Looking back at baseball’s previously shortened seasons

Getty Images
6 Comments

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.

 

1918-19

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.

 

1972

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.

 

1981

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.

 

1985

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.

 

1990

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.

 

1994-95

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.

A’s running out of time to find home in Oakland, Las Vegas

oakland athletics
Brandon Sloter/Getty Images
1 Comment

LAS VEGAS — The Oakland Athletics have spent years trying to get a new stadium while watching Bay Area neighbors such as the Giants, Warriors, 49ers and Raiders successfully move into state-of-the-art venues, and now time is running short on their efforts.

The A’s lease at RingCentral Coliseum expires after the 2024 season, and though they might be forced to extend the terms, the club and Major League Baseball have deemed the stadium unsuitable for a professional franchise.

They are searching for a new stadium in Oakland or Las Vegas, but they have experienced difficulties in both areas. The A’s missed a major deadline in October to get a deal done in Oakland, and there has been little indication they will receive the kind of funding they want from Las Vegas.

“I think the A’s have to look at it in a couple of ways,” said Brendan Bussmann, managing partner at Las Vegas-based B Global. “Obviously, they have struggled in Oakland to get a deal across the line. It isn’t for a lack of effort. . You have an owner that’s willing to pony up money, you have a club that wants to sit there and figure out a way to make it work, and you keep running into obstacles along the way.

“It’s time to fish or cut bait. Oakland, do you want them or not? And if not, where are the A’s going to get the best deal? Is it Vegas? Is it somewhere else? They’ll have to figure that out.”

What the A’s are thinking is a little bit of a mystery. Team President Dave Kaval was talkative earlier in the process, saying the A’s are pursuing two different tracks with Oakland and Las Vegas. But he went silent on the subject several months ago. A’s spokeswoman Catherine Aker said mostly recently that the club would withhold comment for now.

The A’s have been negotiating with Oakland to build a $1 billion stadium as part of a $12 billion redevelopment deal.

Newly elected Mayor Sheng Thao said reaching a deal is important as long as it makes economic sense to the city. Her predecessor, Libby Schaaf, led prior efforts to reach an agreement, but after the city and the A’s missed that October deadline, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred expressed reservations a deal will ever get done.

“The pace in Oakland has not been rapid, number one,” Manfred said at the time. “We’re in a stadium situation that’s really not tenable. I mean, we need to do something to alter the situation. So I’m concerned about the lack of pace.”

Recent California history justifies his concerns. SoFi Stadium in Southern California and Chase Center in San Francisco were built with private money, and Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara was 90% privately financed.

“And then I think there was some contagion where around the country people realized these deals could be done well privately and could generate a return on investment to those investors,” said David Carter, a sports business professor at the University of Southern California. “Why are we throwing public money at it at all?”

That’s also a question being asked in Las Vegas, even though the Raiders in 2016 received $750 million from the Nevada Legislature for a stadium. That then was the largest amount of public money for a sports venue, but it was surpassed last March by the $850 million pledged to construct a new stadium for the NFL’s Buffalo Bills.

Another deal like the one for Allegiant Stadium, where the Raiders play, appears unlikely in Nevada. T-Mobile Arena, which opened in 2017, was privately financed. An arena planned for south of the Las Vegas Strip also wouldn’t rely on public funds.

Las Vegas, however, has shown financing creativity. Its Triple-A baseball stadium received $80 million in 2017 for naming rights from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. Room taxes fund the authority, so it was public money in a backdoor sort of way.

Clark County Commissioner Michael Naft, who is on the board of the convention authority, has spoken with A’s representatives about their interest in Las Vegas and said he is aware of the club’s talks with other Nevada officials. He said the A’s are taking a much different approach than the Raiders, who identified Las Vegas early as their choice landing spot after many years of failing to get a new stadium in Oakland.

“When the Raiders decided to come to Las Vegas, they had a clear plan,” Naft said. “You had a clear body that was tasked with assessing the worth and the value, and they committed to the destination. I have not seen that from the Oakland A’s at any level, and it’s not really our job to go out and beg them to come here because we have earned the reputation of the greatest arena on Earth. We have put in both the dollars and the labor to make that the case.

“I think I’ve made myself clear, but from conversations with others, I don’t think I’m alone on that.”

New Nevada Gov. Joe Lombardo “will not raise taxes” to attract the A’s or any other team, his spokeswoman, Elizabeth Ray, said in a statement. But she said the club could qualify for other ongoing “economic development programs,” which could mean tax breaks similar to what Tesla received in 2014.

Manfred said in December that the A’s relocation fee would be waived if they move to Las Vegas, a savings to the club reportedly of up to $1 billion.

“We’re past any reasonable timeline for the situation in Oakland to be resolved,” Manfred said then.

Naft said Allegiant Stadium filled a hole that went beyond landing an NFL team. It allowed Las Vegas to attract major sporting events such as the Super Bowl and Final Four and major concerts such as Garth Brooks and Elton John that “in many cases we would not otherwise have.”

He said he doesn’t believe a baseball stadium would accomplish that, and sports economist Victor Matheson agreed.

“I think there’s a real question about how much people are willing to watch baseball in Las Vegas,” said Matheson, a professor at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. “It’s not like locals don’t have a huge number of entertainment options right now, and it’s not clear exactly how much people might travel to watch baseball in Vegas, either.”

If the A’s truly want to be in Las Vegas, Naft said they need to make that clear.

“I just believe you can’t play destinations against each other,” Naft said. “If you want to come here and you want to be met with open arms, you’ve got to commit.”

Should the A’s fail to reach an agreement in Oakland or Las Vegas, they could consider other destinations such as Charlotte, North Carolina; Nashville; and Portland, Oregon. Whether they would have the time to explore such options is another question.

Oakland has already shown it will watch the Raiders move to Nevada and the Warriors go across the Bay Bridge to San Francisco.

Las Vegas, Matheson noted, is hardly in a desperate situation. He also expressed caution that Las Vegas could go from being among the largest metropolitan areas without a major professional sports team to among the smallest with three franchises.

“So you’ve gone from kind of being under-sported to being over-sported in a short period of time if the A’s were to go there,” Matheson said.