How the World Series Works


The Commissioner's Trophy on display. See more baseball pictures.
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The World Series is professional baseball's biggest moment and biggest stage. Known as the "championship round" of Major League Baseball, it's the culmination of a 162-game regular season, preceded by an eight-team divisional playoff and a championship series for the American and National Leagues. The eventual victors meet to determine baseball's annual dominant team.

Nicknamed the "October Classic" or "Fall Classic," the World Series is one of the biggest events in all of sports, witnessed all over the world by baseball fans via TV and radio, particularly in the United States, Canada, Latin America and Japan, the parts of the world where baseball is most popular. The winner gets the coveted Commissioner's Trophy, named so in 1985, but awarded since 1967.

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The World Series has been held annually since 1903. Although today the American League and the National League are linked under the banner of Major League Baseball, back then they were actually rivals. The World Series established a true champion in all of baseball, while also bringing the two leagues together and solidifying the rules and regulations of professional baseball.

More than 100 years later, the World Series is one of the most highly anticipated events in sports. Read on to see how it got started, and how it evolved into the celebration of baseball, Americana and nostalgia.

Early History of the World Series

The crowd pours onto the field at Huntington Avenue Grounds in Boston following the opening game of the 1903 World Series between the Red Sox and Pittsburgh Pirates.
The crowd pours onto the field at Huntington Avenue Grounds in Boston following the opening game of the 1903 World Series between the Red Sox and Pittsburgh Pirates.
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The first truly professional baseball league, the National League, formed in 1876, with the assumption that each year's champion or "pennant winner" would be the best overall team. But that year, two teams claimed that right: The Chicago White Stockings had the best overall record at 52-14, but the St. Louis Brown Stockings had a winning record against all seven other NL teams. So, Chicago and St. Louis met to play a five-game series to determine a true champion. St. Louis won, four games to one.

A second major league, the American Association, formed in 1882. From 1884 to 1891, the AA's best team met the NL's champion, which newspapers promoted as the "World's Championship" and "World's Series." The AA folded in 1891, but an interleague World's Series became a possibility again in 1901 with the formation of the American League. The AL and NL quickly became bitter rivals, raiding each other's teams for better players. Because of this, the NL didn't consider the AL its equal and wouldn't play in a post-season championship series. In fact, the best they could garner in 1902 was a postseason football game between the two league's best baseball teams.

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The leagues made peace in 1903, establishing the National Commission, a professional baseball regulatory board. It consisted of each league's president and a third, independent executive called the commissioner. At the end of the season, league-leading Pittsburgh (NL) and Boston (AL) played a championship series. Boston won 5-3, behind the pitching of the legendary Cy Young.

But there would be no 1904 World Series. New York Giants owner John Brush (who won the NL that year) still claimed superiority to the American League and refused to play the AL's Boston Americans. But in early 1905, Brush changed his mind and helped the National Commission establish a postseason (he wanted a rule that promised players a percentage of gate receipts from the first four games only, to discourage game fixing to make the Series last longer). The World Series was now official, with participation required by league winners. In the 1905 World Series, Brush's Giants beat the Philadelphia Athletics, four games to one.

How do you get to the World Series? Keep reading to find out.

The World Series and the Baseball Postseason Playoffs

Fans cheer in the stands during Game 6 of the World Series between the Atlanta Braves and the Cleveland Indians in 1995.
Fans cheer in the stands during Game 6 of the World Series between the Atlanta Braves and the Cleveland Indians in 1995.
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The World Series pits the champion of the American League against the champion of the National League to determine an overall winner. Each league is divided into three divisions each -- West, Central and East. The team with the best record in each division gets an automatic playoff berth. The team in each league with the best record that didn't win a division (the "wild card") gets the fourth and final playoff spot.

The four teams in each league are whittled down to two during the American League Division Series and the National League Division Series. The team with the best record overall is the No. 1 seed, and it faces the wild card team (the No. 4 seed). The other two division winners get the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds, based on their records. The series is best-of-five, with the first team to win three games advancing. This format has been used since 1995. MLB had expanded to 28 teams and three divisions in each league by then. Prior to that, each league had two divisions, and division winners played each other in the League Championship Series (LCS). The divisional playoff was pioneered in the strike-shortened 1981 season, in which champions of each division's first and second halves played for the right to go to the LCS. The first two games of the Division Series are held at the home of the team with the better ranking, and the next two at the other team's home, with the fifth game, if necessary, back at the higher-finishing team's home field.

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The winner of the 1-4 divisional matchup then plays the winner of the 2-3 matchup in their League Championship Series. This is a best-of-seven matchup, meaning the victor is the first team to win four games. As in the Division Series, the first two games are held at the better team's home, but then three games are at the other team's home, before shifting back to the higher ranking team's home for the last two games, if necessary.

The National League winner then faces the American League winner in the World Series. These League Championship series date to 1969, when each league expanded to two divisions. Before that, the team with the best overall record in each league went directly to the World Series. The same 2-3-2 home field scheme from the LCS is used for the World Series, but home field advantage is secured at that season's All-Star Game. If the National League won that year's All-Star Game, for example, then the NL team in the World Series gets home field advantage, regardless of regular season record. This rule change was enacted in 2003, in order to make the All-Star Game more than just an exhibition game.

The World Series isn't just for fun – sometimes it makes the news. Read on to see how.

Controversies and Cancellations at the World Series

The crowd at Candlestick Park reacts after an earthquake rocked Game Three of the World Series between the Oakland A's and San Francisco Giants in 1989.
The crowd at Candlestick Park reacts after an earthquake rocked Game Three of the World Series between the Oakland A's and San Francisco Giants in 1989.
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The World Series is prone to human frailty and interruptions from the outside world. In 1918, the Series, which always begins in October, was held in September. The baseball season had been cut short so the World Series could be held early, due to a national "Work or Fight" law designed to get American male workers to contribute to the World War I war effort. (With patriotism on the minds of many, this was also the first World Series where "The Star Spangled Banner" was played before games.) The next year, there was no war, but the World Series was mired in its biggest scandal to date. A gambling ring enlisted eight Chicago White Sox players to fix the World Series. Those eight players that were paid to lose were banned from baseball for life, including otherwise sure-bet Hall of Famer "Shoeless" Joe Jackson.

In the last two decades, the World Series has been held up three times. In 1989, the World Series was held entirely within the San Francisco Bay area, as the teams were the San Francisco Giants (NL) and the Oakland Athletics (AL). Oakland won the first two games at home, and the series shifted to San Francisco for Game 3 on Oct. 17, 1989. As pre-game activities were underway, a 6.9-level earthquake ripped through the city and Candlestick Park. The Series was delayed for 10 days.

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Five years later, however, there was no World Series at all, the first and only time that's happened. The cause was a players' strike that ended the season on Aug. 12. When negotiations stalled by Sept. 14, commissioner Bud Selig called off the postseason. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 led to a mid-season delay, and then a postseason delay, the World Series began on Oct. 27 and ended on Nov. 4, resulting in the first ever "November Classic."

What are the biggest on-field moments in World Series history? Read on.

Notable World Series Moments and Records

Despite more than 100 World Series to date, some teams have gotten there far more than others. The New York Yankees have appeared 40 times, winning 27 of them. From the 18-year period of 1947 to 1964, the Yankees appeared a whopping 15 times, winning 10, of which there were five wins in a row. Only two other times has a team won even three in a row: the 1972-74 Oakland Athletics and the 1998-2000 New York Yankees. Other, lesser dynasties include 18 appearances by the St. Louis Cardinals (11-7), 18 by the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers (6-12), and 18 by the New York/San Francisco Giants (also 6-12).

Some of the most important and dramatic moments in baseball history have happened during the World Series. For example, only 22 "perfect games" have been pitched in Major League Baseball history. That means that a single pitcher plays all nine innings and doesn't give up any hits, walks or runs -- nobody gets on base or scores. In Game 5 of the 1956 World Series against the Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Yankees pitcher Don Larsen threw the only perfect game in World Series play. There's only even ever been one other no-hitter in baseball's postseason, a 2010 National League Divisional Series no-hit, one-walk game by the Philadelphia Phillies' Roy Halladay against the Cincinnati Reds.

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There probably isn't a more dramatic possibility in sports than winning the entire World Series with a home run. It's happened twice. In Game 7 of the 1960 World Series, Pittsburgh Pirates second-baseman Bill Mazeroski hit a solo home run in the bottom of the ninth -- Pirates win, game over (Yankees lose). In 1993, Joe Carter of the Toronto Blue Jays gave his team a four-games-to-two World Series win with a three-run home run in the bottom of the ninth in Game 6 over Philadelphia.

And then there's the "Curse of the Bambino." The Boston Red Sox are said to have been cursed for trading away one of the game's greats, Babe Ruth, in 1919 to the New York Yankees, with whom he won seven World Series. The Red Sox, meanwhile, hadn't won one since 1918, but they had a lead in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series against the New York Mets, with a 3-2 series lead. And then the Mets' Mookie Wilson hit a routine ground ball to Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner -- but the ball went through his legs. A run scored, the Mets won the game, and then Game 7, as well. The Red Sox "curse" continued -- until 2004, that is, when the team came back from a three-games-to-none deficit against the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series to win. The Red Sox then swept the St. Louis Cardinals in four games to win the World Series and finally break the supposed curse.

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Sources

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  • Editors of Sports Illustrated. "Sports Illustrated: The Baseball Book Expanded Edition." Sports Illustrated. 2011.
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  • Leventhal, Josh. "World Series: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Fall Classic." Diane Publishing. 2002.
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  • Vecsey, George. "Baseball: A History of America's Favorite Game." Modern Library. 2008.