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July 3, 2014

Skewed Left

The Ingrained, Misguided, 162-Game Schedule

by Zachary Levine

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“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 109 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.

Where things got really interesting was in the next expansion. Both leagues were going to 12 teams in 1969, and nobody was quite sure what to do about that. One might think that no league would ever cut down on the number of games, but that was apparently very much in the discussion as the Padres, Expos, Royals and Pilots joined the party.

One-hundred-and-sixty-two wasn’t an obvious number anymore, and according to a UPI article of April 25, 1968, the planning began with a free-for-all of ideas.

The American League owners had available for study today 11 possible scheduling plans for a 12-team league. Three of them covered competition with all 12 teams in the same circuit and one pennant-winner, calling for between 143 and 165 games in the regular season. Eight schedules ranging from 142 to 164 games were proposed in the event of a divisional organization.

The 143- and 165-game schedules were certainly odd suggestions, but the number that made the most sense was actually 154, which in addition to being a multiple of seven, and still a cool number, also happens to be a multiple of 11.

One month later, according to a New York Times report, it was decided. The American League would play 156 games followed by a League Championship Series in the first divisional format: 18 against five division opponents and 11 against the six from the other division. The National would stay in a single table and either stay at 162 and somehow make it work or expand to 165, which is 15 games times each of 11 opponents.

Commissioner William Eckert was certainly not happy with the two leagues’ seasons possibly being nine games different in the regular season, and by the time the season came along, there was compromise. The National League got its 162 games, the more progressive American League got its playoff system, and the teams would play 18x5 in the division and 12x6 against the other division.

The compromise was a successful one, but it set in place one reality. From then on, as the leagues expanded, it would be the schedule that forces its way into the fixed number of 162 games rather than the number of games changing slightly to adapt to a fairer schedule. That would be the case in 1977 when the American League expanded to 14 teams—a number for which 13x12 = 156 would have been the perfect balanced schedule. And that would be the case today, when trying to jam the unbalanced schedule and constant interleague into exactly 162 games has left a mess of two-game series and weird travel.

Now it would be nearly impossible to come to the bargaining table and try to change the number of games in the season. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened, though, had the precedent been strengthened in 1969 that when the number of teams changed, the number of games would change with it. Not by a lot. Adding or subtracting 6-8 games in baseball doesn’t change the nature of the sport as one of repetition and the best team generally winning. But it could enough so that the schedule wouldn’t be beholden to that one number.

Maybe something like this:

Year

Expansion/realignment

Possible schedule change

1977-1992

AL up to 14 teams (SEA/TOR)

AL to 156 games re-balanced (12 games x 13 opponents), NL down to 154 games re-balanced (14 games x 11 opponents) to keep them close.

1993-1997

NL up to 14 teams (COL/FLA)

Both leagues to 156 games (12 games x 13 opponents)

1998-2012

NL up to 16 teams, interleague play added, unbalanaced schedule

This is messy and could really be anything given the 4, 5, and 6-team divisions and the flexibility of interleague play. No number would make much sense with that division alignment.

2013-

Both leagues at 15 teams

Both leagues to 160 games. 18 games x 4 opponents in the division. 7 games x 10 opponents outside the division, 3 games x 6 opponents interleague. (With 6x10 outside the division, this also adapts well to 150 games and all three-game series if really shortening the season is ever an idea.)

The 160 games make a lot more sense than the 162 now. It’s all three-game series against your division and the selected interleague opponents. Then, against one of your league opponents outside the division, it’s a three-gamer at home and a four-gamer on the road this year, followed by the reverse the next year. None of these two-gamers back and forth with the weirdness of 20 interleague games.

It’s 162 games for a reason, though. No, not the reason established in this piece. But because it’s become tradition and it’s become an assumed figure in the bargaining. The 162 was once just a product—literally a product, of a number of games times a number of opponents. Now it’s the starting point, and the rest of the schedule, however uncomfortably in the last few decades, bows to the number.

Thanks to MLB official historian John Thorn for his guidance in research for this article.

Zachary Levine is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Zachary's other articles. You can contact Zachary by clicking here

Related Content:  Schedule,  162-game Schedule

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