Baseball is described as America’s National Pastime because of it’s tradition. The game’s origins date back to pre-civil war days, before any other major professional sports leagues were in existence. Over time, traditions were established. At the heart of these traditions is a set of playing rules that have governed the game itself for over 160 years.
Very little has changed in the basic playing rules of baseball since the National and American leagues settled on eight franchises in each league at the turn of the 20th Century. Since the first modern day World Series was held between the league winners in 1903, for a period over 50 years, there were no franchises to fold or pick up and relocate to another city.
While the leagues began to expand west to the Pacific Ocean, south to Florida and Texas, and north into Canada, the playing rules have remained consistent. That is until now, when commissioner Rob Manfred decided that the game could be made better, at least according to his definition of better. Manfred’s new “competition committee” is ushering in a host of changes for the 2023 season that fundamentally change the game.
In its’ formative years, the rules of the game saw significant changes to the playing rules from the original “Knickerbocker rules” established in 1847, as well as to the equipment, statistical definitions, and the use of technology. By the time the National league was formed in 1876, the game had settled on nine men on a team, nine innings in a game- unless it was tied, an umpire called balls and strikes, a caught fly ball was an out. And always, a run was scored by a batter advancing around the bases- all four bases- and crossing home plate before three outs were recorded.
There were still fundamental changes to be made to the game in the 19th century, as the game evolved from having a “pitchers box” that was anywhere from 3ft x 12 ft, to 6 ft square with the front edge being 50 feet from home plate, to a pitching mound with a rubber slab that was 60 ft, 6 inches from home. That rule was finalized in 1893. The count of four balls for a walk and three strikes you’re out was finalized in 1889.
The finishing touches adopted in the last decade of the 19th century included the infield fly rule, counting foul balls as strikes until the batter had two strikes. foul bunts and held foul balls are always strikes, and the catcher’s interference rule.
There were very, very few significant changes to the playing rules during the entire 20th century. In 1926, a ball that bounced over the fence became a standard “ground rule” double in all parks. The pitching mound was lowered in 1969, and the American league adopted the designated hitter rule in 1973.
There were tweaks to the size of the strike zone, defensive interference, and banning of spitballs, but most of the changes had to do with statistics or technology. The definition of a sacrifice fly changed numerous times through the years, and there were changes to what constitutes a “save”. Expansion brought more playoff games, but the playing rules remained constant.
Lighting was a big change, with the first night game being played in 1935. The ability to turn on the lights all but eliminated tie games, which would be called because of darkness, and then either replayed or resumed at various times. But the game was always played to a conclusion, under the same scoring rules through the final innings.
Otherwise, the game was the game. Baseball kept it’s traditions and it’s playing rules.
MLB playing rules changes since 1901
|1901||Foul balls not caught on the fly count as strikes until batter has 2 strikes|
|1903||American league adopts the foul ball rules|
|1917||Freak deliveries, including spitballs, were outlawed|
|1917||Failure of a runner to touch a base does not affect other runners|
|1926||Balls that bounce over the outfield fence are doubles|
|1926||Balls hit over the fence are fair or foul based on where they are leaving the field|
|1953||Defensive interference expanded to all fielders, not just catchers|
|1973||Designated hitter adopted in the American league|
|2014||Collisions at home plate reduced by restrictions on runners and catchers|
|2015||Manfred becomes commissioner|
|2016||Runners required to attempt touching second base on double play balls|
|2017||Intentional walk issued by a signal, no pitches necessary|
|2020||Ghost runner adopted for extra innings|
|2020||Universal DH adopted for one season in NL|
|2020||Seven inniing double headers for one season|
|2020||Relief pitchers must face three batters|
|2022||National league adopts the designated hitter permanently|
|2023||Defensive shifts are banned. Requirements for where fielders can play|
|2023||Pitch clock adopted 15 or 20 seconds|
|2023||Bases enlarged from 15" square to 18" square|
The biggest changes to the game were in the areas of expansion from 16 to 30 teams between 1961 and 1997, and technology with first radio then television, and then cable TV bringing more games into more households than ever. The first night World Series game wasn’t staged until 1971, but now a day game is much more the exception than the rule. Post season games in particular are scheduled in “prime time” for the television audience.
Technology brought in another major change to the game, though not to the playing rules themselves, with the introduction of instant replay reviews in 2008. First, home runs could be reviewed, and then reviews were expanded to almost every play except calling balls and strikes. Technology will change that, too, but playing rules remained the same.
Then came Rob Manfred, with ideas to make the game better. It started with modifying the rules on runners sliding into home or breaking up a double play. But more important to Manfred, the pace of the game was too slow, which wasn’t good for television, which in turn put a damper on profits. There was no point in playing games, in the world according to Manfred, if owners weren’t making as much money as possible.
Once the owners had cashed their checks from the regional sports networks and beer concessions had closed at the ballpark, extra innings were just a waste of time. The Covid pandemic gave him just the excuse that he needed to usher in the “ghost runner” rule that was experimented with in the minor leagues, to all but eliminate the games that dragged on into multiple extra innings. If he had to destroy 150 years of tradition by changing the scoring rules to get rid of non profit baseball, so be it. While the rule was tolerated by fans in the Covid season of 2020, it was widely unpopular as MLB twice brought it back ‘for one more season’ under the guise of player health and safety. In reality, the motive can be found by following the money.
The commissioner brought in seven inning double headers, and cut the season to 60 games in 2020, when many more games could have been played. This was “offset” according to the narrative, by expanding the number of playoff teams to 16. In fact, lost profits were offset, but lost salaries and lost games were not.
While the players’ association filed a grievance for shortening the season, and cutting their paychecks in the process, that was withdrawn as a last concession under threat of canceling part of the 2022 season, which it seemed the owners were perfectly willing to do in bargaining, as long as the big money post season games were played.
Also adopted as part of the new collective bargaining agreement was the creation of a “competition committee” that was formed to rubber stamp whatever changes to the playing rules the commissioner wanted to implement. The committee is comprised of four members representing players, one from the umpires, and six appointed by the commissioner himself.
It didn’t take long for the new committee to swing into action, as they have adopted a pitch clock, a ban on defensive shifts that tell teams where their players must stand on the field, bigger bases, and restrictions on pitchers throwing to first base to keep the runner close. The players unanimously opposed the pitch clock and shift change rules, but it didn’t matter. All the commissioner’s men stood together and rammed the rules through.
Perhaps the biggest change of all in the new CBA was the creation of the committee itself, because that allowed Manfred to usher in fundamental changes to the game. Under guise of a group composed of representatives from the commissioner and the players’ union, in practice, the built-in majority on the league side makes it easy for them to ram changes through while still giving the casual appearance of an independent body.
Players are not without culpability in the changes to the playing rules. They have gone along with the ghost runner each time the issue came up, and they conceded the format of the competition committee. Previously, they could at least oppose any rule changes and block them for a year.
Whether the changes are good or bad is a matter of opinion. But the result is that the playing rules of baseball have undergone more significant rule changes under this commissioner’s tenure than it has seen in the previous 100 years of major league baseball.