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‘But It’s Tradition!’ Is No Reason To Ban Tie Games In MLB

As you may have heard, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred is trying to shorten the length of baseball games. He ushered in an (asinine) new intentional walk rule this season, and the minor leagues are testing an absurd rule that places a runner on second base to start every extra inning. Now, ESPN lead baseball announcer Jon Sciambi and New York Post baseball columnist Joel Sherman have another proposal for the commish: That games tied after the 12th inning should end that way.

Both Sciambi and Sherman worried the suggestion would make them look like heretics against baseball tradition, and — given my distaste for Manfred’s other tweaks — you might expect me to share in that opinion. (Fox Sports’s Ken Rosenthal certainly seems to.) Here’s the thing, though: it’s not antitradition to be in favor of ties. They happened all the time during baseball’s glorious early days.

Sure, it’s hard to imagine a game ending in a tie today. There are no more “games called on account of darkness,” for instance, since every ballpark has lights. But those were only first installed at a stadium in 1935 (at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field), and many teams didn’t use them for years afterwards. As late as Sept. 11, 1946, two extra-inning games were called ties on the same day due to darkness. Additionally, some games had specific cutoff times because teams needed to hop on a train to their next game. A July 25, 1949, matchup between the Cardinals and Dodgers had a sharp cutoff of 4 p.m. because the Dodgers had to go to Chicago for a day game on the 26th. When neither team scored in the seventh, eighth or ninth innings, the game was declared a tie. If ties were good enough for Jackie Robinson’s Dodgers, they’re good enough for Clayton Kershaw’s Dodgers, too — even if the modern version can get anywhere quickly on an airplane.

Now, you might be thinking that I just cherry-picked an extreme example or two. Indeed, very few games from 1917 onward ended in a tie. Only 0.6 percent of games were tied in 1949, for example1, despite the Dodgers’ train ride to Chicago that late-July evening. But before the introduction of daylight saving time in 1918,2 tied games were far more frequent. You can actually see the dramatic drop-off in ties from 1917 to 1918 in this chart.

In 1917, Babe Ruth’s Red Sox had five ties. The next season, they had zero. From 1871 through 1917, an average of 1.9 percent of games each season ended in ties. (No season afterward was close to that mark.) That means the men who were featured in Lawrence Ritter’s book “The Glory of Their Times” played in many ties. And, funnily enough, that 1.9 percent figure for ties prior to 1918 is reasonably close to the 2.6 percent of games per season that currently go beyond 12 innings.

Now, I’m not necessarily advocating for MLB to bring back tied games. But I am saying it would be in line with history. If ties did come back, one interesting question would be how baseball would treat them. In the days before lights, tied games were often replayed from scratch; the 1907, 1912 and 1922 World Series all featured extra games because of ties. Starting a brand-new game every time there’s a tie is unlikely in today’s game, however, when one of the chief arguments for allowing ties is reducing the risk of player injury. One alternative could be that tied games just remain ties, unless they need to be made up at the end of the season to determine playoff positioning. (That could make for an exciting finish to a pennant race!)

Either way, tied games are far more rooted in the tradition of baseball than pretty much any of the rule changes Manfred has suggested in his three-year tenure as commissioner. And they’re certainly more a part of the game’s tradition than the designated hitter, which kills me deep inside. Now if only we can get rid of that, interleague play, and — while we’re at it — re-establish needing to actually throw four balls for an intentional walk….

CORRECTION (Monday, Apr. 24, 2:49 p.m.): An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of the commissioner of MLB. He is Rob Manfred, not Manfeld.

Footnotes

  1. All data is according to Retrosheet’s game logs.
  2. Some states flip-flopped on whether to institute daylight saving time, but most cities with Major League Baseball teams used it.

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

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