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The Game of Baseball is Always Evolving: Examining the Biggest Rule Changes in MLB History

Baseball, America's beloved pastime, is a sport deeply rooted in traditions. Yet even after over 150 years of history, Major League Baseball continues to evolve. Periodically, rules are added or revised out of necessity - to adapt to changes in strategy or technology. Other times, alterations aim to increase fairness, player safety, or fan engagement. Let's dive deeper into some of the most impactful rule changes in MLB history.


The Advent of the Pitching Mound

Prior to 1903, pitchers threw from flat ground, using a "box" marking their position. This gave pitchers an enormous advantage, as they could release the ball on a downward plane. Batters had to swing upward to make contact, making hitting much more difficult. In 1903, the pitching mound was introduced. The mound was standardized at 60 feet, 6 inches from home plate and no more than 10 inches above the field level. This helped level the playing field between pitcher and batter.


The Designated Hitter Comes to the National League

The designated hitter (DH) rule was introduced in the American League in 1973, allowing teams to designate a player to bat in place of the pitcher. This greatly bolstered offensive production. The National League resisted adopting the DH for nearly 50 years until it was universally implemented across MLB in 2022. Standardizing the DH took away a major structural difference between the two leagues.


Outlawing the Spitball and Emery Ball

The spitball, using foreign substances like spit, petroleum jelly, or tobacco to alter the baseball's motion, was banned in 1920. Pitchers had taken doctoring baseballs to unethical extremes, scuffing or cutting the ball's surface or applying opaque substances. The unfair competitive advantage necessitated this change. The related "emery ball", with abrasives like sandpaper used to roughen one side, was banned shortly after in 1925.


Changing the Strike Zone Over Time

MLB has modified the strike zone several times over the decades. In 1950 it was shrunk to the area over home plate between the batter's armpits and knees. In 1963 the zone expanded to between the letters and the knees. In 1988, the bottom of the zone was moved to the hollow beneath the kneecap. Most recently, in 2023 the zone expanded again, now covering from a batter's knees to numbers.


Harsher PED Suspensions Instituted

After the "steroid era" of the 1990s and early 2000s, MLB and the MLBPA agreed to much stricter performance-enhancing drug (PED) testing policies. First-time offenses now garner 80-game suspensions, with full-season bans for further violations. These harsh penalties act as a strong deterrent against PED use compared to the 10-day bans of the 90s.


New Rules for Shortened Games

With weather and other delays forcing more games to end early, MLB instituted clearer rules around games being deemed "official" and stats counting. As of 2022, games ended early can be considered official after just 5 innings, or 4 1/2 innings if the home team is ahead. This ensures game results and stats count if at least half of the game is played.


The game of baseball is never static, even if the pace feels slow. MLB has shown a willingness to institute major rule changes when necessary to adapt the game, address competitive imbalances, or improve the fan experience. While baseball traditions die hard, the rule book continues evolving. One thing is sure – no matter the changes, MLB's history and records connect baseball's past to its future.


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