Editor’s note: Frederic J. Frommer, writer and sports historian, is the author of several books, including “You Gotta Have a Heart,” a history of Washington baseball. Follow him on Twitter at @ffrommer. The opinions expressed in this comment are his own. See more opinion articles on CNN.
In recent years, there has been a lot of down time in baseball games, with pitchers taking forever to throw the ball and batters frequently stepping out of the batter’s box. This year, Major League Baseball will try to speed things up with a clock that limits the amount of time between pitches.
It may seem like a radical idea, but the very concept saved the National Basketball Association almost 70 years ago. In both cases, the clock was added to speed up a laborious game.
Baseball games have gotten longer in recent years, averaging over three hours, compared to two and a half hours in the 1970s. It’s even worse in the playoffs, with games often exceeding the four hours
Baseball hopes to reverse that trend this year, with a 15-second clock for each pitch when the bases are empty and 20 seconds with runners on base. Additionally, batters will be limited to one timeout per at-bat, and there will also be a 30-second timer between batters. (The sport is making other changes, including banning defensive fielding to generate more offense, and making bases a bit larger to increase safety and possibly boost stolen base attempts. All the new rules will be in effect. for spring training. games, which begin on February 24 before the 2023 season Opening Day on March 30).
For more than 150 years, the lack of a field clock has set baseball apart from other major team sports in the US, and some baseball purists will surely oppose adding one. “There is no clock in baseball. And there’s no clock in baseball for a reason,” Max Scherzer, now a star pitcher for the New York Mets, said in 2019.
But it’s the growth of endless games that really breaks with tradition.
Last year’s World Series between the Houston Astros and Philadelphia Phillies, for example, included a 4 1/2-hour game (which lasted 10 innings) and a nine-inning game that lasted nearly four hours. In 2020, the New York Yankees and Cleveland Indians battled it out in a nine-inning game that lasted four hours and 50 minutes, longer than some doubleheaders used to take back in the day.
The implementation of the “shot clock” will lead to more action and less waiting, in other words, more baseball. What could be more traditional than that? Baseball will never be a fast-paced game, but there’s no reason it has to be slow-paced. A clock will absorb a lot of dead time from the sport and speed up the game.
Baseball has already implemented the clock in the minor leagues, and last season, the average length of games was cut by 25 minutes, from 3:03 to 2:38. So it’s proven that it makes the game faster.
As the length of MLB games has increased, attendance has gone in the opposite direction, with fewer crowds last season than pre-pandemic levels. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred hopes a watch will help reverse that trend.
MLB faced a similar challenge half a century ago when dominant pitching led to an era of low-scoring games that eroded attendance. In 1969, the sport responded by lowering the pitcher’s mound, which literally put pitchers and batters on a more level playing field and led to more hitting and scoring.
Four years later, the American League adopted the designated hitter (or DH, a player not in the field who is in the batting lineup, usually replacing the pitcher) to inject even more offense. Last season, MLB made the DH universal in both leagues.
Baseball now puts pitchers on a timer for the same reason the NBA adopted the 24-second shot clock in 1954: to make games more entertaining for fans.
Basketball in the early ’50s used to be boring, with teams sitting ahead passing the ball back and forth without trying to score, and it wasn’t unusual for a team to take five minutes before taking a shot. The nadir of this strategy came in a 1950 game between the Fort Wayne Pistons and the Minneapolis Lakers, who had won the NBA championship the previous season, the league’s inaugural year.
Pistons coach Murray Mendenhall, realizing he was up against a superior team, ordered his players to stop. By the end of the first quarter, the Pistons led 8-7, and the action was so slow that fans, opponents, and even officials urged the team to try more shots. But the Pistons held their ground and outscored the Lakers 3-1 in the fourth quarter en route to a 19-18 victory, the lowest-scoring game in NBA history.
“Playing like this will kill professional basketball,” Lakers coach Johnny Kundla complained. Seven decades later, Sports Illustrated baseball writer and Fox host Tom Verducci made the same prediction about baseball.
“Game timeout since Manfred became commissioner in 2015 has increased 17%,” Verducci wrote last year. “Not everything depends on him. Players keep saying they don’t want to be told to rush, playing slowly and having no idea of their own path to oblivion.” The MLB Players Association opposed rule changes to add a clock (and ban defensive at-bats).
In the early 1950s, the owner of the NBA’s Syracuse Nationals, an Italian immigrant and bowling alley owner named Danny Biasone, knew the league had to make basketball more exciting for fans.
“I’m not an expert on the game,” Biasone told The New York Times in 1984. “I never claimed to be. But he knew the fans weren’t paying to see the ball dribbled all night. So I reached out to those guys in the league and told them that I was having a hard time selling anything here. There is one thing that basketball needs, I said. He needs a time. I don’t care about the time. Set time!”
NBA owners knew they had to do something: Nine of the 17 franchises had gone out of business in the previous four years, and the league was becoming irrelevant at a time when baseball reigned as America’s most popular sport. So in April 1954, the NBA adopted the clock in an attempt to break the doldrums.
The impact was immediate: the teams’ average points per game rose from 79 points to 93. That number rose to 106 in 1958 and, not coincidentally, attendance skyrocketed by 40%.
“The adoption of the watch was the biggest event in the NBA, and Danny Biasone is the biggest man in the NBA,” said Maurice Podoloff, who was league president at the time. Today, basketball is an exciting game, with superstars displaying their talents in constant action.
As for baseball, New York Mets broadcaster Keith Hernandez, a former star player, said the game has gotten too slow even for him. “I honestly feel like when I retire, when I stop doing what I do now in the booth, I won’t be watching much baseball anymore,” he said in January. “It’s three hour games now, three and a half, when I played it was two and a half. I still love the game, but they are long.
Baseball has long struggled to attract young fans, in part because of the slow pace of the game. When the sport starts losing 69-year-old baseball players like Hernandez, you know he’s got a problem.
People don’t come to games to see guys just standing around doing nothing, whether it’s on a basketball court or a baseball diamond. A watch won’t have the same dramatic effect in baseball that it did in the NBA. But for Americans with unlimited entertainment options and limited time, it will help draw in fans with more exciting (and faster) games of baseball than we’ve seen in years.