How Baseball's American League Works

Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees walks to the dugout after an inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Yankee Stadium. See more sports pictures.
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Let's put an end to this popular myth right now: Abner Doubleday did not invent baseball. It's a nice story, but the West Point graduate, who found himself at Fort Sumter when the Civil War began and at Gettysburg two years later, had nothing to do with the game.

According to legend, Doubleday invented baseball in Cooperstown, N.Y., in 1839. Cooperstown, which is home to Major League Baseball's Hall of Fame, is a Currier-and-Ives-sort of community on Otsego Lake. Most baseball historians dismiss the story as fantasy, and Doubleday never asserted that he invented the game. Rather, a baseball panel in 1908 made that unfounded claim.

What isn't a legend is the popularity of game itself. During the Civil War (1861-1865), soldiers played baseball in camp when they weren't fighting. Ballplayers not on the battlefield were often being paid to play in cities such as Cincinnati.

The game that we know today got its start in 1876 when eight teams formed the National League. Five years later, the rival American Association was formed. At the time, the American Association was much weaker than the National League because many of the best American Association players would eventually jump to play for National League teams.

As the American Association grew weaker, the National League grew stronger. Seven years after its formation, eight American Association teams crossed into the National League. Four of those teams are still in existence: the Cardinals, Pirates, Dodgers and Reds. Finally, after 10 years, the American Association disbanded [source: Bendix].

In its place came the eight-team American League. The Baltimore Orioles, Boston Americans, Chicago White Stockings, Cleveland Blues, Detroit Tigers, Milwaukee Brewers, Philadelphia Athletics and Washington Senators were the original members of the American League [source: Bendix].

The National League was a bit vexed at the upstart American League. The new league was honing in on the National League's monopoly. There wasn't much the NL could do. In 1903, the two leagues agreed that each would be a major league and the league champions would play each other in what we now know as the World Series.

It didn't take long for a fierce rivalry between the National and American leagues to form. The fans loved it. The players loved it. In 1903, the champions of both leagues met in the first World Series, which was won by the American League's Boston Red Sox [source: Bendix].

American League Franchises

The American League gained credibility when the Boston Red Sox (known at the time as the Boston Americans) won the first World Series in 1903.
The American League gained credibility when the Boston Red Sox (known at the time as the Boston Americans) won the first World Series in 1903.
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The American League was originally formed by eight teams. Today, there are 14 franchises in three divisions. They include the New York Yankees; Boston Red Sox; Baltimore Orioles; Tampa Bay Devil Rays; Toronto Blue Jays; Chicago White Sox; Detroit Tigers; Cleveland Indians; Minnesota Twins; Kansas City Royals; Texas Rangers; Los Angeles Angels; Oakland Athletics; and Seattle Mariners.

The American League gained credibility when the Boston Red Sox (known at the time as the Boston Americans) won the first World Series in 1903. With its new-found audience and strong teams, seven American League teams built new stadiums between 1909 and 1912. The American League was here to stay.

During the 1950s, '60s and '70s, Major League Baseball began expanding for the first time. In the American League, the St. Louis Browns moved to Baltimore to become the Orioles, one of the original American League teams that had earlier disbanded. The demographics of the United States were changing, and the game moved west following the population. The National League took a huge advantage during this period. The National League soon had teams in Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego [source: Treder].

The American League finally took notice, and a few teams made their way westward. The Philadelphia Athletics moved to Kansas City, before moving to Oakland, Calif., in 1968. In 1961, the Los Angeles Angels entered the American League. Also in the 1960s, the Washington Senators became the Minnesota Twins. In 1969, the Kansas City Royals and the Seattle Pilots entered the league. In 1970, the Milwaukee Brewers were formed. Another Washington Senators team moved to Texas, and later became the Texas Rangers. In 1977, the American League expanded into Toronto (Blue Jays) and Seattle (Mariners) [source: Treder].

Of course the most successful American League team has been the New York Yankees. In fact, the Yankees have been the most successful franchise in baseball, winning 27 World Series titles. Interestingly, the Yankees started their existence as the Baltimore Orioles. In 1903, two men, Frank Farrell and Bill Devery, bought the Orioles after the franchise went belly up. They paid $18,000.

The two then moved the team to New York City, and named the franchise the Highlanders because they played in a ball park on one of the highest spots in Manhattan. The Highlanders eventually became the Yankees, and began playing in Yankee Stadium in 1923 [source: New York Yankees]. The Yankees dominated league play for many decades.

National League vs. American League

Today, there is a lot less that separates the American League from the National League. The teams in each league play 162 games. Each is broken into three divisions: East, Central and West. In fact, teams from each league have been squaring off against one another in interleague play since 1997. Several regions, including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles/Anaheim, and the Bay Area in California, are home to teams in both leagues.

However, there is one major difference between the two. The American League uses the designated hitter. In 1973, Major League Baseball adopted Rule 6.10, which allowed teams to designate, or choose, a player to bat in place of the pitcher -- generally considered the weakest hitter on the team. That chosen player is known as the designated hitter, or DH, for short. Today, the American league uses the DH, while the National League does not.

The use of the designated hitter has for years angered baseball purists. They want to see the pitcher bat. It was one of several rule changes Major League Baseball made over the years to increase offensive production.

The designated hitter changed the face of the game very subtly. In the beginning, older players who might have retired early, found a home in the DH slot. Even former National League players found more playing time as a DH in the American League.

Moreover, because of the DH, American League pitchers became more prone to hit a batter than their National League counterparts. That's because the American League pitcher does not have to face retaliation by the opposing pitcher. And the statistics seem to bear this theory out. According to one survey taken after the DH rule was implemented, AL batters had a 10 to 15 percent greater likelihood of being hit by a pitch than batters in the National League [source: Cooley].

After the DH rule was instituted, run production also increased in the American League. The American League scored on average, one-third more runs a game than the NL during the first 36 years of the DH rule [source: Cooley].

American League Power

Mickey Mantle played for the New York Yankees from 1951-1968 and lead the Yankees to capturing the 1958 World Series championship against the Milwaukee Braves.
Mickey Mantle played for the New York Yankees from 1951-1968 and lead the Yankees to capturing the 1958 World Series championship against the Milwaukee Braves.
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For many, the American League is the most powerful in Major League Baseball. From 1997 to 2011, the American League led the National League in interleague wins. The AL has won 1,937 games, while the NL has won 1,773. The New York Yankees have won the most interleague games at 157 [source: Major League Baseball].

The National League is also in second place when it comes to the All Star Game, the annual mid-season classic that pits the best of both leagues against one another. From 2002 to 2012, the National League has won only three All-Star Games, while the American League has taken home seven All-Star trophies. If we go back another 10 years, the AL has won six additional All-Star titles to the National League's three. (There was one tie in 2002.)

In short, the American League has dominated the National League in almost every aspect of the game since installing the DH. From 1973 to 2011, the American League has won 21 World Series while the National League has won only 15. The Series was not played in 1994 [source: Major League Baseball].

Although the National League prides itself as being the "Senior Circuit," it has become a safe haven for pitchers. National League batting lineups tend to be weaker than AL lineups. That's because the AL not only has the DH, but most No. 9 batters in the American League are much stronger than their counterparts in the National League.

Many pitchers who move from the NL to the AL often have a very unpleasant time. That's because moving to the American League is such a challenge, the pitchers do not do as well as they did in the National League [source: Schwartz].

Just because the American League has dominated the National League for just under 40 years, doesn't mean the National League has never had great players. Throughout its history, the National League has had awesome players like Willie Mays of the New York Yankees and later San Francisco Giants, Hank Aaron, Sandy Koufax and Stan Musial. Some of the American League players weren't so bad either, including Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Frank Robinson, Rod Carew and other greats.

Batter up!

Author's Note

I've been around baseball players all my life. I spent a year covering a minor league team, and even coached a few Little League teams, plus a girls' softball team thanks to my pal who had a daughter on the squad. I'm a Yankee fan. That means I'm ambivalent about the Red Sox.

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Sources

  • Cooley, Andrew Reed. "Revisiting the Impacts of the Designated Hitter on Major League Baseball. A Thesis Presented to the Graduate School of Clemson University." August, 2010. (July 26, 2012) http://etd.lib.clemson.edu/documents/1285780297/Cooley_clemson_0050M_10759.pdf
  • Bendix, Peter. "The History of the American and National League, Part I. Beyond the Box Score. Nov. 18, 2008. (July 26, 2012) http://www.beyondtheboxscore.com/2008/11/18/664028/the-history-of-the-america
  • Major League Baseball. "World Series History: Recaps and Results." (July 26, 2012) http://mlb.mlb.com/mlb/history/postseason/mlb_ws.jsp?feature=recaps_index
  • Schwarz, Alan. "For Pitchers National League Really is an Easier Out." The New York Times. Jan. 14, 2007. (July 26, 2012) http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/14/sports/baseball/14score.html
  • Treder, Steve. "A Tale of Two Leagues." The Hardball Times. April, 19, 2004. (July 30, 2012) http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/article/a-tale-of-two-leagues-part-two-1956-2003/