Greatest Innovations in Baseball History
More than any major American sport, modern baseball resembles the game from its early days.
It’s part of baseball's charm that one could imagine Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Ken Griffey Jr., and Mike Trout holding their own against each other. Sure, players are more athletic today, and their training is more specialized, but in the end, major league baseball is still a guy trying to hit a small white ball with a wooden bat.
That doesn’t mean the game hasn’t changed in major ways since its first official game in 1846.
These innovations have shaped the game the most. From equipment improvements to ways that fans can enjoy the game to new rules, all of these changes made a big impact.
25. Batting Gloves
Bottom line: Though some players still refuse to wear batting gloves, a vast majority of players at all levels wear them to protect their hands.
Ken "Hawk" Harrelson was the first player to wear them in a game, using golf gloves.
By the 1980s, batting gloves were commonplace.
24. All-Star Game Determines World Series Home-Field Advantage
Bottom line: This rule is no longer in effect, but from 2003 to 2016 the league that won the All-Star Game got home-field advantage in the World Series.
Commissioner Bud Selig put the rule in place after the infamous tied All-Star Game of 2002, but many felt it was an overreaction, and it became one of the most controversial moves in baseball history.
In 2017, the rule changed, and home-field in the World Series (Games 1-2 and 6-7) now goes to the team with the higher regular-season win percentage.
23. Batting Helmet
Bottom line: The batting helmet was required by the National League starting in the 1956 season and the American League in 1958, though hitters were experimenting with head protection as far back as the early 20th century.
Several players throughout the history of baseball were severely injured or killed by errant pitches, so it’s surprising that it took so long for baseball to require protection.
Older players were grandfathered into the rule and allowed to choose whether they wanted to wear a helmet, meaning that it wasn’t until 1980 that every player in the league wore a helmet.
22. Pace-of-Play Rules
Bottom line: A major crusade of baseball commissioner Rob Manfred has been to shorten the length of time it takes to play a typical MLB game.
To achieve this goal, he’s limited the time taken for commercial breaks, instituted mound visit limits, removed the need for a pitcher to throw four pitches outside the strike zone for an intentional walk and more.
He also is working on adding more changes, including a pitch clock in future seasons. Pace-of-play violators could be penalized with fines or other possible in-game penalties.
21. MLB Draft
Bottom line: Prior to 1965, new players were allowed to sign with whatever team offered them the best contract. This approach gave too much power to wealthier teams like the New York Yankees.
Even when a cap was placed on the amount for which a player could sign, there were easy loopholes that were exploited.
The draft allowed for each team to have a fair shot at signing players and eventually led to more parity in the game.
20. Pitch Counts
Bottom line: In the olden days of baseball, pitchers were expected to throw a complete game every time they took the mound, but in the last few decades, the game has changed dramatically.
Now, when a starting pitcher approaches 100 pitches, it’s an expectation that he will be removed from the game. So don't expect to see another game like Nolan Ryan’s 164-pitch complete game in 1989.
The MLB began keeping track of pitch counts in 1988, and there has been a steady decline in average pitches thrown since.
19. The Opener
Bottom line: The "opener" — the exact opposite of a closer — is when a relief pitcher is chosen to start a game to gain an advantage against the opposing lineup. This strategy had been used on a few occasions over the previous century of baseball, but the idea of the opener was fully put into practice for the first time by the Tampa Bay Rays in 2018 with longtime closer Sergio Romo.
After the opener does his work, the day's scheduled starting pitcher takes over in the next few innings, acting as the regular starter. The idea is to allow the starter to get through more innings without having to face the opposing team’s best hitters three times in a game.
It’s a strategy that is catching on throughout the league.
18. Defensive Shifts
Bottom line: First employed against Cy Williams in the 1920s and even more famously in the 1940s against Ted Williams, the extreme defensive overshift has become a common part of the modern game.
Most often used against left-handed pull hitters, teams will move most or all of their infielders over to the first-base side to cover the area that a hitter typically hits the ball.
Many believe extreme defensive shifts are harming the game and want them banned, while others believe hitters should make the necessary adjustments to beat the shifts.
17. Catcher’s Gear
Bottom line: It’s almost insane to think, but catchers used to attempt to play the position without all the protective equipment that they have these days.
In fact, they used to not even have masks. The first one was a modified fencing mask created in 1876. The chest protector and shinguards followed in the early 1900s.
According to the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), Herold "Muddy" Ruel, a backstop who caught Walter Johnson, was the first player to call catcher's protective armor the "tools of ignorance."
16. Interleague Play
Bottom line: Prior to 1997, the only time the American and National League faced each other was the All-Star Game and World Series.
But the addition of interleague play allowed the novelty of teams crossing the league to play each other during the regular season.
The first interleague game was between the Texas Rangers and San Francisco Giants at the Ballpark in Arlington. The Giants won 4-3.
15. TV Broadcasts
Bottom line: Radio broadcasts brought baseball to the masses, but television changed the game forever. On Aug. 26, 1939, Red Barber called the first MLB television broadcast on W2XBS (what became NBC) between the Cincinnati Reds and Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, New York.
When TV broadcasting took off in the 1950s, a whole new generation of stars became cultural icons. Suddenly, you could see these legends of the game from the comfort of your living room in MLB Games of the Week on networks like ABC, CBS and NBC.
Later, when superstations like Chicago’s WGN (Cubs and White Sox) and Atlanta’s TBS (Braves) began regularly broadcasting games to large portions of the country in the 1980s and 1990s, those teams gained new fans all over the nation.
Now, you can watch major league games on a TV in the palm of your hand — a phone.
14. Specialist Relief Pitchers
Bottom line: A reverberation from the development of the closer role was the specialization of all bullpen roles.
As far back as Firpo Marberry in the 1920s and 1930s, there were bullpen specialists, but it wasn’t until the 1970s, '80s, and especially the '90s that every pitcher in the bullpen seemed to have a defined role.
Whether it was the lefty specialist or the middle reliever or the setup man, an effective bullpen became an integral part of a winning baseball team.
Bullpen philosophy still is in flux, with ideas on what a team needs from their "firemen" changing with each new manager or analytics team.
Bottom line: The Oakland A’s and general manager Billy Beane used an analytical approach ("sabermetrics") for their management of the team well before Michael Lewis’ seminal book "Moneyball" came out in 2003, but the book took their theories into the mainstream.
For decades, baseball as a whole relied on homespun wisdom and hunches, but these days, every team has an analytics department and a team philosophy based on big data.
The game is completely different than it was for over a century prior to Beane and his team's new approach.
12. Wild Card
Bottom line: When divisions were added in 1969, the baseball postseason was expanded to an extra round beyond the World Series, but the playoffs didn't begin to take the shape they resemble today until 1994.
The wild-card team from each league was the team with the best record that didn’t win its own division. This distinction became necessary after teams like the 103-win San Francisco Giants failed to make the postseason in 1993 because of the 104-win Atlanta Braves in their division (yes, somehow the Braves and Giants were in the same division, the NL West).
Since the format was first used in the 1995 playoffs, six wild-card winners gone on to win the World Series: the 1997 and 2003 Florida Marlins, 2002 Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, 2004 Boston Red Sox, 2011 St. Louis Cardinals and 2014 San Francisco Giants.
11. The Closer
Bottom line: Relief pitchers often were seen as a last resort in the first century of baseball history, though there are a few exceptions in that time. In the 1970s, the closer became a serious weapon at a manager’s disposal.
Pitchers like Rollie Fingers, Bruce Sutter, Goose Gossage and Dennis Eckersley were relied on by their team’s to shut the door at the end of games.
Gossage pioneered the role in the 1970s as a intimidating force with the New York Yankees, and Eckersley helped define the position as a ninth-inning-only job in the 1980s.
10. Radio Broadcasts
Bottom line: The first baseball game ever broadcast on radio was the Pittsburgh Pirates against the Philadelphia Phillies on Aug. 5, 1921. The Pirates won 8-5.
The World Series that year also was broadcast on radio, but it would be a few more years before baseball radio broadcasts became commonplace.
The ability to listen to a game live brought in a whole new audience for baseball, further cementing its place as America’s pastime.
9. Designated Hitter
Bottom line: The American League adopted the designate hitter in 1973, but the National League still hasn’t followed suit.
Eliminating the need for a pitcher to hit created more offensive production for AL teams and made it harder for pitchers to work through lineups.
Many are clamoring for the National League to add the DH to their league, but others argue that the NL game is the more pure and original form of baseball.
For now, the NL gives fans the exciting opportunity to see AL pitchers timidly walk into the batter’s box a few times each season during interleague play
Bottom line: Many baseball fans may not realize that the modern baseball postseason didn’t exist for almost 100 years of baseball history.
Until 1969, the World Series just consisted of the National League team with the best regular-season record playing the American League team with the best regular-season record.
But when each league expanded to 12 teams, the need for divisions arose, which created the playoff system that we know today.
Initially, the League Championship Series was a best-of-five before expanding to a seven-game series in 1985.
7. Free Agency
Bottom line: The landmark 1972 Supreme Court case Flood v. Kuhn did not create free agency, as the narrow ruling favored the status quo.
But the case got the ball rolling in the right direction, and arbitrator eventually abolished baseball's "reserve clause."
Free agency was born in 1976, and today, it’s a common feature in all major sports and creates bidding wars and courting of players every offseason.
6. Instant Replay
Bottom line: Baseball adopted full-fledged use of instant replay in 2014, several years after the other three major American sports leagues did the same.
Many fans still voice displeasure about the delays caused by replay reviews, but it’s better for the game to get calls right than to have history-making moments skewed by an umpire’s incorrect judgment.
Who could forget Armando Galarraga’s perfect game that was ruined by Jim Joyce’s missed call at first base? Or the 1985 World Series that turned on an awful blown call at first base by umpire Don Denkinger?
Both of those calls would have been fixed with the replay system that is in place today.
Bottom line: The integration of baseball was so much more than an "innovation," of course, but to examine it from just that perspective is important.
With the breaking of the color barrier, an entire new talent pool was opened to the major league teams that were smart enough to sign players from the Negro Leagues.
In addition to Jackie Robinson, future Hall of Fame players like Satchel Page, Roy Campanella, and Larry Doby, were soon signed by major league teams and made a massive impact.
Teams that were resistant to change began suffering from their lack of talent. The Boston Red Sox passed on signing both Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays and were the last MLB team to integrate in 1959.
4. Lowering the Mound
Bottom line: The 1960s were dominated by pitchers like Bob Gibson, who set a still-standing major league record with a 1.12 ERA in 1968.
While many baseball fans can appreciate a great pitching performance, most want to see some runs scored. So the rules committee made some changes in the offseason.
Most notably, they lowered the mound from 15 inches to 10 inches in height and shrunk the strike zone. This change resulted in teams averaging almost 1.5 more runs per game in the next season.
3. The American League/World Series
Bottom line: This change, at first, was less of an "innovation" and more of a competitor to the older, more prominent National League.
The American League was founded as the Western League, a minor league in the Great Lakes area, but eventually, it gained equal status to the Senior Circuit.
The competition between the leagues led to the formation of the World Series, in which the best teams from each league would square off in a series to determine the best baseball team in the world.
The first World Series was played in 1903 and won by the Boston Americans (AL) over the Pittsburgh Pirates (NL) in eight games, five games to three.
Year: Circa 1870
Bottom line: The baseball glove is an integral part of the game. In fact, if a player makes a barehanded catch today, it leads off every highlight show as an amazing feat.
But in the nascent days of baseball, fielders didn’t use gloves at all, similar to modern day cricket. Experimentation with hand protection began as early as 1870.
One of the most influential early adopters of the glove was first baseman Albert Spalding, who went on to found the Spalding company that is now more famous for its basketballs.
1. Live Ball
Bottom line: The ball itself wasn’t actually changed to make it more lively, but the rules pertaining to the treatment of the ball were altered.
Before 1920, the same ball was used throughout the game no matter how dirty or scuffed it was. Pitchers were allowed to do whatever they wanted to the ball.
So it’s easy to see why offensive numbers jumped after the rule changes, making it appear as if the ball itself was given life.
The popularity of baseball exploded in this time, with players like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig becoming icons.