Have you ever wondered why the MLB baseball season is so long? Why do they play 162 games?
To answer the first question and part of the second, I think we need to go back to roughly 1904, the beginning of the “modern” era of baseball. At that time there was no one broadcasting games on the radio; but, newspapers had already been covering the sport for years. Some games were actually broadcast by telegraph to saloons. You have to think of baseball as daily entertainment. There was a recognition of the willingness of people to pay to see grown men play the game. The entertainment choices were limited and the baseball owners were filling a need for the general public in a world without TV, Internet, and instant gratification.
The game grew in popularity with more and more people coming out to the ball park. There were eight teams in the National League and eight teams in the American League. Each team played their seven opponents in their league 22 times for a total of 154 games per season.
“In 1913 Western Union paid each team $17,000 per year over five years for the rights to broadcast the games. The movie industry purchased the rights to film and show the highlights of the 1910 World Series for $500. In 1911 the owners managed to increase that rights fee to $3500.” (The Economic History of Major League Baseball)
With the advent of radio, more people were exposed to the game. On August 5th, 1921, Harold Arlin of KDKA, broadcast the first baseball game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Philadelphia Phillies (Pirates won, 8-5). The MLB owners originally saw radio as a threat to the value of their franchises. They resisted putting their games on the radio for fear that customers would stay home to listen to the game for free rather than come to the park. Owners soon realized that this media only helped the popularity of the game. More and more people came out and listened to the games. The schedule of 154 games was optimal for entertainment and financial purposes. However, the long schedule did something else that a shorter schedule would stymie. Teams would need both skill and endurance in order to win. Luck was less of a factor.
So to that end, the test of a champion would be performing consistently over an entire season. The long season taxes the pitching staff and the bench has to contribute. If it was one game a week like football, one good starting pitcher could carry a team a long way. Baseball might be less demanding physically but it more than makes up for it with the mental game. My buddy, Dan (Ante), loves to point out that it is a marathon and not a sprint. I wholeheartedly agree with him. Also, this shows why the entire organization needs to be on the same page during the season. A team might consist of the 25 players that are shown on their roster; but, if they don’t have players in their pipeline at the different levels to come up, you will not win consistently. It has always been an organizational championship, one player will never make or break a team in baseball.
Save the season of 1919, the 154 game schedule didn’t changed until 1961. In 1961 the American League expanded to 10 teams, playing their nine opponent’s 18 times each. The following year the National League expanded to 10 teams and they switched to the 162 game schedule. As the MLB has evolved over the years, the formula has changed on how the schedule is comprised. Today every team now plays 19 games against each of 4 opponents within its division (76 games), and six or seven games against each of the 10 opponents from other divisions (66 games), plus 20 interleague games.
I hope I gave some clarification to those questions. The MLB season is a long one and I think the teams that make the playoffs year in and year out, for the most part, deserve to be there. I didn’t touch on the preponderance of some teams that can afford to buy enough talent to put them on the cusp every year. I wanted to try and answer why baseball has a long season and the amount of games it has settled on.