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More than any other team sport, baseball has a lot of games. They say that’s what it takes to differentiate between teams. It means that in baseball, any team can beat any other team on any given day; and it does not necessarily mean the best team won that day. Here, we examine how many games in a baseball season, and why they seem to play nearly every day for half a year.
Major League Baseball teams today play 162 games during its regular season, generally from April through early October, though sometimes seasons start in late March, and on occasion the World Series ends in early November.
The length of the MLB’s regular season has remained the same now for 60 years (through 2022). Prior to 1961, for quite some time Major League teams played 154 games per regular season.
The extra 8 games were added due to expansion of the league, when the California Angels and (new) Washington Senators joined the American League in 1961, and the New York Mets and Houston Colt .45s (now Astros) started in 1962 in the National League.
Over the years, there have been discussions of shortening the season for the top level of professional baseball play in the world. However, the 162-game standard remains, surpassing the 82 games played by National Basketball Association and National Hockey Association teams for their regular seasons, and vastly exceeding the 17 regular-season games for the National Football League.
Let’s examine baseball’s history, how their seasons were originally constructed, and then later morphed into the marathon of games fans are now accustomed to.
History of a Lot of Games in Baseball
In the years just before baseball morphed into the professional realm, culminating with formation of the National League in 1876, the game mostly was arranged as matches between “gentlemen’s clubs” spread out in the Eastern United States.
As the game began to become more organized, clubs realized that single matches were not quite enough to truly determine the best squad. So the series, or series of games, was introduced.
Not long thereafter, the National League applied the practice to its embryonic scheduling. That is, several games consecutively between teams over several days, before moving on to play another team. Usually, the series encompassed 3 games, convenient for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday slots.
This became pretty much a necessity with the need for teams to travel to other locations, as it would be costly for every team to play each other a single game at a time. Think about all the train rides. Or, just a train ride from New York to St. Louis and back!
Pro baseball started with about 70 games per season, then expanded in 1901 with the birth of the American League, when teams in both leagues began playing 140 games a season. However, the total number fluctuated for 2 decades, until in 1920 the 154-game season was introduced. It would last 41 years unchanged.
From 1920 to 1960, there were only 16 Major League teams, split evenly into each league (8 teams per) ~ and there were no games between teams from opposing teams (now known as interleague play). So National League teams completed 154 games playing only against 7 other National League squads, and vice-versa for American League squads.
This means each team played every other team 22 times per season, for 154 games. The system was balanced and fair and there was no need to adjust it. Until the post-war nation grew in population, and Americans started moving west en masse. New clubs were needed, hence the start of what is known as the Expansion Era.
As noted at the start here, MLB added 4 teams in 1961 and 1962, and with it the new 162-game schedule. Which immediately became controversial, when Roger Maris of the New York Yankees broke Babe Ruth’s long-standing single-season home run record.
Maris hit home run No. 61 after playing in more than 154 games ~ as Ruth had been limited to in 1927 ~ so for a long time the Maris record was denoted with an asterisk. (Which is why the Hollywood movie about his home run chase is titled “61*”).
With 10 teams per league now, each team played every other team 18 times, for 162 games. They still were not allowed to play teams in the other league, except in the World Series.
Just 8 years later, 4 more teams were added (Montreal Expos, San Diego Padres, Kansas City Royals, and the Seattle Pilots, who turned into the Milwaukee Brewers after just a single season). The leagues were also split into East and West divisions, and a 5-game playoff series was established between winners of each division to see who would represent each league in the World Series.
So the postseason was expanded greatly ~ but the regular season number of games remained unchanged. And it continued as such through a series of major changes in how the MLB was structured:
- In 1995 the MLB split the leagues from 2 to 3 divisions, and added a wild-card playoff spot to the team with the best record that did not win its division. Another round of playoffs, the Divisional Playoffs, were added before the League Championship Series (LCS) and then World Series.
- In 1997, regular-season games between teams of both leagues, called interleague play, started on a limited basis. It is widespread today.
- For the 2012 season, 2 more wild card teams were added, which had to play each other in a single-game playoff to advance to the regular Divisional Playoffs (where they have to face the team that finished with the best record at the end of the season).
Fans now easily remember the anomaly 2020 season, cut to 60 regular-season games due to the historic pandemic, when the postseason was dramatically expanded to add to the playoffs all 3 second-place teams from each division per league, plus 1 more wild card team that had the best record of teams that did not finish first or second. Those 8 teams played a best-of-3-games series in a very expanded overall postseason, eventually won by the Los Angeles Dodgers.
That World Series was a best of 7 games affair, like usual, but few consider any part of the 2020 season usual. The season, and even champion, will probably be marked somehow in record books for eternity.
The Tradition, Records, and _________ of Baseball
Still, through all of this, MLB’s normal regular season remains at 162. There are several reasons, chief among them is tradition, and season records by players and teams. Major League Baseball is like no other sport in how it clings to tradition; it’s like a huge aircraft carrier in the ocean, very slow to change course.
Beyond tradition, there is the matter of what to do with season records, if players accumulated more statistics but over more games played. Many remember what Maris went through with the criticism of his 61 homers in more than 154 games.
Baseball is a sport where fans pay a lot of attention to records, and there are a lot of single-season records most everyone knows, like Rickey Henderson’s 130 stolen bases in a single season.
If they reduce (or even enlarge) the number of games, how would future records be handled? MLB owners seem in no hurry to figure it out; the 162-game schedule seems here to stay.
The Ongoing Debate Over the Length of the Baseball Season
While that history seems fine and dandy, many people debate the actual reasons why so many games are played in MLB seasons. Among the top arguments are these:
- Because it can. Compared with other team sports, baseball has less physical contact and is considered by some to be “less demanding” on the human body. Few baseball players run (or skate) all game long as in basketball or hockey, or crash into each other every game like football; nor do baseball players have to jump high into the air consistently or run full sprints for 48 minutes like NBA players.
All that running, skating, crashing, and jumping takes a toll on human muscles and joints, and requires time afterward for bodies to recover. Hence breaks of a few or many days between games in major team sports other than baseball.
It is pretty well known that football players can only play 1 full game a week. It’s the same reason why pitchers in baseball don’t often pitch every day: body pains, tiredness, or sore joints.
- Bigger statistical sample size. It is strongly believed that in baseball, more contests are needed to truly determine which teams are best, or which squads were lucky. Baseball games are in essence micro-battles between different pitchers and batters, with dozens occurring every game. One very good pitcher can win almost any baseball game regardless of the opponent. But that’s just one player. Many baseball games are played, often in a series of games, so every part of a team’s roster is put to the test over time. When you hear a team has a “deep bench,” this is a good thing because non-regular players are good enough to give the regulars rests during the long season where games are generally played 6 out of 7 days each week, for 6 months.
Hitting a baseball coming at you at a high velocity is the single hardest action in sports.
As such, baseball players can be quite streaky. That is, sometimes a hitter just feels better, or sees the ball better, or whatever reason, but he suddenly can go on a spree of hits and even home runs. This player can dominate a single game, or 2 or 3 in a row. However, over the course of a long season, or even a 7-game playoff series, who’s hot or cold tends to balance out. Teams with the better players win more often than not.
- Convenience for fans. Baseball games are not packed full of action from the very first pitch to the last out. And MLB seasons are rarely decided on a single game. Baseball fans can come and go as they please, because missing an inning or two, or a game that week or a few games a month, could make little difference. In other sports, fans have to sacrifice a full 3 or 4 hours to watching the game intently, because who knows when the biggest moment might play out. Baseball has games every day, so if you miss something one game, there’s always baseball games tomorrow.
The second part about convenience is that, because there are more baseball games, individual game ticket prices tend to be lower than for the other sports. Football only plays 16 games per regular season; so prices for those limited number of tickets are in demand, hence much higher prices per seat.
Some say that baseball is the preferred major sport to take the family to watch games, and this may be due to lower ticket prices (especially in the bleachers beyond the outfield fences), and the breaks in action so little ones can use the restroom. For new parents, this is something to think about when considering taking the kids to the stadium.
Baseball seasons feature many more games than those of the other major team sports (football, basketball, soccer, and hockey). Much of it harkens back to the earliest professional baseball leagues in the mid-19th century, when clubs arranged the games, and ultimately their seasons, as lengthy battles.
Casual fans must remember that during a season, teams must travel to the next city where the next series awaits them. Because of this, off days are peppered into MLB’s schedule every year, often on a Monday and/or Thursday. But that’s not always possible if there are a lot of makeup games due to rainouts or bad weather.
Still, that travel ~ which, remember, was by train until the middle of the 20th century ~ is kind of the reason the baseball schedule is arranged the way it is.
That’s for Major League baseball. The number of games goes down as the level of skill decreases:
- Minor league baseball seasons are 150 games for AAA ball, 138 games for AA, and 132 games for the various types of A ball. Fall and winter league schedules are even smaller.
- College baseball teams can choose how many games to schedule per year, so schedules can differ between schools, but most play around 56 games in their season which ends by June.
- High school baseball teams play 25 to 40 games in a season.
- Teen-age youth baseball teams might play up to 20 games per season.
- Seasons for lower-age youth baseball levels can differ depending on the number of teams in each division. For example, if there’s a lot of teams, they each might play each other twice, to total 18 or 20 games. But if there are only 6 teams, which means each plays 5 others, teams might face off 3 times each for 15 games total. Lower-age divisions often set seasons with even fewer games.
Baseball players test their physical and mental endurance long-term, like long-distance and marathon runners, compared with the sprint that is other team sports. The way baseball players develop from the youngest age on up to the most seasoned MLB veteran reflects this. Baseball excellence is most often produced by repetitions and experience.
Question: Who has played the most Major League Baseball games ever?
Answer: Pete Rose, with 3,562. His contemporary, Carl Yastrzemski, is second, with 3,308. For the curious, Babe Ruth played in 2,452 over his illustrious career; and Albert Pujols played in 3,080 regular-season games over 22 years.
Q.: Do minor league teams also play a lot of games?
A.: Yes, see above. However, not 162 games. As with the MLB, the MiLB sometimes changes the number of regular season games. For 2021, it was 142 games for the highest level, AAA; and fewer games for the AA and A leagues. Minor league seasons typically start later and end sooner than the MLB regular season.
Q.: Why do they call Reggie Jackson “Mr. October”?
A.: Because Jackson was known to come through during the playoffs and, especially, the World Series, and for a long time all postseason games occurred in October. Jackson solidified his nickname when he hit 3 home runs in the final game of the 1978 World Series to gain his New York Yankees the world title.
Q.: Why don’t they play baseball year-round?
A.: In many youth baseball organizations, they do. However, it depends on the weather in any region. Unlike football or soccer, which plays through nearly any weather condition, and have sealed leather balls better to repel water, baseball is played with a ball covered in rawhide which absorbs moisture. This makes a baseball unusable after making contact with even a little water. Baseballs then become slippery, heavier, and even sometimes lopsided depending on how and where the balls got soaked. Baseball is considered a “summer game,” but in reality it’s a fair-weathered game.