How we got divisions in baseball

Craig Calcaterra

The older among you — and those of you with a good grasp on baseball history — are aware that there were not always divisions in baseball. Until 1969 we had the American League, the National League and that was it. The concepts of the “regular season” vs. the “playoffs” were rather meaningless, actually. Everybody played everybody in their league all season long, the team with the best regular season record won the pennant and got an automatic berth in the World Series. Period.

So how and why did baseball break up into divisions? Why did we get the “east” and “west” in 1969, later to be further broken up with the addition of a “central?” And why on Earth were teams in the eastern U.S. like the Reds and Braves in the “west” while teams farther west like the Cardinals and the Cubs in the “east?”

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That’s the topic of Creg Stephenson’s essay over at That Hardball Times today. He explains why we got divisions — as with most things in the 60s and 70s, Athletics owner Charlie Finley had a lot to do with it — and he explains why we got the particular alignment we got.

Fun fact: the Mets wanted to be in the same division as the Dodgers and Giants. Because that makes sense. As with most things, of course, the Mets lost that one.

Funner fact: the National League didn’t even want to go to divisions in the first place. Why? Tradition!

“We don’t believe in a playoff system because of the tradition and history of baseball,” NL president Warren Giles blustered to the Associated Press in May 1968. “A playoff system would be in contradiction to these traditions. You can have teams finishing fourth or fifth percentage-wise and then playing the champion of the other league in the World Series. We do not believe the public will accept this. The World Series is the greatest event in sports, and it is dangerous to tamper with it.”

I suspect that most of you find the argument that playoffs are an affront to tradition rather hilarious and appreciate that when you have so many teams in a league you kinda have to have divisions and playoffs lest you allow for all kinds of pointless and uncompetitive baseball to happen. Before everyone nods along, of course, it’s probably worth noting that this is basically the same argument NL partisans still give for not wanting the designated hitter. Y’all simply accept the pointless and non-competitive pitcher at bats under the DH because you’re used to them.

Of course, because “that’s the way things have always been” is never, on its own, a compelling argument, the NL relented and divisions and playoffs came into being in both leagues in 1969. Go read Creg’s article to see just how, specifically, it all came to be the way it came to be.

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