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Many modern fans consider the postseason as the best time to watch Major League Baseball action, with all the game-by-game (and even inning-by-inning) drama. However, old-time fans may harken back to the end of baseball’s regular season, for the so-called pennant races.
With the MLB’s changes to the format of the playoffs in recent years, adding more ways for teams to quality, this question gets asked often: Are there still pennant races in the major leagues? The answer is, it depends on who you ask.
Some fans may say that most certainly there are still pennant races. Despite the better odds for clubs to qualify for the postseason, teams still want to win their divisions, and to finish with the best record possible to hopefully secure “perks” like byes or home-field advantage in the playoffs.
Teams that settle for qualifying as a “Wild Card” playoff entry means they must play an extra series to get to the World Series, compared against the top division winners. Additionally, teams finishing with the best records are awarded “home-field advantage” in all playoff matchups. (See Related Questions at bottom for an explanation).
These fans argue that there is still plenty of “race” left all season in modern baseball.
But older or longtime baseball fans will note the old days, when only a couple of teams, the winners of the National League and the American League, qualified for the playoffs. Which were not called “playoffs” then. There was only the World Series, and for 65 years it was as simple as league champions playing.
Until 1968, every team in each league battled to finish atop the standings at season’s end. A single team would advance, and all other teams eliminated. There was no second chance, no “parachute” like today’s wild-card playoff entries.
Those, old-timers say, were real pennant races: winner take all in each league. They say the more teams that qualify for the postseason, the less importance regular-season games carry. Let’s examine this more closely.
Baseball Pennant Fever
The word “pennant” began its association with baseball in the late 1800s. Flying a pennant to commemorate a victory was a sailing thing back then. Then, it was college football that adopted its usage and wider popularity.
By the 1920s, after a couple of decades of significant growth in popularity for baseball, the pennant became more associated with the sport.
A pennant is a triangular or swallow-tailed flag. The word “pennant” itself can be tracked back all the way to the 1600s, a combination of the word “pendant,” referring to a rope needed to hoist; and “pennon,” a flag warships raised after winning sea battles.
Today a pennant is a commemorative flag, usually in the shape of an elongated triangle turned onto its side. They most often are displayed to show support for sports teams, but also can commemorate a place, like Disney World, or Hawaii.
Pennant vs. Pennant ‘Race’ in Baseball
Baseball’s pennant races are more than just a little felt flag. In actuality, they are races against time, or more specifically, the calendar. By the last month of a grueling baseball season, only a set number of games remain to be played in the season.
By the end of August, fans would have a pretty good idea about which teams remained in contention to claim the best record of the league by season’s end.
As the number of games remaining dwindled, the value of each win (and crush of each loss) is amplified.
Before media that plugged in (radio and television), baseball fans followed their home team through the newspapers ~ which in the day were quite sensational in style.
They would hype how many games their team was ahead or behind, and press urgency by noting how few games remained. On a daily basis, and sometimes even more than once a day! (There were also afternoon newspapers back then).
They would report when teams dropped out ~ eliminated by falling behind by more games than those that remained ~ and publish charts or standings indicating who was in the lead and by how much.
Radio and, later, television took advantage of the excitement when a local or regional team remained in the race. In fact, after a long grueling summer of games, especially during the hot and sticky August, baseball needed something to inject excitement toward the end of the season.
Enter the pennant races.
1969: The Year Baseball Pennant Races Died?
After the 1968 season, the MLB divided each league into 2 divisions. So for the 1969 season fans for the first time saw the East and West divisions of the N.L. and A.L.
The teams that won those divisions then faced off in a new 5-game playoff series for the right to participate in the World Series. Gone were the days when the team that finished the season with the most victories advanced directly to the World Series.
And gone, according to many baseball fanatics and insiders, was the pennant race. Some argue that each time the MLB adds a wild card team, the less we have pennant races.
The answer lies somewhere in between: baseball pennant races still exist for some fans, but many others consider them a relic of the past.
Question: Is home-field advantage so important that teams who already qualified for the playoffs should keep playing hard until the end of the season?
Answer: Most knowledgeable fans, and many baseball professionals, think so. Playing in front of favorable fans is preferable to playing before a hostile audience. Plus, baseball players tend to be less stressed when playing at home since they don’t have to live out of a hotel, and are more familiar with their own stadium’s facilities and field. Playing in certain stadiums, like Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park in Boston, can be very difficult when the fans sit close to the field and can be quite aggressive and even obnoxious.
Q.: Do teams purposely lose in late September to try to get a better playoff seeding?
A.: That’s quite doubtful. Most teams are concerned with making the playoffs with the best record possible to even consider trying to lose games. It could backfire and the team could not make the playoffs at all, for instance. The temptation might be in the most recent playoff format, if a team sees that they might play a team that handles them easily in the 1st round. In this case, they would try to avoid that early matchup with hopes of winning the initial series, and lucking out to avoid that other team down the road. In reality, it just doesn’t happen. It is very hard for an entire baseball team to lose games without being noticed. Ask the 1919 White Sox.
Q.: What might be considered the weirdest pennant race?
A.: The 1972 race for the American League East title, due to a brief player’s strike that canceled a few games. That race was won by the Detroit Tigers, by only a half game over the Boston Red Sox ~ who played 1 less game than Detroit due to the lost games on the schedule. It is a player’s strike that is often overlooked in history, after the serious ones in 1981, 1994, and even 2022.