Baseball Shorts: How the Balk got its name

The balk. An illegal move by a pitcher on the mound that allows runners to move up a base without having to run for it. What are the most famous balks, when was the rule introduced and where does the word “balk” come from?

The balk rule was introduced in MLB in 1898. It stated a pitcher had to throw to a base if he made a motion in that direction. The following year, the balk rule was refined to say a pitcher could not fake a pickoff throw.

Through the decades, the rule has been adapted resulting in a rise of balks in the year of the adaption.

1950: A new rule requiring a one-second stop before delivering a pitch with men on base was implemented.

1963: The National League cracked down on balks … for the 1963 season. An order to umpires to clamp down on balks resulted in twenty balks called in the first twenty games of the year.

But the biggest rise in balks was in 1988 when a new version [of the rules] replaced “complete stop” with “single complete and discernible stop, with both feet on the ground.” The intention of this small change of the rule was to make balk calls more uniform throughout major league baseball, but instead, it sparked one of the most frustrating seasons ever for major league hurlers.

Allegedly the most famous balk was called during the 1961 All-Star Game in Candlestick Park. The former home of the San Francisco Giants was notorious because of the gusty winds. According to the legend, Giants pitcher Stu Miller was blown off the mound by a gust of wind and the home plate umpire called a balk. But according to Miller, the following happened: “Before I threw a pitch, I went into a stretch position and then there was an extra gust of wind and I just wavered a bit,” Miller said. “… I don’t think any of the fans knew what happened. They were probably wondering why the hell did those runners move up.”

But where does the name balk come from? Well, there are several referrals to foreign languages that may explain the word. From Middle English balke, from Old English balca, either from or influenced by Old Norse bálkr (partition, ridge of land), from Proto-Germanic *balkô. Cognate with Dutch balk (which means beam) and German Balken.
The current senses are figurative, from the notion of a balk in the fields as a hindrance or obstruction. Especially the latter gives a good explanation as the balk is a kind of obstruction.

In general, it is rather hard to discover if a pitcher is balking or not. In the attached video all balks are very clear. A nice way to conclude this blog post.

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