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Business, Competitive Judgment, History Play Part in the 6-month, 162-game Season
Baseball is not a game for the impatient. It’s the only major American sport without a game-ending timer; the length of games depends greatly on how much pitchers fiddle around between tosses and the number of pitcher changes; and, you have to wait many months to really know which teams are the best.
Major League Baseball (MLB) has been around since 1876, and since inception its seasons have been lengthy, running several dozen games or more all the way up to today’s 162-game season. Why does the MLB play so many games each season?
It’s a question often asked over the years, especially in 2020 when a pandemic cut the season to just 60 games. The national emergency allowed an opportunity to experiment, something game leaders are reluctant to do with a sport chock full of tradition. But there are reasons for so many MLB games, and here’s a look at some of them.
History of MLB Season Lengths
A look at the number of games per team since the start of the National League indicates major league baseball always has featured quite a number of games, which expanded as the nation’s population (and reach to the West) grew. In 1876 the NL started with 70 games per team, dropping to 60 the next year, but up to 84 in 1879.
It grew gradually until the 154-game schedule began in 1892. There were some adjustments in the decades immediately following (like the 140 in 1919, likely due to the pandemic that year), but by 1920 the 154 games was pretty much standard until the addition of new teams (expansion) in 1961.
The American League (AL) started in 1901 with 140 games per team, upping to 154 in 1904, cutting back to 140 in 1919, and on to 154 through 1961. The only significant changes from 1920 to 1961, and even post-1961, was how many times each team would play other teams.
Reason for Adjustments: Need for Set Schedule, Travel, Seasonal
To understand why professional American baseball started with 70-game seasons, think in terms of why an organized professional sport was born in the first place: economics. Individual games had been attracting larger and larger paying audiences, yet players and team owners understood that the numbers would be greater if fans knew exactly when games would be played, well in advance.
So they organized, formalized teams, and set up a schedule that the working and paying public could plan around. This was in the days way before mass media, when barnstorming traveling attractions like the circus, or any type of entertainment act, were en vogue. Before the National League, baseball squads did the same to play before crowds and maybe make a few bucks anywhere along the eastern seaboard or into what today is the Rust Belt.
They eventually understood that organizing could mean more money. The number of games considered the weather (with all teams based on the east coast or not too far away, games could be played only half the year, and rainout-cancellations were common), travel time in an era without air flight, the need for rest between games, and potential audiences.
MLB Expansion and Impacts
When you hear the term “expansion” in pro baseball, it refers to adding new teams. For most of the 20th century there were 16 teams evenly divided between two leagues, which did not schedule games between their teams. That changed in 1961, and as everyone learned, expansion brought complications.
It required a bump from 154 to 162 games, which would seem minor at first glance. However with new teams, more players (particularly pitchers) who otherwise would be in the minor leagues played in major league contests. The result: a home-run barrage, highlighted by Roger Maris breaking the single-season home run record of 60 long held by the legendary Babe Ruth.
Maris hit HR No. 61 after game 155, or in more games than Ruth was allowed to play, and baseball purists cried foul and forced an asterisk on Maris’s record. Other challenges surfaced from the added games, but the MLB overcame them and 162 games became the norm for over a half-century.
Competitive Differences Between Baseball and Other Sports
Aside from the business reason for so many games — basically the more events to be held, the more money at the turnstiles — some argue that unlike other sports baseball requires more contests to truly determine which is the better team. That is, luck is involved more in baseball than football, and even basketball which eventually also staged a lot of games (82 in the NBA today, half of MLB).
In baseball, it is said that any team could beat any other team on any given day. A single pitcher could dominate even the most powerful New York Yankees one day. An untimely error by a single fielder could cost a team a game it should have won. Some teams play worse under certain weather conditions, etc.
Pro baseball is played in series of games between the same teams, usually from 2 to 5 games with 3 being the norm, for this reason as well as to reduce travel. Teams now fly to a road location for games typically Friday to Sunday, or Tuesday to Thursday, with Mondays and Thursdays being the most usual days off.
More Information About MLB Season Schedules
- Not every team plays 162 games. Of course the 2020 season is an anomaly due to the coronavirus pandemic, when only 60 games were played. Other times, teams could play 163 if a 1-game playoff is required to break a division-lead tie; or a game or two shorter than 162 if game cancellations occurred during the season due to inclement weather, that the teams or league decided were unnecessary to play because they would not impact final standings.
- Want to know who played all 154 games or 162 games in a season the most? Most fans know that Cal Ripken and Lou Gehrig went years playing thousands of games in a row to set records. But look up the back of baseball cards for Steve Garvey and Billy Williams and you’ll notice some Iron Man in them, too.
- Today’s MLB schedule was established in 2013: each team plays 19 games against opponents within the same division (76 contests); 6 games against four opponents plus 7 games against 6 opponents inter-division within the same league for 66 games; and 20 inter-league games.
- Before Jackie Robinson integrated the major leagues, many Negro League stars like Satchel Paige would travel and barnstorm games for money aside from the league schedule, which could be iffy year-to-year due to considerations for stadium playing space or financial troubles for certain teams.
Why are MLB seasons now stretching into very late October, and sometimes the World Series into November?
It’s twofold. First, more money for the league, team owners and players. Post-season games attract the most dollars from advertising (namely television), so new rounds were added so more teams could qualify. Second, player unions. Recent player contracts have demanded more days off during the typically 6-month season, for physical and mental health reasons.
Why can’t the MLB start earlier to avoid cold late-October/early November games?
Weather. Baseball is a warm-weather game, with extreme cold impacting the ability to hit a ball squarely and without injury, and the fact that a baseball is ruined wet. Plus, baseball executives despise rainouts, so rainy winter or fall months remain a time of rest and rejuvenation.