The clock saved the NBA, can it save baseball?
The Pitch Clock in Major League Baseball: History of Washington, D.J. Frommer, Phys. Lett. 91 (2006)
Editor’s Note: Frederic J. Frommer, a writer and sports historian, is the author of several books, including “You Gotta Have Heart,” a history of Washington baseball. Ffrommer has a verified account onTwitter. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
MLB officials say the pitch clock can help reduce the length of games, which have averaged more than three hours long in recent years. But the new rule has drawn some criticism, and over the weekend it caused bewilderment on the diamond.
It might sound like a radical idea, but the same concept saved the National Basketball Association nearly 70 years ago. In both cases, the clock was added to accelerate a plodding game.
In last year’s World Series between the Houston Astros and Philadelphia Phillies, both games lasted more than four hours, with the 10th and ninth games lasting over three and a half hours. In 2020, the New York Yankees and Cleveland Indians slogged through a nine-inning game that lasted a whopping four hours and 50 minutes — longer than some doubleheaders used to take back in the day.
MLB faced the same challenge a half-century ago when dominant pitching led to an era of low scoring games that caused attendance to decline. In 1969, the sport responded by lowering the pitcher’s mound, which literally put pitchers and hitters on a more level playing field and led to increased hitting and more scoring.
Four years later, the American League adopted the designated hitter (or DH, a non-fielding player who’s in the batting lineup, typically replacing the pitcher) to inject yet more offense. The MLB made it a requirement to hit in both leagues last season.
The NBA Playbook: Danny Biasone and the Deceleration of the First Five Minutes in Game 1: The Pistons versus the Lakers
Basketball in the early 50s was often boring with teams sitting on leads by passing the ball back and forth without attempting to score, and it wasn’t uncommon for a team to take five minutes before taking a shot. In 1950, the NBA’s first year, a game between the Fort Wayne Pistons and the Minneapolis Lakers was the nadir of this strategy.
Pistons coach Murray Mendenhall, realizing he was facing a superior team, ordered his players to stall. The Pistons took an 8-7 lead in the first quarter, and opponents and fans wanted the team to attempt more shots. The Pistons played their best game of the season in the fourth quarter and beat the Lakers 19-18, the lowest scoring game in NBA history.
“Play like that will kill professional basketball,” groused Lakers coach Johnny Kundla. Seven decades later, Sports Illustrated baseball writer and Fox broadcaster Tom Verducci made the same prediction about baseball.
The dead time in games has increased in the last two years, writes Verducci. “It’s not all on him. Players keep saying they don’t want to be told to hurry it up, cluelessly slow-playing their own way into oblivion.” The rules changes that the MLB Players Association opposed included add a clock and ban defensive shifts.
”I’m not an expert on the game,” Biasone told The New York Times in 1984. I never said I was. I knew the ball was being dribbled all night, and no one was paying for it. I went to the guys in the league and said I was having a hard time selling things here. I said there was one thing basketball needed. It needs some time. I don’t care what the time is. Put in some time.
The impact was felt immediately and the average team scoring increased from 79 to 93. attendance increased by 40% after the figure climbed to 106.
“The adoption of the clock was the most important event in the NBA, and Danny Biasone is the most important man in the NBA,” said Maurice Podoloff, who was league president at the time. Basketball is a game where superstars show off their talent and the fans have a lot of fun.
The game has gotten too slow even for former star player and New York Mets radio analyst,Keith Hernandez. “I honestly feel that when I’m retired, when I stop doing what I’m doing now in the booth, I won’t watch baseball that much anymore,” he said in January. It was two-and-a-half when I played but now it is three-hour games. I still like the game, but it is lengthy.
Baseball has struggled to attract young fans due to the slow pace of play. If the sport loses 69-year-old baseball players likeHernandez, you know there is a problem.
On Saturday, during a spring training matchup between the Atlanta Braves and the Boston Red Sox, Braves hitter Cal Conley was called out for failing to get into the batter’s box on time. The game ended with a tie in the bottom of the ninth with two outs and the bases loaded. Conley responded with shock and laughter.
First, second and third bases have grown in size from 15 inches square to 18 inches square, which the MLB says will reduce player injuries. The league is also requiring two infielders on each side of the second-base line before a pitch is thrown, preventing them from crowding one side or another in a defensive maneuver known as the “infield shift.”
League officials say the rule changes didn’t come out of left field but rather were developed in response to feedback from players and umpires, and were first tested in the minor leagues.
“Throughout the extensive testing of recent years, Minor League personnel and a wide range of fans – from the most loyal to casual observers – have recognized the collective impact of these changes in making the game even better and more enjoyable,” Manfred added.
“I can work extremely quickly, or I can work extremely slow,” New York Mets star pitcher Max Scherzer told reporters after his first spring training start. There is more that could be done to mess with the hitter’s timing.