What Is the Meaning of Pepper in Baseball?

Michael Claunch

Anyone who grew up playing baseball knows very well what it means to play pepper and understands how this game is connected to the main sport. This simple game is very much an essential part of baseball training and preparation, and it can still occasionally be seen on baseball fields during warm-ups. It is played using the same equipment as baseball, and it involves both fielding and batting skills, which are obviously essential for the sport. Despite all this, pepper remains a mystery for many baseball fans that never played as kids, and new generations are having less and less of an opportunity to see pepper played at a high level.

Since this phenomenon is associated with baseball and deeply interspersed with its history, it deserves to be properly explained and put into context. Once you understand what the meaning of ‘pepper’ in baseball, you will gain a deeper appreciation for the roots of the modern game and the stages it went through before reaching its modern form.

What is Pepper and How it Originated?

Baseball gradually evolved through the centuries, and some of the customs related to the game changed over time. The pepper game is a part of this rich heritage, as it emerged during the late 19th and early 20th century as a fun way to prepare for the game, entertain the audiences and hone critical skills all at the same time. It was popularized by the American barnstorming baseball teams, which would often play a game of pepper in between the innings. Playing pepper in baseball eventually became accepted by professional teams and used by players to warm up before serious action begins.

Since the game involves no pitching and is played low to the ground, it can be played practically everywhere. It generally involves one player hitting grounders and liners in the direction of a group of teammates who are fielding the balls and quickly throwing them back. If the hitter makes a mistake, one of the fielders rotates into his place and continues hitting until he is replaced in turn. This is a fast-paced game that allows the participants to casually talk while exercising their bodies, making it a great companion to the more physically and mentally demanding game of baseball.

What Are the Rules of the Pepper Game?

Defining what is pepper in baseball requires a distinction between a pepper drill, which is basically just a form of practice, and a competitive pepper game that is sometimes played recreationally. In the first case, the rules are just loosely defined and follow the general outline provided before. Players can casually join the fielding line or drop out, and specific teams could introduce certain limitations on how to hit or catch the ball. No score is kept during the pepper drill as the objective is simply to practice and sharpen the focus ahead of the game.

Alternatively, it can be played as a recreational game with a fixed set of rules. In this iteration, the batter that hits a foul ball or has a line drive caught in the air is replaced by a different player. At the same time, fielders who fail to catch the ball or make another mistake move to the end of the line. The game clearly integrates elements of baseball and is deeply connected with it, which is why it’s generally played by baseball enthusiasts. However, its popularity in the United States is waning, and many young fans don’t even know what pepper is in baseball.

Are Professional Baseball Players Still Using Pepper to Get Ready?

Learning how to play pepper and developing a considerable skill with this game used to be a part of being a professional ballplayer. Back in the day, many fans made a point of arriving early to games just to catch the wizardry of elite players showcasing their ability in a leisurely pepper game. Since the game was indulged in just for fun, players loved to pull fancy tricks and impress spectators by throwing the ball behind their backs, between their legs, etc.  Informal games may not have counted on a team’s record, but they certainly contributed to its reputation.

Unfortunately, no pepper is played in most modern MLB venues. Modern players don’t share the same passion for this game as their predecessors, and the skills that can be practiced with pepper (i.e., bunting, catching grounders) are less valued today than in the past.  For their part, ballparks have taken steps to outlaw the game on their premises as well. As a result, fans have been robbed of a unique part of the game-day experience that made baseball more of a community pastime than corporate entertainment that it’s becoming recently.

Why Are Some Parks Banning Pepper?

A lot of contemporary baseball stadiums have legislated pepper out of existence, deeming it too dangerous and distracting from the main product. Clearly visible ‘no pepper’ signs are positioned on the field to remind players not to engage in this activity before or during the game. Ostensibly, the reason for banning this game is safety, as it’s feared that a line drive might strike someone in the stands and cause serious injury, despite extensive protective netting installed at most MLB ballparks. Pepper is also believed to damage the turf when played frequently, making it inconvenient to host in venues used for competitive games.

The demise of pepper is a combined result of the shifting focus of the players towards power hitting, loss of interest from the fans, and a dwindling number of parks where it can legally be played. It’s probably too late to reverse this trend, and the game seems to be destined for the history books. While this is a bit sad, it also serves to show us how baseball is changing with the times and remind us that some of its oldest traditions are very fragile and can be lost quickly if they are not actively maintained.

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