Hello, everyone! Long time, no write. Sorry about that; I’d like to make a complaint about being busy, but, A.) aren’t we all? and B.) so’s everyone else, so I’m sure there’s little sympathy for that. So let’s get to it.
This is a post about baseball. But it’s not a post about games or players. It is a post about teams, but probably not in the way you’re thinking. I want to talk about how many teams there are, and how many teams there should be in Major League baseball.
With this bizarre season wrapped up, I figure it’s probably a pretty good time to talk about all of this, while there’s nothing else going on. So here we go!
Excluding cosmetic changes (logo changes) and location names or stadiums renovations/rebuilds, have you realized that we’re in literally the most stable period in MLB since Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier? 2020 may have been a chaotic season, but I think we take too much for granted the stability of MLB.
1953 – Boston Braves become Milwaukee Braves
1954 – St. Louis Browns become Baltimore Orioles
1955 – Philadelphia A’s become Kansas City A’s
1958 – Brooklyn Dodgers become Los Angeles Dodgers; New York Giants become San Francisco Giants
1961 – Washington Senators (the first ones) become Minnesota Twins
1961 – Expansion: Los Angeles Angels and Washington Senators (part deux) are founded
1962 – Expansion: Houston Colt .45s (Astros) and New York Mets are founded
1966 – Milwaukee Braves become Atlanta Braves
1968 – Kansas City A’s become Oakland A’s
1969 – Expansion: Kansas City Royals, Montreal Expos, San Diego Padres and Seattle Pilots, are founded
1970 – Seattle Pilots become Milwaukee Brewers
1972 – Washington Senators become Texas Rangers
1977 – Expansion: Seattle Mariners and Toronto Blue Jays are founded
1993 – Expansion: Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins are founded.
1998 – Expansion: Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil Rays are founded
2005 – Montreal Expos become Washington Nationals
The longest stretch of time without any new teams being introduced or moving was 1978-1992 (15 seasons). We have now matched that streak (2006-2020). But that’s only because we’re counting franchise moves in the above tracking, not just expansion.
The last round of expansion was in 1998, with the introduction of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil Rays. If, however, you limit the discussion purely to expansion, here’s what you see.
1901 – 8-team expansion (American League)
1961 – 2-team expansion
1962 – 2-team expansion
1969 – 4-team expansion
1977 – 2-team expansion
1993 – 2-team expansion
1998 – 2-team expansion
Through 1997, that’s 20 teams in just under a hundred years, which is to say (essentially) a 2-team expansion each decade. Yet, we’re two decades into the new millennium, and even if you wanted to be inordinately generous and count the ’98 teams as being this century, we’re drastically behind that pace – at least 2 teams behind, depending on how you’d like to do the math. If you think about just the “expansion” era, you’re talking about adding two new teams somewhere in the neighborhood of once every 6-8 years. That means we’re missing three rounds of expansion, or six teams.
Another way to look at this would be to look at the number of Major League teams as a share of the population. How many fans are there for each team? That seems a relevant question to ask. After all, the savvy observer might say that the US population was booming in the 1950-1977 era as Baby Boomers were born and then came of age to play in MLB. After that, population growth slowed; so, naturally, did expansion. Let’s examine that.
I took official census results from each decade, then averaged the growth to be linear over each year of a decade. (For 2020, I took the number 331 million, which is what Google told me as an estimate for current population, and did the same for the last decade.) The years this method is most likely to miscalculate are in the 1940s, due to deaths in World War Two which were concentrated in the beginning of the decade vs. the beginning of the baby boom in the latter portion of the decade. Thankfully, that’s not particularly relevant, as there was no expansion in the 1940s. Anyway, Here’s the number of Americans per MLB team, beginning in 1900, including each expansion year, as well as each time a season reaches a new “million” number of Americans per MLB team:
1900: 9,526,521 Americans per MLB team
1901: 4,863,363 (start of American League)
1903: 5,063,567 (reaching 5 million)
1913: 6,022,901 (reaching 6 million)
1924: 7,055,873 (reaching 7 million)
1936: 8,036,237 (reaching 8 million)
1947: 9,098,589 (reaching 9 million)
1954: 10,157,797 (reaching 10 million)
1959: 11,032,715 (reaching 11 million)
1960: 11,207,698 (highest ever)
1961: 10,095,614 (AL expansion)
1962: 9,205,947 (NL expansion)
1969: 8,371,006 (4-team MLB expansion)
1976: 9,051,922 (re-reaching 9 million)
1977: 8,445,006 (AL expansion)
1984: 9,054,203 (re-reaching 9 million)
1993: 9,232,982 (NL expansion)
1998: 9,162,650 (MLB expansion)
2007: 10,018,282 (first time above 10 million since initial NL expansion)
2020: 11,033,333 (2nd highest of all-time)
2023: (projected) 11,255,878 (would-be highest of all-time)
Some interesting notes: the 1993 and 1998 expansions were perfectly timed; if MLB had waited until 1994, the ratio would’ve exceeded 10 million Americans/team; they would’ve gotten away with 1999 for the next round, but not 2000.
If you’d prefer to see every year graphed on a chart, it looks like this:
You’ll note, if you like looking at numbers, that from 1962-2006 (which is 45 years and probably covers the majority of baseball-watching for the audience of this website), the number was never lower than 8 million Americans per MLB team, and never greater than 10 million Americans per MLB team. So let’s call 9 million Americans per MLB team historically “normal.” With a current population of 331 million, that is a six or seven team expansion.
In other words, looking solely at population, and given that it takes a few years to get to a new franchise, the best way to return to that favored number of 9 million Americans per MLB team would be to have an expansion as big as the introduction of the American League, adding eight teams in the next few years!
A more modest proposal would be a gradual six-team expansion, creating three six-team divisions in each league. The scheduling choices become really fun after that: play your five division opponents 18 times each (three home series, three road series), and then each other team in your league one series at home, and one on the road, eliminating interleague play and keeping the 162-game schedule. Or you could keep one division from one league matched up with a division from the other league (similar to now), playing three interleague games; seven against non-division league opponents, and 12 against division opponents. Or you could go with a regional interleague game (as now) you’d play 4 games against every year (and four extra games the years your divisions matched up against one another), 6 games against each team from an interleague division, 6 games against non-division league opponents, and 10 games against each division opponent. Or you could play 8 division games, and four games against every other team, regardless of league (plus two extras with your interleague rival). The point is, the combinations are pretty fun to think through. At the very least, a 2-team expansion, getting us to 16 teams per league would be cool.
No matter what you think of the particularities of these expansion plans, I hope you can agree with me: we’re overdue for MLB expansion, whether measured by historic norms of timing or population size. Feel free to discuss below, including what possible sites could be good for expansion!