Looking back at baseball’s previously shortened seasons
Delaying the start of the baseball season due to a pandemic places us, to put it lightly, in uncharted territory. The league has said the delay will last two weeks, but honestly, that’s just a jumping-off point. There is massive uncertainty among even public health officials about what we’re dealing with at the moment and the best baseball can do is react. Given that uncertainty and the fact that state and local officials in a given area could institute public gathering and event bans that exceed whatever Major League Baseball comes up with, smart money would have the season-starting delay lasting longer than two weeks.
With yesterday’s news that the start of the 2020 season will be delayed indefinitely, let us take a look back at shortened seasons past to see if they tell us anything worth knowing about what we’re in for when baseball eventually returns.
On April 6, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany, launching its involvement in the then-nearly three year-old Great War. While this caused the nation to mobilize -- and for most of the minor leagues, which were then independent, to close up shop -- the National and American Leagues played on as normal with a full schedule.
The war, at first, did not affect rosters all that much. A few players were drafted into the military and only a handful enlisted. Ballplayers took part in mostly performative “military drills” -- staged events for crowds and newsreels -- to show their support for the doughboys. Team owners donated money for the war effort and baseball gear for troop recreation, but that was the extent of the big leagues’ sacrifice in the first year of U.S. involvement.
While that stance was generally accepted at first, when domestic morale was high and the war was seen as something as a grand adventure by an ignorant populace, by the fall of 1917 reality was setting in and baseball’s everything-is-normal attitude wasn’t wearing well. In response, team owners agreed prior to the 1918 season to cut down on travel and relocate spring training sites closer to home. They likewise reduced the schedule from 154 games to 140.
In early May the War Department decreed that by July 1 all draft-eligible men employed in “non-essential” occupations must apply for work directly related to the war effort or risk being called into military service. Baseball owners tried to get an exemption for players in the name of national pride and entertainment, but no dice. By July an average of 15 players per team were either drafted or enlisted, ravaging rosters. The season was, in mid-stride, cut short by another two weeks, resulting in about 126-28 games being played per team. The regular season ended on September 2. The World Series was played from September 5-11.
While the Armistice was reached on November 11, 1918, the 1919 season was also shortened to 140 games as teams waited for players to return from military service. The season got underway around April 23-25 for most teams.
While a great many ballplayers took part in the Second World War, leading to a lot of older, younger, and 4F players on big league rosters, baseball itself went on uninterrupted, with full seasons played between 1942-45. But while the game could weather a shooting war and not cancel games, it could not weather labor wars and do the same.
The first two weeks of the 1972 season were wiped out by the first player strike in the game’s history. The strike -- over a disagreement about increasing pension payouts to track inflation -- was won by the players, with the owners giving up after only 13 days. It caused the loss of 85 games in all which would never be made up. And which would create a pretty big problem. A problem that Red Sox fans of a certain age still like to complain about.
The 13 days at the beginning of the season lost included scattered off days, which meant that teams had lost an unequal number of games. A debate ensued about what to do about that, but the owners and the players could not agree how to compensate players for the time missed and/or changes in the schedule that would lead to fewer off-days and more doubleheaders. In response Commissioner Bowie Kuhn did what he usually did: nothing. He just declared that the season would start on April 15th, and go on from there with the existing schedule.
Under that setup, teams ended up playing a different number of games. This wasn’t a problem in the NL East, where the Pirates won the division by 11 games, the NL West where the Reds won it by 10.5 games or the AL West where the A’s finished 5.5 games ahead of their closest rival. The AL East, however, featured a wire-to-wire battle between the Tigers and Red Sox. A battle “won” by the Tigers, even though both teams finished with the same 70 losses. Won by a half game because the Tigers played in 156 games to the Sox’ 155, finishing 86-70 to Boston’s 85-70.
It’s impossible to imagine that happening in this day and age. The internet, talk radio and ESPN would explode. Fans of a team left out of the postseason by a half game would riot. Today’s MLB would almost certainly deal with that with some sort of mini-playoff or head it off in its entirety by making damn sure everyone played the same number of games. No matter the case, you can bet your bippy that, no matter what they do with the 2020 season, it will not feature a 1972 Tigers-Red Sox scenario.
The 1981 players strike was the result of the owners demanding that teams who lose players to free agency get a compensation draft pick from the signing team and a player off the roster of the signing team. That was nothing the players would ever agree too so they walked out after the games on June 11 and play did not resume until August 10, resulting in a schedule of about 107 games for each team. Fun fact: since the All-Star Game fell during the strike, they rescheduled it for August 9, making it, basically, the kickoff to the second half of the season which began a day later.
Rather than do what it did in 1981, baseball came up with a radical reworking of the standings and the postseason structure for that year and that year only. The season was divided into halves, with “division champs” of the first half -- the pre-strike period -- and the “division champs” of the second half meeting in a divisional series, with the winner going on to the LCS to face whichever of the other division’s champs made it through.
So, in the AL, you had the first half AL East leader -- the Yankees -- face the second half AL East leader -- the Brewers -- in a best-of five. They won that and faced the Oakland A’s -- who had won the first half of the AL West and won their divisional round matchup against the Royals who won the West in the second half -- in the ALCS. In the National League it was the Phillies, Expos, Dodgers and Astros.
But there was a problem: there was one team that had did not have the best record in their division in either the first or the second half but had the best overall record when the halves were combined. And I don’t mean that they had the best overall record in their division. They had the best overall record in all of baseball. That was the Cincinnati Reds, who went 66-42 overall but did not make the playoffs. The St. Louis Cardinals, by the way, had the second-best overall record in the NL -- 59-43 -- and didn’t make the playoffs either. The Orioles had the same number of overall wins as the Yankees but had two fewer losses due to an uneven number of games played, yet they stayed home in October too. The Tigers had one more win than both of them.
Again, I have no idea what Rob Manfred and Tony Clark will come up with as far as a schedule and a playoff structure for the 2020 season, but I can imagine they will not do anything that even threatens to work the kind of result we saw in 1981.
In 1985 the players had a two-day strike in August related to the pension fund and to a cap in salary arbitration. It had no real effect on the season as the games missed were made up.
In 1990 there was a brief lockout at the beginning of the season as the players and owners battled over free agency, arbitration, and revenue sharing. The lockout postponed Opening Day for a week but the full schedule was played, thanks in part to three days being tacked on to the end of the season.
You probably know the whole story here. The 1994 was characterized by rancorous negotiations over the Collective Bargaining Agreement and, when no resolution could be reached, the season ended abruptly, with the last games of that season played on August 11 and the strike commencing the following day. The rest of the season was canceled, and for the first time since 1904, there was no World Series.
Due to poorly-thought-out tactics by the owners followed by an embarrassing loss in litigation, the strike finally ended on April 2, 1995. The start of the season would be postponed three weeks, giving the previously-striking players an abbreviated spring training. Play resumed on April 25 with a 144-game schedule -- for all teams -- and a standard playoff format. Well, it was a new playoff format to everyone involved, what with realignment to three divisions and the advent of the Wild Card, but that would’ve been in place in 1994 had there been a 1994 postseason. Either way, there were no playoff injustices in 1995 like there were in 1981 and 1972.
So where does that leave us for 2020?
I have no idea. Nor does anyone who works for Major League Baseball, anyone who works for a team, or any players. If that optimistic two-week delay currently in place holds teams would, in all likelihood, just pick up the schedule where it would be at the time with tiebreakers of some sort being implemented in the event of a 1972-style half-game gap in the standings. To the extent there would be injustice it would be in the form of already unbalanced schedules being even more unbalanced. For example, the Angels are scheduled to play the Astros seven times in the season’s first couple of weeks. Would the revamped Angels have a leg-up on a playoff spot by virtue of far fewer games against a very talented team? The same scenario would exist in most divisions, actually, as the early part of the season has a number of home-and-home series in a short period.
If the season is delayed to a more significant degree there would be calls for a complete re-doing fo the schedule, I presume. Perhaps even a radical reworking. If we get into a place where we can fit in so few games between Opening Day and October, I could even imagine a scenario in which the whole season simply gets turned into a big tournament. Maybe double-elimination series or something weird like that.
It could be cool. At the very least it could be something interesting for the very interesting time in which we find ourselves.