When new MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred floated the possibility that maybe at some point there would be a discussion about reducing the number of games in a season from 162 to 154, it garnered an awful lot of talk, both positive and negative but certainly not indifferent. The 162-game schedule has been a topic of discussion since the AL expanded to ten teams and 162 games in 1961- the same year Roger Maris hit 61 home runs, causing the famous “asterisk” to keep Babe Ruth as the 154-game home run king.
While baseball has reduced the number of official games in a season before, it has always been followed by an increase within five years. It’s onlyhappened when the leagues felt like they were in trouble. This doesn’t count strike-shortened years, which were not planned to be shorter seasons, nor has it happened for nearly 100 years.
Prior to the first league-devised schedule in 1877, the second year of the National League’s existence, clubs were responsible for making their own schedule. The only requirement was to play a certain number of games by a certain date. That’s how they did it in the National Association from 1871 to 1875, and several clubs scheduled games against markedly inferior competition to beef their win total and look better at the end of the year (in other words, how college football teams do it today). That’s partially why the National League was formed in the first place, to make every team play the same level of competition to determine a true champion.
The 1877 league schedule was 60 games- 12 games versus five opponents for each of the six teams- Boston, Louisville, Brooklyn, St. Louis, Hartford and Cincinnati. In 1879, when the league expanded to eight teams, the schedule went up to 84 games- (12 against each team). The American Association played an 80 game schedule (6 teams, 16 per team) in its first season, 1882.
In 1883, when the New York Gothams and Philadelphia Quakers joined (both teams remain in the NL today, however under different names), the schedule went to 98 games (14 per team), and the AA (ironic initials now, considering the league was formed partially because the NL didn’t allow teams to sell alcohol at the park) did that with its now 8-team lineup as well.
1884 marks the first time there were three major leagues and the first time the schedule broke 100 games. The one-year Union Association as well as the NL and AA played 112 contests (16 games against the other seven teams). The first “World’s Series” was played as well after that season, when the NL’s Providence Grays and Old Hoss Radbourn beat the AA’s New York Metropolitans. (It shouldn’t be a shocker to learn that the only NL team to lose the first go-round of the “World’s Series” was the Cubs, in 1886.) The UA folded, and its status as a one-year major league has been doubted since.
The AA got the jump on the NL in 1886, hopping to a 140-game schedule and 20 games per club. It took two years for the NL to follow suit, making the switch in 1888. The failed revolution known as the Players League also had an eight-team 140 game schedule in 1890.
1892 was the first time the National League had the “traditional” 154-game schedule, although teams only played each opponent 14 times. That’s because there were now 12 teams in the league after the AA folded. Not only did the NL decide on a 154-game schedule for 1892 (which required Sunday baseball, previously a no-no and another reason the AA was formed), they split the league into two halves to get two winners and a post-season exhibition series. The 1892 post-season series between Boston and Cleveland was hampered by the very real suggestion that the Beaneaters, the first-half winners, intentionally sabotaged themselves in the second half to make more money by playing the Cleveland Spiders, the second-half winner, instead of winning both halves. This suggestion gains credence when you consider that a) the Beaneaters cut several players before the second-half began b) still finished second to Cleveland despite this and c) swept the Spiders anyway.
And thus, we come to the first time a major league intentionally dropped games from the schedule. The 154-game split season was considered a bit much, and the talk of Boston not playing to potential in the second half was widespread. So the NL dropped 22 games from the schedule and in 1893 had a 132 game season without a post-season series. The Beaneaters took the lead in mid-July and by the end of August led by 12 games, ending all suspense. The season ended September 30th and that was it. It was also the first year the pitcher’s mound was at 60 feet six inches.
The Pittsburgh Pirates finished in the second by five games that year, the only team within a dozen games of the Bostonians, and were ticked that there wasn’t a post-season series. The Pirates owner then had a shiny championship trophy made at his own expense and proposed that the first- and second-place teams have an official post-season series. Thus the Temple Cup, named for William Temple, and the Wild Card was invented.
In 1894 the regular season remained at 132 games, and the Pirates finished in 7th place at .500, missing out on the trophy their owner invented. The format continued like this through 1897 (the Pirates never finished higher than 6th in this span), with diminishing Temple Cup excitement- that is, from very little to very close to none, as the second place team won three of the four cups and the first place team still called themselves National League Champions. It should also be noted that no less an authority than baseball-reference.com doesn’t list the Temple Cup series and box scores anywhere, but they do have all the NL/AA “World’s Series” box scores.
After 1897 the Temple Cup was dropped and the schedule went back to 154 games for the 12 clubs- 16 games against every team. By 1899 it was clear this wasn’t working. The owners of the Cleveland Spiders bought the St. Louis Browns, a much more stable franchise, and transferred all the good players to the Browns, completely legal at the time. The Spiders started the season 3-20 and things just got worse from there. Clubs began refusing to travel to Cleveland, forcing the Spiders to play on the road, where they lost 101 games, a record that shall never be broken. The Spiders finished a record-setting 20-134, a .130 winning percentage, and 84 games out of first. Even the famously hapless 1962 New York Mets went 40-120, had a .250 winning percentage, and “only” finished 64 games behind the San Francisco Giants (those former New York Gothams).
After that debacle, the NL cut four clubs (including, to nobody’s surprise, the Spiders) and 24 games off the season, going with 140 games and eight clubs from 1900-1904. The new American League played close to 140 games in 1900 but was still considered a minor league. After throwing off the shackles of the NL, the AL declared itself major in 1901 and played a complete 140-game schedule.
Before the 1904 season, after a successful first World Series, the schedule was pushed back to 154 games, with each team playing their other seven league rivals 22 times. That’s the way it stayed, with one exception, until the AL expanded to 10 teams in 1961.
The exception was 1919. Although the season had been set for a regular 154 games in 1918, America’s involvement in World War One and the resulting material needs for the Armed Forces caused a change of plans, beginning with a shortened spring training. Leagues across the country began to shut down in early July. On July 19th the Secretary of War declared baseball a non-essential occupation, and AL president Ban Johnson announced the League would shut down two days later. However, the owners voted to continue, and the Secretary of War decided baseball players were exempt…. Until September 2nd. So the leagues decided to end the season on September 1st,, a 123-game season. The Red Sox beat the Cubs 4-2 in the World Series, winning the final game on September 11th, and the war ended two months later on November 11th.
Going into 1919 the owners were worried that fans wouldn’t come back to the game, so they shortened the season to 140 games, 20 games against each team. However, the fans came back and every team showed a profit but none off the players got any of it, thusly, the Black Sox (although there are allegations the Cubs threw the 1918 series).
In 1920 the season was put back to 154 games, Babe Ruth hit 54 home runs and captured the nation’s attention, and the schedule has never been officially shortened since, even with expansion. Of course, it’s not the last time seasons got shorter. Strikes and lockouts have taken care of that. But the seasons were still planned to go 162 games, even if they didn’t.
If the season was intentionally shortened at all it would be the first time the season had been intentionally shortened while the game was still prosperous. In the three other cases- 1893, 1900, and 1919- it happened because baseball was overextending itself.
After researching this piece I see no reason for baseball to drop to 154 games- unless the playoffs were going to be expanded again. I originally thought that the NL dropped games in 1893 because the Temple Cup was involved, but it wasn’t inaugurated until after the 1894 season. As we have seen, the dropping of the games actually caused the Temple Cup to be born. In 1900, the NL saw a threat on the horizon as well as several unworthy teams and dropped both clubs and the schedule. In 1919, the owners feared fans wouldn’t return after WWI.
Here’s where dropping eight games would allow for more baseball. It would mean an extra week of the playoffs. The Wild Card teams could then play a five-game series instead of a one-and-done, then there could also be a full seven-game Division Series. That’s why Commissioner Manfred has begun floating the idea of a shorter schedule. He would like to see the playoffs get longer, and that, ultimately, is only possible if the season gets shorter.