When I looked at those pictures, I thought that in addition to the missing piece of baseline, the field was also missing a perpendicular line connecting the baseline to the outside line of the running lane. But when I looked at pictures of other fields, almost invariably, there was no perpendicular line at the first base end of the lane. If there was any perpendicular line at all, it was at the end closer to home plate, but I also came across pictures of fields where there was no perpendicular line at either end of the running lane. I also went back and looked at pictures of the venerable 1989 Upper Deck baseball cards, which included an illustration of a first base line as part of their card design, and sure enough, that artwork has an open-ended running lane (but with a perpendicular line at the end closest to the plate).

    As a Seattle fan, the Mariners and Indians didn’t play each other on August 5, 2001. No idea what you’re talking about, that game absolutely NEVER happened.

    That game would have been win # 117 and set the record rather than settling for a tie at 116.

    Interesting (at least to me!). The link to the game story refers to the Cleveland team as the Indians. Obviously what they were known as at the time, but the new Guardians logo appears throughout.

    I checked the image and the file name is “cle.png”

    So they probably just added the new image using the same name, replacing it throughout the site

    Oh, it happened alright! And on ESPN Sunday Night Baseball for all the world to see. I was there…AND stayed till the end.

    This may have to do with one of the most confusing rules in baseball – RLI (Runner Lane Interference). Every Nationals fan can weigh in on this. In that, a batter-runner is protected if he exits the running lane in the “immediate vicinity” to touch first base. Since the running lane is in foul territory and first base is in fair territory there is a defined path for a runner to avoid RLI.

    As far as I can tell there is no measurable definition of “immediate vicinity” So just take a stab at this of what it could be. If you want a deep dive on RLI, Close Call Sports does interesting work.


    Second guess, maybe the 3′ block they used to chalk between the bag and built in foul line was lost or damaged??

    The “immediate vicinity” wording is actually a bit of a red herring and rather redundant in the full context of the rule. The full text is “The batter-runner is permitted to exit the three-foot lane by means of a step, stride, reach or slide in the immediate vicinity of first base for the sole purpose of touching first base.” In other words, the prevailing consideration is whether there was a step, stride etc. (ie. just the one, and not multiple) and if said action was for the sole purpose of reaching the base, not the distance involved. Seems unlikely that anybody would alter the field markings to assist with something that umpires don’t really actually consider, especially if it means making the much more pressing consideration of a fair/foul decision more difficult.

    I agree, and it even seems unlikely as well that a player (Thome) could alter the field of play because of a preference.

    I think we should send this to the Minnesota pedestrian bridge guy.

    I think we should send this to the Minnesota pedestrian bridge guy.


    Just for the record though, there is precedent for one player’s preferences resulting in an alternation to the field of play: link

    There must be some weird reason for it that the groundskeeper does not want to disclose. Or he will be cursed for the rest of his life.

    It might be a Jim Thome thing. Here is a game in Philadelphia from August 2004, when he was the Phillies starting first baseman, and that same section is missing.


    Jim Thome was still the 3rd baseman in 1995 as well. Look how Thome is standing in your first pic. I wonder if the chalk affected his play so they didn’t have it.

    I feel like the first picture in the series shown explains why the line might not have been put in front of the base – when there’s a runner on first, that first basement’s feet are all over that line. Maybe the chalk was messing up his shoes and he asked the groundskeeper to stop where they did?

    As for the disappearing/reappearing/redisappearing line … could that be specific first basemen’s preference? Groundskeeper does it for one guy, new 1B comes in, doesn’t care … next one comes in, complains about the chalk, groundskeeper goes, “hey, something we tried a while back …”.

    Just one man’s theory.

    I feel like I agree with the other commenters and that first photo – if it was the first baseman’s preference to stand there with a man on first for a possible pick-off maybe the line was always being worn out so they just stopped doing it there? Something to do with a right-handed first baseman?

    Do we have any sense of whether this baseline style was symmetrical on Cleveland’s ballfield? That is, did this same gap occur on the third baseline? If Donald’s theory above is correct about it being a Jim Thome thing, then I’d guess the third baseline would look conventional. But it would be interesting to see a shot of the entire infield to see how it looked holistically when this odd baseline phenomenon was happening.

    Another thing I had forgotten about, the dirt at Jacobs Field (as it was known back then) was a lot darker than at any other stadium. Instead of brown dirt, the dirt at the Jake was dark gray, almost like ashes from a charcoal grill. I had always wondered about that.

    Yep, I remember when they switched to the red dirt and how much nicer it looked. Night games looked especially drab with the old dirt.

    It almost looks like the volcanic ash tint they use over on fields in Japan. I asked my groundskeeper why the Cleveland dirt was so much darker back then and wondered if it was because they used this. He said probably not. I don’t remember what he said they probably used back then.

    Also, good luck getting a response from any groundskeeper, Paul. All the ones I know rarely to never check their emails.

    I still call it the Jake!

    Great. Now I’ll be paying closer attention to the baselines in the postseason.

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