It Is Time to Consolidate the Leagues
by Lincoln Mitchell
June 16, 2023
For much of baseball history the American and National Leagues were distinct, but that has changed.
Baseball’s new rules have generated a lot of attention this season, often obscuring the new schedule that was introduced this year. The schedule now has every team playing at least one series against every other team, including just under a third of their games against teams from the other league. This is the latest in a series of moves over the last thirty years or so including the introduction of interleague play back in 1997, two teams, the Brewers and Astros, switching leagues, the steady shifting of power from the leagues to MLB and the introduction of the designated hitter in the National League last season, that have blurred the distinction between the American and National Leagues.
For much of baseball history, the two leagues were quite separate. Players and teams from one league did not see players and teams from the other at all during the regular season. Before all games were easily seen on television and various streaming services, fans who lived in a one league city rarely saw the players from the other league. Each team had its own umpire crews, while franchise movements and even expansion were decided by the individual leagues. Additionally, there is evidence that fewer players, particularly good players, spent significant time in both leagues.
Bob Feller never pitched against Stan Musial in the regular season. Whitey Ford only had to work his way through the tough Brooklyn Dodgers lineup in the World Season. Even as late as the 1980s, other than All-Star Games and pre-season exhibitions Mike Schmidt never batted against Jack Morris and Don Mattingly never faced Fernando Valenzuela. Today, Aaron Judge bats against Clayton Kershaw almost every season while Shohei Ohtani pitches against top NL hitters like Paul Goldschmidt or Pete Alonso most years.
One result of the way the leagues were structured for most of the 20th century is that they developed different characteristics. From 1921-1964, the American League was dominated by the Yankees who won 29 of 44 American League pennants during those years, while he National League was much more competitive in the middle half of the twentieth century. Well into the 1980s, many baseball people claimed that NL pitchers relied more on the fastball, while AL pitching was more oriented around breaking balls and off speed stuff. I never believed that, but it was the kind of thing fans talked about back then.
For almost fifty years, beginning in 1973 the biggest difference between the American and National League was that the AL used the DH and the NL did not. This led to more run scoring in the AL and different usages of benches and bullpens between the two leagues.
The biggest difference between the two leagues in the two decades following World War II was that the National League integrated much faster than the American League. From the late 1940s through mid-1960s, there were a few African American and Afro-Latino stars in the American league including Larry Doby, Orestes Minoso and Elston Howard, but the NL had players like Jackie Robinson, Frank Robinson through 1965, Roy Campanella, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Henry Aaron and Ernie Banks. One was to see this is that in every All-Star Game between 1951-1972 the NL had more Black starting players than the AL, frequently by a substantial margin. As late as both 1961 All-Star Games (for a few years the leagues played two All-Star Games) the NL had five Black starting players while the AL had none. Not coincidentally the NL won 20 of 26 All-Star games during those years.
Today there are almost no significant differences between the two leagues. Instead, the leagues are quaint legacies from a different era, like an abandoned phone booth with the telephone removed or the belief that the Supreme Court is not an ideological body.
During the last thirty years or so as the distinctions between the leagues shrunk, baseball moved to a tournament style post-season. The post-season expanded to four teams in 1969, eight teams in 1995, ten teams in 2012, fully sixteen teams during the 2020 Covid season and since last season twelve teams. These two developments raise the question of what is the point of having two different leagues divided into three divisions each.
The imbalance between the divisions with the central divisions in both leagues generally weaker than the eastern or western divisions means that teams are penalized for their geographic location, while the number of interleague games undermines the point of a playoff process divided by league. It is ironic that they only three-week period of the season where there is no interleague play whatsoever is the first few rounds of the playoffs.
Because of increasingly balanced schedules and the large number of interleague games, overall records are more comparable across leagues and divisions than in the past. Accordingly, there is less reason than ever to believe that winning a division is a more impressive accomplishment than coming in second, or even third, in another division while posting a better record.