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Baseball gets criticized for how long games last. Then again, every now and then a game seems to zoom by, leaving new fans left to wonder why that does not happen more often.
They may wonder, What is the shortest game in MLB history? The shortest full 9-inning game was 51 minutes long, in 1919, between the New York Giants and Philadelphia Phillies. The Giants won, 6-1, behind a complete game by pitcher Jesse Barnes.
It is important to note the full 9 innings, because many MLB games have been shortened by weather (mainly rain) but still are considered “official” games completed per MLB rules. The rule is that 5 innings must be completed (more details on specifics below, because sometimes that amounts to 4.5 innings of actual play).
A lot of factors go into speedy baseball games, namely the number of pitches thrown, how many pitchers entered the game, and batted balls in play. Games also could be sped up by players’ choice, which apparently is what happened on the last day of the season in 1919.
Baseball Games Can Be Sped Up
Insight into the short Sept. 28, 1919 game can be gained by a report the following day in the New York Daily News: “Both Giants and Phils agreed to go after the speed record before the game started.”
The previous record was set on Aug. 30 the previous season, when the same Giants played 56 minutes against the Brooklyn Dodgers. Understand, this was a period when people began tracking all kinds of records in baseball — and the newspapers, desperate to publish anything fresh at the end of very long seasons, during the late summer doldrums for newsy items of interest, obliged in publicizing them.
Remember, back then baseball was not yet the national sport it would become after Babe Ruth started swatting home runs in 1920 and 1921. Americans back then were attracted more to things they could wager on, like boxing and horse racing.
That MLB took a hard stand against gambling throughout the sport after the 1920 season earned it more respect, and ultimately it took over Americans’ imaginations. That ban on gambling remains solid to this day; players banned from baseball or Hall of Fame election due to involvement with gambling have remained banned, for some a hundred years later.
Insight into the Length of Baseball Games
As stated above, many factors influence how long a baseball game lasts. Among them:
- The weather. Baseballs and baseball mitts are made of leather (or horsehide) and as such get heavy and do not perform well wet. Rain is the biggest culprit in ending baseball games prematurely, but snow, strong winds, and other threats have shortened games also. See below to learn more about the umpire’s discretion in such matters, and even lower to learn the rules as to what constitutes an official MLB game.
- Base on balls. Each thrown pitch in a baseball game takes time. The more pitches thrown, the longer a game will take to conclude. Consider this statement in the New York Daily News article noted above: “The men went up intent on smacking the first pitch. They did for the most part and this led to the hasty finish.”
A base on balls requires at least pitches; hitting the first pitch needs 1. This means faster at bats, faster outs made, and faster games.
Note: Not all walks today require four pitches. For today’s intentional walks, if a manager or team informs the umpire that they want to walk a hitter, the batter is immediately awarded first base — a move by MLB to speed up game play.
- Pitching changes. Swapping pitchers also eats a lot of time, so the new pitcher can warm up on-field and get used to the mound he’ll be using. And today’s MLB games have more pitching changes than ever before, the result of specialized pitchers like closers, and lefties on rosters just to pitch to left-handed batters.
Another rule change, made for the 2020 season, is that relief pitchers must face at least 3 batters, or finish the inning, before being removed from the game. This was to eliminate the practice of bringing in a pitcher just to face a single batter.
- Lighting. Games prior to the introduction of night games were played in late afternoons, late enough for people to get off work and still catch a game, but never into the night as lights were not introduced until 1939. Baseball perhaps more than any other sport depends on keen eyesight due to the size of the ball and it’s high speeds. In old days games were sometimes called due to darkness.
They still can be, if lighting systems fail in modern stadiums. It’s rare, but there are electricity blackouts, circuit breaker failures, and other problems that might force stoppage of games.
- Umpires. They have authority to call games, and it’s discretionary. Some umpires might feel the field was quite dry before the onset of a light rain and let games progress through the moisture. Some might wait to see if moisture, or severely strong winds, make continuance of play dangerous for the players. Player safety is the top priority in these calls. Sometimes it rains but baseball fields are playable. (Interesting to note that National Football League games are never called on account of weather; they might be delayed, but that’s why you see NFL games played through blizzards or unhealthy freezes).
Note: Major league baseball stadiums have top-quality playing surfaces, the best turfs, and technologically designed drainage systems, so those fields can be playable in tain more so than other baseball fields. Some youth baseball games over the years, for instance, have been called after a single pitch! Wet conditions can make baserunning dangerous, as players running at full speed can slip on the wet bags, and pitchers can slip when releasing the ball.
- Game circumstance. Note that the record-breaking short MLB games noted above occurred near the end of the season. After 5 months of nearly daily play, MLB players get tired and many just want to get through with the season. Also important to note is whether or not a game matters in terms of a pennant race. If not, players then were essentially playing games just for the fans in attendance; and if those crowds were sparse, why take any extra effort? Swinging at first pitches, not hustling on the basepaths, there are a number of ways to speed up a ball game.
- Certain players. Players like Nomar Garciaparra may have endeared himself to youngsters who would emulate his quirky uniform adjustments and foot tapping before at bats, but all that pausing lengthened games. As well, some MLB pitchers are notorious for meticulously taking their time getting signs from the catcher, and delivering each pitch. Pitchers who take their time delivering pitches, or who throw too often to check runners on base, can get booed or ridiculed by fans.
Baseball fans prefer action, and most of them dislike the two or four hours (or more) it takes to complete a Major League game today.
What is an Official Game in Baseball?
Two circumstances allow a baseball game to be deemed “official” in less than 9 innings:
- If the visiting team makes 15 outs (5 innings); or
- The home team is ahead in the score, or the home team makes 15 outs regardless of the score.
Basically, games are official once the visiting team gets to bat 5 times. If the home team is ahead at that point, there is no need for them to bat, hence some games ending after 4.5 innings. If the home team was behind, they would have to bat, to complete the 5th inning, in order for the game to count in the standings.
If games are called before meeting the requirements above, they are postponed to be re-played at a later date, starting totally anew. Players and fans can bemoan a home run or other statistics achieved during games called early. They are just erased, basically.
Besides breaking records, were there any other reasons to speed up a MLB game in the old days?
There are reports that some minor league games were sped up by players because one of the teams needed to catch a train. (This was well before commercial air flights became commonplace in the United States).
What about television? What do TV crews do during commercials?
Television broadcast crews take a break during commercials, or check on their gear. Post-season MLB games can take even longer to complete due to more time for commercials to appease sponsors.