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Magna Carta: Rule of Law versus Laws of Baseball

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William Grenelle. “Laws of Base Ball.” Manuscript, January–February 1857. Courtesy of Hayden Trubitt, a baseball fan (007.02.00), from the Baseball Americana website.
King John of England (reigned 1199–1216). 1215 Exemplar of Magna Carta. Great Charter of Liberties. Manuscript on parchment, June 1215. Loaned by kind permission of the Dean and Chapter of Lincoln Cathedral, England. From the Law Library of Congress’s website.












Let’s start out by saying that it’s Opening Day and no one can be expected to be anything but fun and frivolous on a day like today.  So if we go a bit out of left field (pun intended) with this post, please excuse us.

I have been a docent both for the Law Library’s 2014 exhibit, Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor, and the Library of Congress’s current exhibition, Baseball Americana, so I have a deep respect for both.  I have wanted to write this post since I first heard about the 1857 document pictured above.  I hope you were lucky enough to have seen the Muse and Mentor exhibit in person.  If not, please visit our website.  If you haven’t seen Baseball Americana yet, there is still time.  The exhibition runs until July 27, 2019.

Today we are going to compare and contrast the Magna Carta of 1215 with what has been dubbed the Magna Carta of Baseball – the Laws of Baseball of 1857.


Both documents set forth basic principles governing a set of behaviors:

1215 MC: the core traditions of the rule of law; some of the most basic principles of the U.S. Constitution can be traced back to the Magna Carta: due process, trial by jury, no unlawful imprisonment

1857 MC: the rules of modern day baseball; this document standardized the rules the game now follows: nine players on a team, nine innings per game and 90 feet between bases, none of which were standard before then.

Both have medieval origins:

1215 MC: well, it was written in 1215!

1857 MC: the Baseball Americana exhibit features a medieval manuscript (1344) depicting monks and nuns playing with balls and bats.

Both involve parties who were generally better off than the average person:

1215 MC: was signed by King John and his barons, who were landowners and among the more elite citizens of England.

1857 MC: as the game evolved, so did players’ salaries.  When the average American was making about $400 per year, for example, players such as Ty Cobb were making $4,000 a year (and let’s not forget about Mike Trout’s recent contract.)

Both involve fields:

1215 MC: was signed by King John in a meadow at Runnymede.

1857 MC: was about a game played on a field (although not normally in England.)


Let’s start with the most obvious:

1215 MC: was about fighting against tyranny and oppression.

1857 MC: was about grown men playing a game.

Who were the influencers:

1215 MC: was drafted by a group of English barons to end their rebellion against a tyrant, King John, through their demand of certain liberties: the many dictating to the one.

1857 MC: was drafted by the New York Knickerbockers to set forth certain rules that all teams should play by: the one dictating to the many.

Weapons of choice:

1215 MC: swords and shields.

1857 MC: bats and gloves.

Happy Opening Day!

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