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America’s Pastime – baseball – is a critical part of our history and our national identity, but it’s also become one of our most prolific exports as well.
Enjoyed all over the world (particularly in the US, South America, the Caribbean, and East Asia) each year billions of people play and watch baseball, even if it’s just heading outside and having a catch.
Today’s modern version of the game (whose rules were codified in the early 19th century) has each game at the professional level consisting of nine innings, with each team getting an opportunity to play defense and pitch as well as a chance to hit and score runs.
There are some variations of the nine innings game in the world of baseball, though, and we dig a little bit deeper into those variations in just a moment.
Let’s jump right in!
How Many Innings Do Major League Baseball Games Have?
As we highlighted just a moment ago, baseball today at the professional level consists of nine inning games. Each team gets a half inning to pitch and play defense and another half inning to hit and go on offense.
This is the way that baseball has been set up for more than 100 years. It’s the format that the overwhelming majority of fans and players around the world are most familiar with, too.
But (believe it or not) this isn’t the way that baseball was always set up.
When the game was first invented teams played an unlimited amount of innings until one team or the other finally found a way to get 21 runners across home plate, scoring 21 runs.
Sometimes this meant that games could last just a couple of innings. Sometimes, though, it meant that they lasted a whole lot longer – with a couple of games stretching over a multi-day block of time. The overwhelming majority of games finishing at around six innings or so.
As pitching got better and better, though, things started to change.
First the rules of baseball adjusted to allow for games to last five innings in total, then moving to six, before finally setting on nine innings.
The story goes that the official rules of baseball were amended to allow for one inning per player on the field – nine players per side – and that’s where everything sits today.
The major exception to this nine inning limit is when a game ends in a tie.
Extra innings are then added (as many as necessary, too) until a winner is decided. There’s absolutely no limit whatsoever to the amount of extra innings that a team might have to play.
The most extra innings ever played in a game of professional baseball sits at 33 total innings, when minor league teams in Rochester and Pawtucket started playing on April 18 of 1981. That game stretched over a three day block of time!
The most extra innings ever played a major league game currently sits at 18, without gameplay between the Brooklyn team and the Boston team on May 1 of 1920 – with the game getting called as a tie due to darkness (there were no lights back then).
What About Minor League Baseball Games?
Minor-league baseball games also stretch out for nine innings, though again this wasn’t always the case.
When minor-league games were considered almost exclusively development games, the games only lasted between five and seven innings.
These games were basically seen as scrimmages for the minor leaguers to get a bit of experience, to hone their skills against like competition, and to develop players that would eventually (hopefully) find themselves playing in the big leagues.
Really more important practices more than anything else back then, the games didn’t need to go as long as the pros.
Later on, though, minor-league baseball decided to play the same amount of innings that their major league clubs were playing.
This allowed for a more streamlined approach to the game, mimicking the big league game a lot closer.
Today minor-league clubs at every level (from the lowest A ball all the way up to AAA) are going to play nine inning games with the same extra inning rules that the major leagues have, too.
Any Difference with College Games?
College baseball is incredibly popular and mirrors the minor and major league game quite closely, with some major exceptions. These differences are particularly focused on the amount of innings that are played when games are played under special circumstances.
For starters, college baseball games (the NCAA level, anyway) are regularly scheduled to last nine innings most of the time.
As far as exceptions go, though, there are occasions where these NCAA baseball games are going to be played with seven innings as opposed to the full nine.
For example, any time college baseball teams are playing on the final day of an intra-conference series or at any point in time that teams are playing a doubleheader games will be truncated to seven innings a piece.
This happens a handful of times each year and is really done to help protect college level athletes that are usually still quite young.
College baseball also has what is known as a “Mercy Rule” that stops the game after seven innings have been played.
This rule kicks in whenever one of the baseball teams on either side has a 10-run lead at the conclusion of seven innings, giving that team an instant win and omitting the final two innings completely.
There are a couple of variations of this Mercy Rule across all of the NCAA baseball conferences, but the overwhelming majority have a rule that breaks down like this to end games sooner.
How About Softball and Youth Games?
Softball games and youth games (from Little League through Babe Ruth all the way up to High School) are all set traditionally at seven innings as well.
This is done to protect young athletes from having to play longer games when their bodies aren’t as developed as professionals, but it’s also done to help get full games in ahead of sundown where ball parks with lights are less common.
The overwhelming majority of youth games aren’t going to be played with light at the stadium, though most of them are scheduled for the early to late afternoon.
Keeping games at seven innings helps things to move along pretty quickly, getting games in before it’s too dark to play any longer.
Of course, most youth and softball leagues also have the same extra inning rules that every other level of baseball/softball has, too.
You’re going to see extra inning situations stretch out as long as necessary to declare a winner. Most of the time these games will pause as soon as things get dark and then restart again the next day (or when the game can be most conveniently rescheduled), though.
Mercy Rules are also very popular at the youth league level and in the softball world. The same 10-run rule is in place, though these leagues stop the game after four or five innings since they only run to seven innings and not the full nine.
As always, different regions and different leagues will have their own take on how these inning rules shake out. For the most part, though, you’ll find all of the inning breakdowns highlighted above to be pretty accurate.
When people think of how long a baseball game is going to be they automatically assume it’s going to be a nine inning affair. That’s what we’re used to as fans, anyway – especially if you love college, minor league, or professional baseball.
Olympic and international baseball keeps the same kind of ruleset, too. You can expect all of these games to last nine innings as a baseline across the board. The extra inning rules are almost always identical to those that we outlined above, too.
Some international tournaments (and exhibition games) will allow baseball games to end after seven or nine innings in a tie. A tie situation isn’t all that common for more competitive games or in professional leagues, however.
Those competitive games will be played as long as necessary until a winner is decided – but there are ties in baseball every now and again. Mercy rules in international competition aren’t unheard of, either.
Above all else, it’s important to remember that no matter how many innings there are in a baseball game there’s absolutely no strict rule or appearance to the amount of time that a game can take up.
No other major sport has a totally “clock-less” game the way that baseball does (at least not in the United States). A single inning could last 15 minutes or an hour – or even longer – depending entirely upon what happens in that inning alone.
Games can go on for hours and hours (days, even), too. The longest professional baseball game ever recorded in history went eight hours and 25 minutes, and that was a ballgame that stretched over three different days – April 18 and April 19 with the final few innings played on June 23 of 1981.
You just never know what you’re in for when the umpire yells “Play Ball”!