For baseball traditionalists, change can be very hard. Throughout the 116 year history of Major League Baseball, however, change has been rampant. Some of these changes had to do with the equipment used or the way a hurler threw a pitch. Other changes were due to the national changes in the country.
Some of these innovations will shock fans who felt the game could never be played in a different fashion. Others will show how a seemingly microscopic change could help a player smash a long-held record. Below, in no particular order, are the biggest innovations in baseball history.
Integration – 1947
Of all the changes that have occurred in baseball history, none have been more important that integration. On April15th, 1947, Dodger’s First Baseman Jackie Robinson broke the Major League Baseball color barrier. It wasn’t easy for Robinson who was subject to both physical and racial abuse.
Robinson’s sacrifice, however, broke the door down for not only African American players, but also those of Latin descent. Robinson’s number 42 is retired by every single team in baseball and his legacy is celebrated each year on Jackie Robinson Day.
Tommy John Surgery – 1974
In 1974, surgeon Dr. Frank Jobe repaired the ulnar collateral ligament in the elbow of star pitcher, Tommy John. At the time of the surgery, Jobe placed the chances of success at 1 in 100. Remarkably, John not only came back from the surgery, but thrived, pitching until 1989.
Today the surgery requires a recovery time frame of 10-16 months. At the same time, pitchers often come back from the procedure as good as new. Many even see their fastball go up by a few miles per hour thanks to the repaired ligament.
Night Games – 1935
Night games are now the norm in Major League Baseball with day games usually happening over the weekend. It’s strange to think that at one time, all games were played during the day. The very first baseball night game took place in 1935 at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field.
At that point, night games were meant to be a special treat for Reds’ fans as their stadium was the only one outfitted with lights. Eventually, every team in the league installed lighting in their stadiums. The Chicago Cubs stand as sort of an outlier. The team still plays a large amount of day games and didn’t hold their first night game until 1988.
The next rule created a major difference between the American and National Leagues.
The Designated Hitter – 1973
In April of 1973, The New York Yankees’ Ron Blomberg became the first Designated Hitter in Major League Baseball history. The rationale for the move was simple, pitchers, who had such an important job on the other side of the field, often were terrible hitters.
The thing that makes the rule interesting is that it has never been adopted by The National League. The difference in not having the DH makes for a significantly different style of play. Sentiment is growing, though, that the NL may soon incorporate the rule.
Amphetamines, often called greenies were an important part of baseball beginning in the 1940’s. Soldiers had been given the pills during World War II and eventually baseball players undergoing an incredibly long season began to use them as well.
The drugs were very common in locker rooms for decades. They could either be popped like pills or ingested in coffee or other drinks. Eventually, the MLB stepped in and banned the drugs from their clubhouses beginning in 2005.
Training Centers In The Dominican Republic – 1987
In 1956, Osvaldo Virgil became the first Dominican player in Major League baseball history. Since then, there have been a number of Dominican stars such as Pedro Martinez, Vladimir Guerrero, Manny Ramirez, and David Ortiz.
In 1987, the savvy Los Angeles Dodgers wanted to get a leg up on signing players from the Island. The team built the Campo Las Palmas to train young Dominican players in 1987. That became quite a trend as now all 30 clubs have training centers located in the Dominican Republic.
The Closer – 1970’s
Before the 1970’s, starting pitchers were expected to finish the games they started. There were relievers who were ready to come in to finish the game, but that was not a strategy. This all changed in the late 70’s when teams started deploying ace relievers to finish games.
Players such as Goose Gossage and Bruce Sutter came in to relieve pitchers. Hitters needed to adjust to fresh arms throwing much harder than the tired starters. Most every team in the league now has a designated closer, though some choose to play match ups.
The next innovation gives fans a better understanding of just how amazing these players are.
Statcast – 2000’s
Technology has improved life in so many different ways and baseball is no exception. In the 2000’s Major League Baseball began to incorporate Statcast to help fans better understand what was happening on the field.
Statcast is used in a variety of ways. Fans can now see how hard balls are hit, how much ground (per foot) a player covered to catch a fly ball, how fast pitchers are throwing, and many other different statistics.
Prior to the advent of Tommy John, pitchers were expected to work deep into games with hopes that they would finish every start. Flamethrowers like Nolan Ryan and Steve Carlton were renowned for their stamina.
As injuries piled up, teams began to wonder how they can keep their best starters healthy. Teams now try to limit their starting pitchers to between 100 to 120 pitches a game. Exceptions are made if the pitcher is throwing a particularly great game.
The Split-Fingered Fastball – 1980’s
In the early 1980’s pitching coach and eventual San Francisco Giants manager, Roger Craig, began to teach pitchers the split-fingered fastball. The pitch, thrown hard like a fastball featured a sharp downward break.
Pitchers like Bruce Sutter and Mike Scott used the pitch to devastating effect in the mid 1980’s. While the pitch is very effective it also puts significant strain on the elbow. For this reason, the pitch is not frequently used anymore. The exception is Japanese-born pitchers like the Yankees Masahiro Tanaka.
After this next change, players became able to move freely from team to team.
Free Agency – 1976
Up until 1976, baseball players were beholden to their team thanks to the reserve clause. They did not have the right to move to another team without being traded. Star player Curt Flood sued baseball to earn the ability to be a free agent, able to sign with the highest bidder.
Flood was essentially blackballed from baseball, but his fight did create solidarity within the player’s union. In 1976, the reserve clause was abolished and pitchers Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith became the very first MLB free agents.
Analytics – 1977
In 1977, Bill James wrote the first edition of The Baseball Abstract. While it took a number of years for teams to ascribe to his way of thinking, the book set the blueprint for the analytics revolution.
The small market Oakland Athletics used analytical principles to compete with large market teams with more money to spend. General Managers who are known to be analytically inclined, such as the Cubs’ Theo Epstein and the Astros’ Jeff Luhnow have recently won World Series championships.
The next strategy gave hitters plenty of headaches late in games.
Reliever Matchups – 1980’s
In the early 80’s teams began to employ closers to create tough matchups late in games. As bullpens expanded, teams began to deploy different relievers to shut down hitters in the 6th, 7th and 8th innings as well.
This movement led to teams carrying left-handed pitchers who are hard for left-handed hitters to pick up. Or maybe they found a side-arming righty who could induce ground balls at a healthy clip. With most teams carrying 6 or 7 relief pitchers, the possibilities are endless.
Interleague Play – 1997
For the majority of baseball history, American League teams would only face National League teams in exhibitions or the World Series. That all changed in 1997, as each team in the league began to play 18 interleague games each year.
This led to increased fan interest as they could now see matchups like the Yankees against the Mets, the Cubs versus the White Sox and the Dodgers and Angels. While interleague play is still a regular part of the game, some fans feel it has become a bit stale.
Steroids – 1980’s?
While many fans and reporters feel that steroids were the scourge of the sport, it is hard to argue against their impact. The steroid talk began in earnest during Jose Canseco’s aided 40-40 season in 1988.
Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa again brought the topic to the forefront with their record smashing season in 1998. While Major League Baseball has officially banned the drugs since 2005, it is impossible to know if players are still using performance enhancers and somehow masking them.
A’s Pitcher Chief Bender used this innovation to dominate the league in the 1910’s.
The Slider – 1920’s
The slider, like the curveball, is a breaking ball the moves away from the hitter. Unlike the curveball, though, the slider is thrown nearly as hard as a fastball. The pitchers with the very best sliders can devastate hitters with the pitch.
The pitcher who first dominated with the slider was Chief Bender, who began to throw the pitch in the 1910’s. Other pitchers with renowned sliders include Steve Carlton, Bob Gibson, Ron Guidry and Noah Syndergaard, who throws the pitch in the low 90’s.
Batting Gloves – 1968
Swinging a wooden bat thousands of times over the course of a season can really do damage to a baseball players hands. Today batting gloves are commonplace and worn by almost all players, but it wasn’t always that way.
The first player to use batting gloves in a game was Ken “The Hawk” Harrelson. The Hawk decided to wear a pair of golf gloves after he had played 27 holes the day before the game.
Playoff Expansion – 1994
As the league has expanded to add more teams, Major League baseball has also worked to create more playoff spots. The 1993 season displayed a drastic need for more playoff spots after the 103 win San Francisco Giants were sent home after the regular season.
In 1994, the playoffs were expanded to include eight teams rather than four. In 2012, the Wild Card spot was expanded. Now five teams from each league make the playoffs with two of those teams competing in a one game playoff.
Maple Bats – Early 2000’s
Throughout the history of baseball, bats have been made of many different species of wood. Shoeless Joe Jackson used a bat made from hickory. Babe Ruth slugged his homers with a bat made of willow. Most bats used up until the early 2000’s, though, were made of ash.
That all changed with the debut of maple bats. Maple is a harder substance than the other bats and Barry Bonds used a maple bat to shatter the home run record. Today the majority of bats used in the majors are made from the hard wood.
Shifts From 1940’s and 2000’s
Ted Williams was such a devastatingly talented hitter that opposing teams would do anything to slow him down. One way teams tried to disrupt the Splendid Splinter was to shift the shortstop so that 3 players would stand on the right side of the infield.
In the mid 2000’s, managers began to deploy the strategy again. Many sluggers, especially left-handed ones, face sure out if they hit the ball to the right side. The strategy has depressed the batting average of many a hitter.