Fifty years ago this summer, on July 17, 1961, baseball commissioner Ford Frick made an announcement that would haunt his legacy as much as that of the man it most affected. Frick called a press conference to announce that for a player to officially tie or break Babe Ruth's single-season record of 60 home runs, he would have to do it in 154 games, the number played in Ruth's day. The American League had expanded from eight to 10 teams that year and lengthened its season to 162 games. (The National League would follow in 1962.) Frick announced that if a player tied or broke the record in the final eight games, he would have a "distinctive mark" in the record books.
This is an article from the Aug. 29, 2011 issue
No, history has not been kind to Ford Frick or the so-called asterisk. Roger Maris, a plain-spoken man raised in North Dakota, hit his 61st home run on the final day of the 1961 season, and for many years his glorious achievement was listed in various record books as the 162-game record, while Ruth's 60 home runs remained the 154-game record. There was never an actual asterisk, and as writers have pointed out through the years, Frick never had the authority to decide what the record should be anyway. But Maris was deeply wounded by what he considered an insult; he carried that hurt to his death, in 1985. And Frick, who was a close friend and biographer of Ruth's, has been mocked, scorned and demonized ever since.
Funny thing: It seems to me now that Frick's logic—"You can't break the 100-meter record in a 100-yard dash," he said—can help baseball solve two of its thorniest problems.
See, it's time for baseball to go back to the 154-game schedule.
Just about everyone in the game understands that something must be done. The season is too long. And it will probably get longer: The owners seem all but certain to add another wild-card playoff round, as early as next year. This means that, counting spring training, regular season and postseason games, a team could end up playing some 220 games in a season. That's absurd. The players' bodies already struggle to handle the strain. Pitchers break down routinely; teams are experimenting with six-man rotations. Players also wear down mentally and emotionally—hey, there's a reason why so many of them popped amphetamines daily before the pills were banned.
Even as a narrative, the season now feels dragged out. It can begin in March, and it has ended in November. The dog days of summer have stretched into fall. This week I asked 20 random baseball people—from current and former players to announcers and writers—and all 20 thought the season would be better at 154 games. Baseball is meant for a long season but not that long.
Baseball bows to its history. Well, the 154-game season is baseball history. Jackie Robinson broke into the major leagues in a 154-game season. Ted Williams hit .400 in a 154-game season. The Giants won the '51 pennant after a 154-game season. (O.K., 157, including the playoff with Brooklyn.) Lefty Grove won 31 in a 154-game season. This is baseball's heritage. Sure, owners would bark because of lost revenue. But it's just eight games, and a little ticket scarcity probably wouldn't hurt at the gate. You wish the people running baseball would consider something other than today's profits.
There's a second benefit to making the season 154 games. It can neatly accomplish what baseball people have been dying to do for years: quarantine the home run records that were set during the steroid era. People in and around the game have been racking their brains to figure out how to isolate Barry Bonds's 73-home run season or Mark McGwire's 70 home runs after the two players admitted using steroids, unknowingly or knowingly. There have been eight seasons of 60-plus home runs—six of them during the steroid era. There were 18 seasons of 50 home runs or more from 1994 to 2003; there were only three in the previous 30 seasons.
We all know that, but how do you mark the era? Until 2003, there was no steroid testing in baseball. There is no way to know who used performance enhancers and who didn't. And, on a deeper level, we don't even know how much those performance enhancers helped. Would Bonds have hit 62 home runs in 2001 without the use of steroids? Fifty? Thirty?
It's a tangled web, yes, but by going to the 154-game schedule the problem solves itself. Suddenly, the single-season home run record-holder once again is ... Babe Ruth, with 60. And it isn't only home runs that are affected. Rube Waddell would have the 154-game strikeout mark for the modern era with 349 (set in 1904). The 30 homer--30 stolen base season would be magical again—the only two players to do it in a 154-game season were Willie Mays (twice) and Ken Williams. We might even get a .400 hitter again. George Brett was hitting .400 through 148 games in 1980.
The 162-game records would not be erased, of course. Those should have their special place in the record books, forever pointing to a wonderful and bygone 50-year era in the game's history. "There will be two records," Ford Frick boomed in 1961, and he took a public beating for it. Turns out he was just 50 years early.