Levine: The ingrained, misguided 162-game schedule

From SABR member Zachary Levine at Baseball Prospectus on July 3, 2014:

“The people who control the destinies of base ball, and the enthusiasts who have kept the game alive and made it the greatest pastime in the world, demand as much of base ball as they can get. Our duty is to provide it and simply adhere to their wishes in the matter.” – American League Vice President Charles W. Somers to the Sporting Life, May 2, 1905

This week we reached the halfway point of the season in baseball, a sport whose name’s halfway point is no longer denoted with a space, and boy is there much of it. We’re ~50 percent of the way to 162, a number that’s been part of the American League fan’s rapid recall since 1961 and the National League’s since 1962, without any deviations save for a couple of strike years. And it’s a number that – given baseball’s dynamic scheduling history – makes no sense.

When Somers was quoted 99 years ago, it was in reference to the 154-game season, then considered by some to be far too long. A jump from 140 games in most of the previous years, the 154-game schedule came to be in 1904 and forced the abandonment of the one-year-old World Series concept because nobody wanted to play that long after a long season. (The American League was against the lengthening of the regular season and claimed that the National League honchos did it only to avoid getting embarrassed in the postseason again.)

The 154-game season would remain the rule in both leagues, the World Series would return in 1905 after the one-year hiatus, and 154 kept right on going until the staggered expansions of the early 1960s.

The number 154 is a cool number. It’s pretty much everything the number needed to be to serve baseball for six decades. It’s an even number—you really don’t want teams playing more home games than road games or vice versa. And it’s a multiple of seven. The 154-game schedule was born at the dawn of the period of 16-team MLB stability, when eight teams composed each league and playing every other team in your league 22 times would get the job done.

But then 1961 came along, and with it the awkwardness of expanding one league without the other. The American League was at 10 teams, the National at only eight. So in each league, the math won out. The National League stayed at the multiple of seven, while the AL went to the next closest even multiple of nine, with the teams pairing off 18 times for a total of 162 games. And when Houston and the Mets followed the Angels and Washington 2.0 the next year, the NL was on board for 162 as well.


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Originally published: July 3, 2014. Last Updated: July 3, 2014.