“Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball, the rules and realities of the game,” wrote American author and historian Jacques Barzun. Baseball has been called America’s national pastime, and for more than 150 years people of all ages have enjoyed playing or watching the game all over the world. Every year more than 70 million spectators attend games played by the major league teams in North America and by professional teams around the world, especially in Japan. In addition, millions more watch games played in the minor leagues and by organized teams of semiprofessional and amateur men and women.
Radio and television stations carry play-by-play accounts of games. Newspapers and sports magazines report results and records in great detail. This great popularity makes baseball a big business as well as a sport. The two North American major leagues receive billions of dollars a year from admissions, the sales of food and drink and other concessions, and television and radio broadcast rights. The television rights alone bring in more than a billion dollars a year. Expenses, however, are also high. Outstanding player prospects receive enormous bonuses to sign with a team.
The player payrolls of major league teams average millions of dollars a year. Baseball players on the average receive the highest salaries in professional sports, and some are rewarded with eight-figure multiyear contracts. The two major professional leagues in North America are the National League and the American League. When each league had eight teams, every team played a 154-game schedule to determine the league champions. In the 1990s the American League had 14 teams, and the National League expanded from 12 to 14 teams.
Each league has Eastern, Central, and Western divisions, and each team in each division plays 162 games. A team’s standing depends upon its percentage, which is determined by dividing the number of games the team has won by the number it has played. The team with the best percentage in each division at the end of the season is the division champion. In October the division champions and a wild-card team (the non-division winner with the best record) of each league meet in a best-of-five-games series and a second-round best-of-seven-games series to determine the league pennant winners.
These teams then play a best-of-seven-games World Series to determine the world champion. The annual midseason All-Star game, contested between the most popular American League and National League players, began in 1933. Fans vote to select the starting lineups, and the team managers select pitchers and substitute players. In addition to the major leagues, there are minor leagues with teams in many American cities. The minor leagues are classified as AAA, AA, and A, according to the relative length of professional experience of the players, which is regulated by class rules.
The two major leagues are governed by an executive council the commissioner, the two league presidents, and one other member from each league (usually club presidents). The minor leagues are ruled by the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues. These two groups make up what is usually called organized baseball. Major League Managers and Players In charge of each team, and responsible for playing strategy, is the manager. Two of the greatest, John J. McGraw of the New York Giants and Connie Mack of the Philadelphia Athletics, managed from the players’ bench (the dugout).
McGraw’s successor, Bill Terry, and Detroit’s Mickey Cochrane were among several successful player-managers. Another great manager was Casey Stengel. He led the New York Yankees to ten American League and seven world championships from 1949 to 1960. Stengel retired from his 55-year baseball career in 1966. Each major league team is limited to 25 players. A player has a contract with his team, but clubs often trade or sell players to try to improve their teams. In the era of free agency, the average salary rose beyond 500,000 dollars in the early 1990s.
Players became increasingly able to negotiate contracts for millions of dollars per year, including bonuses. The major leagues have a pension fund for retired players. Beginning in the late 1960s, baseball players became more strongly organized. In 1972, players held the first general strike in baseball to force club owners to increase payments to the pension fund. The owners agreed to revise the reserve clause in 1976, after a federal arbitration panel and the courts had declared the procedure illegal. In effect for most of the history of organized baseball, the clause made a player the property of his club.
A player could be traded or sold, but he could not otherwise sign with another team unless he had been released from his contract. The revised reserve clause allows a player to become a free agent and sign with another team after a specified number of years of play in the major leagues. Opportunities in Pro Baseball In the constant search for new baseball talent, each team employs scouts to watch games in minor leagues and on college campuses and amateur playgrounds. Bob Feller, one of baseball’s greatest pitchers, was discovered while he was playing on a semiprofessional team.
At age 17 he received an opportunity to play with the Cleveland Indians, and he made good. Most players, however, rise to the majors by way of the minor leagues. They may be purchased from minor league teams or obtained in the annual player draft. Under this draft system each major league team is permitted to select for a set price any player on a minor league club. All major league teams have their own minor league clubs, called farms. When a player on a farm team has developed sufficiently he may be brought up to play for the parent club.
Major league players who slump because of poor performance or age, or who are recovering from an injury, may be sent back to the minors. A player with three years in the major leagues can refuse and be released from his contract. Sometimes a player who is not doing well may improve when traded to another club. For example, in 1914 the Boston Braves acquired several veterans who were considered through. With these veterans the team won the World Series. The Field and Equipment A baseball field is laid out in the form of a square, called a diamond.
The nine players are pitcher and catcher (the battery); first baseman, second baseman, third baseman, and shortstop (the infield); and left fielder, center fielder, and right fielder (the outfield). The catcher stands behind home plate, and the second baseman occupies the area to the right of second base. The other players cover the remaining positions. The ball must be between 9 and 9 1/4 inches in circumference and must weigh not less than 5 or more than 5 1/4 ounces. The rules require that it have a small core of cork, rubber, or similar material wound over with yarn and covered with two strips of white horsehide stitched together.
Bats are limited to a maximum of 2 3/4 inches in diameter and 42 inches in length but may be of any weight. The bat should be made from a single piece of wood or laminated wood with its grain parallel to the length of the bat. Aluminum bats are not permitted in professional play. The catcher wears a mitt that is no more than 38 inches in circumference and no more than 15 1/2 inches from top to bottom. All the other players wear gloves not more than 12 inches long or more than 7 3/4 inches wide. The first baseman’s mitt, however, is usually thinner and more flexible than the other players’ gloves.