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New fans of baseball will eventually hear the word “pennant” thrown around, whether by a broadcast announcer, or in print reports about league developments. In this article, we try to help newcomers by exploring what a pennant is in baseball, along with details.
A pennant in baseball is awarded to a team that wins the title of a league, or even division. In Major League Baseball, it most often refers to winners of both the American and National leagues each season. Those “pennant winners” then advance to face each other in the World Series for the annual MLB championship.
A pennant is a commemorative flag, most often in an elongated sideways triangle form, displayed to indicate support for sports teams. Use of pennants in American team sports actually began with college football in the late 1800s.
In Major League Baseball, a pennant represents winning the National League or American League. The pennant can be symbolic, as in, verbal among fans; or, an actual flag flown at the stadiums of the World Series participants.
There is some debate how the pennant term became so well-used in Major League Baseball. Some say it was borrowed from the college football teams, others point to pennants given to winners of boat races long ago.
In fact, other major sports long ago talked of pennants for the winners of their seasons, but for whatever reason it stuck with baseball. In fact, a tiny golden pennant is atop the champions of the MLB’s league championship trophy; and a pennant for every MLB team adorns the world championship trophy.
Fans might hear the term “pennant race” tossed around in baseball broadcasts or printed sports articles, and it refers to a tradition started long ago that lasted until 1969. That is, until the MLB split leagues into divisions that year, the winner of both leagues (National and American) was whoever finished with the best record among just 8 (or 10) teams each.
There were no divisions, nor a multi-level playoff system like today. Therefore, regular-season games used to mean much more to teams, especially in the final weeks of the regular season. By late August, “the pennant race heats up”; and in September it goes full-bore as teams try especially hard to win games and make the playoffs.
Some memorable pennant races include:
- The 1951 National League pennant race between the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers. Made famous by Bobby Thomson’s home run to end a 3-game series called to break a tie at the end of the regular season, this race is especially known for a television broadcaster’s repeated exclamation as Thomson rounded the bases, “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant.”
- Epic 1967 American League battle between 4 teams! The Boston Red Sox, Detroit Tigers, Chicago White Sox, and Minnesota Twins, swapped places in the standings for weeks in a September to remember. Eventually Boston barely claimed the World Series berth on the last game ~ by a single game over Detroit and Minnesota, which tied for 2nd. Chicago ended up only 3 games back.
- 1962 National League pennant race once again between the Giants and Dodgers (though this time the clubs were from the West Coast). The teams finished the season tied, that the rules then called for a 3-game series. In a series that had Sandy Koufax was hit hard for a first-game loss, and Maury Wills scoring the winning run in the next game, the Giants finally prevailed thanks to 9th-inning runs batted in by Willie Mays and Orlando Cepeda ~ followed by a bases-loaded walk by Dodgers reliever Stan Williams.
Since 1969, sometimes the season-ending scramble to win the East or West division (through 1994), or among the 3 divisions in each league today, are called “pennant races.” But it’s not often, and in all reality, they aren’t pennant races. They are divisional races, maybe. But pennants go to the teams who win the right to play in the World Series.
With the modern addition of wild-card playoff teams and multiple playoff series levels, many diehard fans believe the MLB eliminated the “pennant race” altogether. With so many ways to qualify for the playoffs, the uniqueness of vying for an actual pennant during regular season games no longer exists.
Today’s pennants are won by 2 teams that survived the Wild Card and Division series rounds, and then won their League Championship Series, to square off in the World Series. There no longer is a “race” per se, but a college-style, bracketed tournament.
The word “pennant” dates back to the 1600s. It’s a combination of the word “pendant,” which back then referred to a rope needed for hoisting; and “pennon,” which was a flag that a warship would hoist after winning a noteworthy sea battle.
So the flying of flags or pennants by victorious ships or boats, whether from ancient battles, or more modern races, has been occurring for over 3 centuries.
The pennant as an item ~ a triangular or swallow-tailed flag ~ first was associated with sailing.
Most teams after winning championships have large pennants displaying the title and year displayed at their stadium, for pride and enjoyment by fans. Some might have flagpoles where all title pennants are hung; or they can look more like banners, attached to various stadium parts like fences or overhangs.
Some clubs choose to display a pennant for any time the team won a division, or league, along with a World Series flag if they claimed that championship.
Most clubs take advantage of the title the following season, with promotions such as producing special “champion” mini pennants to distribute to fans to wave during games and show support.
Most sports experts will say use of pennants started with sailboat racing. From there, the widespread growth in popularity of college football at the end of the 19th century and into the 20th century resulted in campuses and students making and waving their own pennants.
Some historians might link sports’ use of pennants (and the poles that carry them) to the Civil War. Army platoons would keep a “team pole” to hold a pennant with the platoon numbers sewed on.
As platoons competed in a variety of games and contests against each other, drill instructors or other military officials began to devise awards for winning platoons. Hence, pennants to be hung on poles to be carried around and displayed proudly before audiences.
Think about it: Major League Baseball was born just a few years after the Civil War ended.
Pennants as souvenir items can still be seen at college football games. But only baseball seems to have retained use of a pennant for titles over many years.
Pennants are symbols of championships in baseball, from the Major Leagues down through colleges and high schools. They have for over a century.
American use and display of pennants began as a decorative memento for college students to express pride in their school. In the early days, these college pennants were used mostly for wall displays in dormitories.
Eventually, Major League Baseball’s widespread adoption and use of pennants for a variety of reasons (title-winners, fan give-aways, marketing, etc.) solidified their place in the game. By the 1920s, pennants were associated more with baseball than with football, where their popularity began. (With college football; the National Football League was not born until 1920, and did not become popular for several decades).
A big reason pennants stuck in baseball is, more children began to appreciate the game in the 1910s ~ because more kids were able to watch games in a number of brand new stadiums. (a couple of them, Fenway Park for the Boston Red Sox and Wrigley Field for the Chicago Cubs, opened in 1912 and 1914, respectively and remain in use today).
Mass introduction of the radio contributed, and soon thousands of kids were listening in on afternoon games, and following their favorite teams ~ and, yes, pennant races.
By the 1960s, most MLB clubs were creating pennants specifically attractive for youngsters, who could wave one at the game and keep it in a room as a beloved souvenir.
Pennants now can be created to honor institutions or vacation spots, or as commemorative souvenirs. Disney characters have their own pennants at Disney World and Disneyland, for instance.
Old-time, vintage pennants with unique or rare decorations or images, or honoring certain accomplishments, can carry great value. Many are very prized as collectibles by big-time sports fans.
Question: What about winners of a division, or wild-card playoff series?
Answer: In reality a “pennant” could be awarded by anyone for anything ~ such as by a league, by sports journalists, by teams themselves. Though it could (and sometimes is) used for division winners, as well as for Wild Card qualifiers, it is not as commonplace as the pennants for the winners of the American League and National League.
Q.: What are pennants made of?
A.: Felt, traditionally, and mostly today. Some early college football pennants were intricately hand-made with several parts of types of cloth sewn together. Most felt pennants today are decorated with graphic designs pressed (not sewed) onto them.
Q.: Is that all players get for winning a championship?
A.: No. Teams are awarded pennants and a single championship trophy. Players are awarded with rings, each very individualized with the team and player’s name, and other details like his uniform number, or the final series score.