A New Baseball Vision for the 21st Century

By Charles O’Reilly, Charlie’s Big Baseball Parks Page

For over a century, Major League Baseball has gotten by with two leagues, the National League and the American League. In fact, some historians date “modern baseball” from the beginning of the two-league system.

If you ask me, the whole idea is, if you’ll pardon the expression, so 20th century.

The two-league system actually dates to the 19th century. Through the 1880s, the American Association actively competed with the National League as a major league. (This is a different league from the Triple-A American Association.) In fact, the American Association champion challenged the National League champion to a post-season “World’s Series” each year from 1884 to 1890.

Eventually, though, the American Association could no longer hold out. The Players’ League sprung up in 1890 but lasted just one year, and the American Association was weakened by a bidding war for Players’ League talent. From 1892 to 1899, the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs stood alone as a 12-team major league.

During the 1899 season, however, the National League announced that it would cut back from 12 teams to 8 at season’s end. Among the teams to be “contracted” were the Cleveland Spiders, who had the same owner as the St. Louis franchise. All the Spiders’ best players were moved to St. Louis during the year, and the result was the worst full-season record in major league history. The Spiders went 20-134 in 1899. (And you thought the 1962 Mets were bad ...) But other markets were eliminated. The Baltimore Orioles, one of the top franchises in the National League in the 1890s, went by the wayside, as well as clubs in Louisville and Washington.

For 1900, the National League was a svelte 8-team circuit. Meanwhile, that season a minor league known as the Western League renamed itself the American League and started relocating clubs to cities like Milwaukee. But the American League had even bigger ideas. For 1901, they moved several teams into direct competition with National League clubs and declared themselves a major league. The clubs in the upstart league sought out established talent and began a bidding war for National League players. Salaries escalated, with thousands of dollars being thrown at stars like Cy Young.

The American League team that had taken up residence in Baltimore abandoned the market after 1902 (the league had already moved a team to Washington) and a new team arose in New York, giving the junior circuit five teams in direct competition with National League clubs:

The remaining AL teams were in Cleveland, Detroit, and Washington. The remaining NL teams were in Brooklyn, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh.

A sort of labor peace arose by 1903, with the two leagues establishing a National Commission and agreeing to work under one set of rules for hiring, retaining, and releasing players. The National League grudgingly agreed that the American League was a co-existing major league. This opened the door to a challenge by the AL Bostons that season, to revive the “World’s Series”. When the AL challenger won that Series over Pittsburgh, 5 games to 3, John McGraw of the Giants was incensed. He refused the Boston challenge in 1904. Another powwow ensued, and rules were drawn up for the series to take place every year thereafter. And it has done so, except in 1994 when a player strike canceled the end of the season. The 2004 World Series, in which the Red Sox beat the Cardinals, was the 100th renewal of the series.

As the 20th century moved forward, the leagues grew increasingly closer. After several Chicago White Sox players took gamblers’ money to throw the 1919 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds, the two leagues agreed to be supervised by a single commissioner, who had to authorize all contracts between clubs and players. For 25 years, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis ruled with an iron fist, swearing that he would never sign off on a player contract involving a colored man. The “color line” in baseball did not fall until 1946, a year after Landis’ death, when Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers was allowed to sign Jackie Robinson.

Come the 1950s, some clubs grew weary of the intra-city competition and sought to move. These moves required approval of three-fourths of the teams in both leagues. With television becoming an integral part of Americans’ entertainment, the commissioner’s office – not the separate leagues – approved a contract whereby NBC Sports would televise a Saturday “Game of the Week” as well as the All-Star Game and World Series. The commissioner also instituted a player draft in 1966, by which the 20 clubs would select amateur players in reverse order of their previous season record, regardless of league. Decisions that expanded post-season play were made jointly by the clubs prior to the 1969, 1985, and 1994 seasons. Finally, in December 1999, the old corporations called “National League” and “American League” were dissolved. All 30 teams playing major league baseball were now part of a single group, appropriately called Major League Baseball. Even the umpiring crews, which used to be hired separately by the two leagues, were now united.

Still, the designations “American League” and “National League” remain. Not only that, they play by different rules. Playing Rule 6.10 tells us that “A League may elect to use the Designated Hitter Rule.” The American League chooses to use it; the National League does not. This means that when a National League team plays at an American League park, as happens both in the World Series and in interleague play since 1997, the DH is used; when an AL club visits an NL club, there is no DH. Managerial strategies differ greatly depending on whether the DH rule is in effect. Teams also determine how many pitchers and position players to carry on their 25-man rosters based, in part, on whether they generally use a DH.

It’s high time this 30-team agglomeration called Major League Baseball decides either that there is a DH or that there isn’t one. I grew up as a National League fan, and I prefer the game without a DH, but I also understand that since the rule’s inception, the DH has become a part of the baseball landscape. I won’t shed too many tears if the Powers That Be decide to use the DH throughout professional baseball.

More significantly, though, the advent of interleague play has brought about some significant intersectional rivalries that could be enhanced. At the same time, the unbalanced schedule has given us too many games that carry practically no fan interest. Fans get into the games between the Cubs and White Sox or Yankees and Mets just as much as they enjoy the Cubs-Cardinals or Yanks-Red Sox rivalries. But hardly anyone cares when the Orioles play the Rays – and the current schedule has them playing 19 games against each other.

I say it’s time to break out of this 20th-century two-league mind set and embrace the fact that there is now one league of 30 teams. I follow in the steps of Bob Klapisch, a reporter for The Record (Hackensack, N.J.), who in 1997 – just as regular-season interleague play was starting – proposed a radical realignment of the leagues. He proposed five six-team divisions. So do I, although I’ve revised his divisions to more closely reflect geography and existing rivalries. Here’s what I came up with.
EAST SOUTH NORTH CENTRAL WEST
Baltimore Atlanta Cleveland Arizona LA Angels
Boston Cincinnati Detroit Chi Cubs LA Dodgers
NY Mets Florida Milwaukee Chi White Sox Oakland
NY Yankees Houston Minnesota Colorado San Diego
Philadelphia Tampa Bay Pittsburgh Kansas City San Francisco
Washington Texas Toronto St Louis Seattle
The regular-season schedule would remain at 162 games: 18 games against each divisional opponent and 3 games against every other team in the league. If a team plays an interdivisional opponent at home one year, it would play them on the road the next. The 18 division-opponent games would be split, 9 home and 9 away.

I have attempted to bring geographic balance to the divisions. In some cases, this was nearly impossible; after all, the United States (and I don’t mean to slight southern Ontario) is a big country. But with only one exception, all the teams in one division are within the same or an adjacent time zone. (The exception is Arizona, which really didn’t fit anywhere. If the state of Arizona observed daylight saving time, they would be one time zone away from Chicago during baseball season; but they don’t, and I’m not going to try to convince the legislature in Phoenix to change their minds.) The unbalanced schedule means fewer 10:00 in the evening starts for east-coast teams and fewer 10:00 in the morning (or 4:00 in the afternoon) starts for west-coast teams, a benefit to fans all over. In addition, travel costs are reduced, a concern in these days of rising fuel prices.

I’ve tried to maintain traditional rivalries with the schedule as well. Not every rivalry is preserved. For example, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are in different divisions. But the Phillies do get to play the Mets, Orioles, and Nationals, while the Pirates pick up Cleveland, giving the cities’ football rivalry a chance to cross over. And, of course, the Yanks-Red Sox and Cubs-Cards rivalries are intact, as are the battles among the west coast teams.

As is the case today, there might be some creative scheduling to accommodate the schedule. In a 26-week schedule with three days out for the All-Star break, there are 51 “natural” series. But a 162-game schedule breaks down most easily as 54 three-game series. As a result, several season series against division opponents would be played as two four-game series and two two-game series, so as to more readily fit the schedule into a seven-day week. For certain close-by opponents, such as the Mets and Yankees or Baltimore and Washington, the two-game home-and-away series might be played back-to-back, or, as has been done in the New York-Penn League, as one four-game series on an alternating basis between the two yards.

Three rounds of playoffs would be retained, the same as today. The five division champions would receive the Nos. 1 through 5 seeds, while the three best records among non-division-winning clubs would earn seeds Nos. 6 through 8. As usual, the matchups would be 1 vs. 8, 2 vs. 7, 3 vs. 6, and 4 vs. 5. There would be no adjustment of seeds to avoid division rivals meeting in the first round. If the two best records in the league are in one division, their seeds would be 1 and 6, and they wouldn’t meet in the first round anyhow. The option exists to re-seed the clubs after the first round, as is done in the other major sports: for instance, if 6 defeats 3 and the other three higher seeds (1, 2, and 4) advance, the next round would be 1 vs. 6 and 2 vs. 4. This might not be done, however, for the reason of keeping the best two teams in the league apart in the bracket should they be in the same division. The championship round would still be called the World Series, even though it might feature two teams from the same historic league, or two teams in the same division. (I’m sure some fans thought the series between the Yankees and Red Sox in 2003 and 2004 felt more like the World Series than the World Series did.)

The only thing holding back such a dramatic improvement to the Major League Baseball format and schedule is tradition. But the two leagues have moved closer and closer together over the last century, and today they are in fact one league. We need someone who sees the sense in this proposal and has the power, and business acumen, to say “Make it so.”


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This page originally posted 23-Nov-2004 / updated 22-Sep-2009