Whether we’ll even have a 2020 baseball season remains an open question, but if we do have one, it’s going to be a shortened baseball season. Whether it’s 48 games, 82, games, 114 games or some other number, the shape, length, and vibe of the 2020 campaign will be a far from the norm.
While none have been as strange as 2020 is shaping up to be, we have had shortened baseball seasons before. Let’s take a walk back through history and ask ourselves what happened during those other shortened schedules.
Shortened baseball season summaries
The United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917. Despite a national mobilization — and despite the fact that most of the then-independent minor leagues ceased playing — the American and National Leagues proceeded as normal. While no one really cared at first — the War was seen as a lark or an adventure by much of the populace early on — by the fall of 1917 reality was setting in and baseball’s everything-is-normal attitude was pretty unpopular in the country. In response, team owners agreed prior to the 1918 season to cut the schedule from 154 games to 140 and to relocate and cut spring training and in-season travel as a means of showing sacrifice.
That wasn’t the only change. By July of 1918 an average of 15 players per team were either drafted or enlisted, ravaging rosters. In response, the season was cut by another two weeks, resulting in around 126-28 games being played per team. The regular season ended on September 2. The World Series was played from September 5-11.
World Series Champion: Boston Red Sox over Chicago Cubs (4–2)
Award Winners: N/A — there were no awards given out between 1915-1921
Anomalies: The biggest issue in the season was the military draft, which had a massive impact on the competitive integrity of the season. The 1917 NL champion New York Giants began 18-1 and was in first place into June. Then the draft came and decimated its pitching staff. The Cubs, meanwhile, were mostly untouched by the draft, allowing them to surge and win the pennant. Similarly, the defending World Series champ White Sox were hit hard by the draft, causing them to fall to .500. The next year, when they were back to full strength, they went back to the World Series.
While the Armistice was reached on November 11, 1918, the 1919 MLB year also was a shortened baseball season. Teams played 140 games as they waited for players to return from military service. The season got underway around April 23-25 for most teams.
World Series Champion: Cincinnati Reds over Chicago White Sox (5-3). This was the first World Series since 1903 to be a best-of-nine instead of a best-of-seven, primarily as a means of increasing revenue due to the shortened season. It’d remain as a best-of-nine in 1920 and 1921 after which it permanently reverted to a best-of-seven.
Award Winners: N/A — there were no awards given out between 1915-1921
Anomalies: Given that players gradually returned from military service as the season wore on, there was no sudden, stunning change in roster construction like there was in 1918 with the draft. The 14-game shorter-than-usual season did not create any noticeable statistical anomalies. Indeed, Babe Ruth set a new single-season home run record with 29 in 1919. Which, of course, he’d shatter in 1920 as the Dead Ball Era came to an end. The biggest news of 1919, obviously, was the White Sox throwing the World Series to the Reds in the Black Sox Scandal, but there was no connection between that and the shortened schedule.
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 total games. Owners and players could not agree on how to make up the lost games, so Commissioner Bowie Kuhn declared that the season would start on April 15th, and go on from there with the existing schedule. This caused teams to play around 150-56 games each. The unequal number of games would create a pretty big problem, though.
While the other three divisions were all won by comfortable margins, the AL East featured a wire-to-wire battle between the Tigers and Red Sox. The battle was “won” by the Tigers, even though both teams finished with the same 70 losses. The Tigers won the division by a half game, however, because they played 156 games to the Sox’ 155, finishing 86-70 to Boston’s 85-70. It was a result that remains controversial, especially among Red Sox fans, to this day. It’s also a result that would never occur again. Even if there were an uneven number of games played in any altered season in the future, MLB would almost certainly create a tiebreaker/playoff scenario to avoid the 1972 Tigers/Red Sox result.
World Series Champion: Oakland Athletics over Cincinnati Reds (4-3).
- AL MVP: Dick Allen, with 37 homers and 113 RBI
- AL Cy Young: Gaylord Perry, with 24 wins in 41 starts
- NL MVP: Johnny Bench, who hit 40 homers and knocked in 125 runs.
- NL Cy Young: Steve Carlton who, despite the shortened season, still started 41 games and still won 27 for a terrible Phillies team.
Anomalies: Apart from the AL East result mentioned above, none. The statistics of the award winners and league leaders were basically unaffected by the reduced schedule.
Another players’ strike, with this one hitting in the middle of the season, breaking the shortened baseball season into two parts. Players 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. Rather than repeat 1972, the league 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 League Championship Series 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. It was something of a joke, but baseball pressed on anyway.
World Series Champion: Los Angeles Dodgers over New York Yankees (4-2).
- AL MVP: Rollie Fingers — his 1.04 ERA and 28 saves in a short season turned a lot of heads.
- AL Cy Young: Rollie Fingers — people were really impressed with relief pitchers in the 80s
- NL MVP: Mike Schmidt — His 31 homers were the equivalent of 46-48 homers in a regular season and he dominated most other offensive categories as well.
- NL Cy Young: Fernando Valenzuela — it was the year of “Fernandomania.” His fast start captured the nation’s attention, and caused most people to overlook the fact that he was not as effective after the season resumed in August.
Anomalies: That schedule and playoff format was the big one. There weren’t any real outliers in rate stats like batting average despite the shorter schedule. Pitching win leaders — Tom Seaver in the NL, a four-way tie in the AL — each notched 14 W’s. It was the first time since 1960 that an AL wins leader didn’t have at least 20. It was the first time an NL leader did not win 20 since 1931.
In 1985 the players went on strike in August that was resolved in only two days. The shortened baseball season had no real effect on the season as the games missed were made up.
World Series Champion: Kansas City Royals over St. Louis Cardinals (4-3).
- AL MVP: Don Mattingly
- AL Cy Young: Brett Saberhagen
- NL MVP: Willie McGee
- NL Cy Young: Dwight Gooden
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 to makeup games, doubleheaders and three days being tacked on to the end of the season.
World Series Champion: Cincinnati Reds over Oakland Athletics (4-0).
- AL MVP: Rickey Henderson
- AL Cy Young: Bob Welch
- NL MVP: Barry Bonds
- NL Cy Young: Doug Drabek
As you might remember, 1994 was characterized by rancorous negotiations between owners and players over the Collective Bargaining Agreement. When no resolution could be reached, we had a shortened baseball season, 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.
World Series Champion: None, though because the Montreal Expos were in first place in the National League East and were loaded with talent that, the following year, would be sold off, a lot of Expos fans of that era like to claim, some more seriously than others, that the Expos were the “champions” of 1994. They even sell merchandise to that effect.
Award Winners: Yes, despite the season ending in August, they still gave out awards.
- AL MVP: Frank Thomas, who was on a 54-homer pace
- AL Cy Young: David Cone, who was on a 22-win pace
- NL MVP: Jeff Bagwell, who was on pace for 55 homers and 164 RBI
- NL Cy Young: Greg Maddux, who was on a 22-win pace and had a 1.56 ERA
Anomalies: Aside from the World Series being cancelled, the big story was that a number of offensive milestones or records were being threatened at the time the season ended. Most notably, Tony Gwynn had a realistic chance of batting .400 — he was at .394 and was on the upswing when play stopped — and Matt Williams was on pace to reach 60 home runs, which had not been reached since Roger Maris in 1961. Less often mentioned: Chuck Knoblauch had a realistic shot at breaking the major league season record for doubles, held by Earl Webb, who hit 67 in 1931.
The strike which began in August of 1994 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.
World Series Champion: Atlanta Braves defeated Cleveland Indians (4-2)
- AL MVP: Mo Vaughn. Albert Belle was totally robbed (see below)
- AL Cy Young: Randy Johnson
- NL MVP: Barry Larkin
- NL Cy Young: Greg Maddux
Anomalies: The 18 games lopped off the schedule didn’t create that much in the way of statistical or competitive anomalies. Two divisions — the AL and NL west — were decided by a single game. One of the runners up, the Colorado Rockies, won the Wild Card so they were in the postseason. The other, the California Angels, were left outside. They probably would’ve liked to have 18 more games to try to catch the Seattle Mariners.
Statistically not much was off.
Greg Maddux was, once again, denied what almost certainly would’ve been a 20-win season, but given that he finished with 355 career wins, it sort of didn’t matter.
In the American League Albert Belle had a phenomenal season, hitting 50 homers, which would’ve worked out to 56 in a full season. His RBI total — 126 — was also impressive for a 144-game campaign. That he did not win the AL MVP Award is one of the greater awards voting injustices in living memory. His being snubbed for Mo Vaughn was mostly a function of Belle simply being a disliked figure among awards voters. And, well, among almost everyone else too, for some very justifiable reasons.
If we do have a 2020 season, it’s almost guaranteed to be shorter than even the shortest regular seasons on record. It will likely result in some unusually high batting averages and historically low ERAs and raw statistical totals for things like wins, homers, RBIs and the like for a shortened baseball season. Given that 2019’s World Series champions, the Washington Nationals, were 19-31 through 50 games, it’s likely that a season of that length will not give us the same sort of results a full season or even a 3/4 season would provide.