Just How Long, Exactly, Should An MLB Game Be?

Today, we look at some of the longest games in MLB history, determine the "ideal" length of a game, and examine how to make games quicker without resorting to gimmicks.

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Pregame Pepper

Did you know…

. . . The record for the longest Major League Baseball game ever, in terms of innings, is 26. That marathon affair occurred between the Brooklyn Robins and the Boston Braves on May 1, 1920. It was called due to darkness and ended in a 1-1 tie, so neither team had bragging rights that day about winning the longest MLB game in history. However, the time of the game itself was just three hours and 50 minutes, which is mind-bogglingly short when you consider that many nine-inning games today last that long, or longer. Even more mind-boggling, by today’s baseball standards? Both starting pitchers, Leon Cadore for the Robins and Joe Oeschger for the Braves, pitched all 26 innings of the game.

. . . The longest MLB game ever, by time, occurred on May 8, 1984, between the Chicago White Sox and Milwaukee Brewers. It went 25 innings and was eight hours and six minutes long, and had to be suspended and picked up again the next day. The winning pitcher for the White Sox? Tom Seaver, who picked up the victory after Harold Baines delivered a walk-off homer in the bottom of the 25th. In total, seven future Hall of Famers played in this game: Seaver, Baines, Robin Yount, Ted Simmons, Don Sutton, Rollie Fingers, and Carlton Fisk.

  • Seaver also started one of the longest games in Mets history, a 24-inning affair vs. the Houston Astros on April 15, 1968, pitching 10 scoreless innings.

Leading Off

How Long Should A Major League Baseball Game Be?

By Russ Walsh

On Sept. 9, I tweeted out a brief note about how the 1921 Philadelphia Phillies lost to the Boston Braves, 2-0, in a game that lasted just one hour and nine minutes. Even by 1921 standards, this was a short game, and I thought it worth noting. Most respondents replied with a variation of, “Wow! The good old days!” 

But one person responded unexpectedly, saying, “I never understood the desire for a ‘fast’ game. A fast game like that can be interesting from a novelty standpoint, however, it's supposed to be a more leisurely game than other team sports. I figure I pay to go see the boys play; I want my money's worth!”

Fair enough. It is probably true that no one wants to invest the money and time it takes to get to the ballpark to watch a game that lasts only a little longer than a rerun of Law & Order. It is undoubtedly true that baseball, with its agrarian roots, was meant to be played at a leisurely pace. This comment begs the question that I have not heard discussed in all the clamor about the length of games and all the various machinations the Major Leagues have gone through to shorten games, with pitch clocks, ghost runners, three-hitter rules, limited mound visits, etc. The question is: just what is the ideal length of a baseball game?

I did some research. On Sept. 9, 1921, six Major League games were played. The average length of a game was one hour and 40 minutes. The shortest game was that Phillies/Braves game at 1:09 and the longest was a 20-15 affair between the Detroit Tigers and Chicago White Sox that ran for two hours and 20 minutes.

Exactly 100 years later, on Sept. 9, 2021, the average game lasted three hours and two minutes. The shortest game that day was played in two hours and 41 minutes between the White Sox and Oakland A’s. The final score was 3-2. The longest nine-inning game that day was a three-hour, 30-minute duel between the Toronto Blue Jays and New York Yankees, which the Blue Jays won, 6-4.

I think we can all agree that the ideal length of a nine-inning Major League Baseball game likely falls between the extremes of 69 minutes and 210 minutes, but just what length would make sure that patrons get their money’s worth, that the leisurely traditions of baseball are observed, that people get home in time to get a decent night’s sleep before going to school or work the next day, and that fans are not driven away from their TV screens by endless mound visits, pitching changes, batting glove adjustments, body armor stripping, and pocket index card readings?

Based on absolutely no scientific data, but going solely on my instincts as a baseball fan who has been listening to and watching baseball since Mickey Mantle was a rookie, I have determined that two hours and 30 minutes is the ideal length of a baseball game. A 2 1/2 hour game covers a lot of bases. Fans get their money’s worth, the pace is leisurely enough for any baseball traditionalist, kids get home in time to finish their homework, the workforce is rested and ready to go the next day, and non-fans can get the television back so they can watch Friends reruns. Two and a half hours is a win-win.

Can this 2 1/2 hour ideal be achieved? As the chart below shows, the last year that Major League Baseball averaged 2 1/2 hours per game was 43 years ago in 1978.

Chart from Silverman, Steve. “The Average Length of Major League Games,” Sports Rec, December 11, 2018.

Many things have conspired to increase the length of games since then, but much of what we think of as a part of the modern game was already in place in 1978, including television commercial breaks, heavy use of relief pitchers, and free agency, which meant a lot of money was riding on every pitch.

The increasing time of games is a trend that will be hard to turn around. All the recent efforts have pretty much failed to have much of an impact. For my part, I am not in favor of ploys that may shorten games, but fundamentally change the way the game is played. Here I speak of such spurious innovations as the “ghost runner” for extra innings and the seven-inning games in doubleheaders.

If we are truly going to move the time of game needle back toward that 2 1/2 hour target, it is the players who will need to step up. The best way to squeeze minutes out of game time at this point is to cut down on the time between pitches. It has proven difficult to police players stepping out of the batter’s box to adjust everything from their batting gloves to their helmets to their elbow guards, so batters will need to do this voluntarily. 

On the pitching mound, I am old enough to remember pitchers like Robin Roberts and Bob Gibson, who got the ball back from the catcher and went right back into their windup. In fact, most good pitchers throughout baseball history have worked at a brisk pace. These days, when a pitcher like the Phillies’ Vince Velasquez gets a man on base, the game slows to an unwatchable crawl.

Umpires can help, too. Simply enforcing the rules already in place would speed things up. Refusing to grant time for every batter’s whim and directing the hitter to stay in the box between pitches will take some players out of their comfort zone for a while, but it wouldn’t take that long to establish a new comfort zone.

What incentive do players have for stepping up the pace of the game? Professional athletes play for money. Money is the incentive to speed up the game. Money depends on television revenue. If people stop watching baseball because they get tired of slogging through four-hour games that end with a 2-1 score and 20 total strikeouts, the television money will dry up. 

With all the entertainment choices available to people, baseball is fighting for its survival. There is plenty of blame to go around for this, and baseball management has done a poor job of marketing its stars, but length of game remains an issue and the innovations management has attempted haven’t worked. Time for the players to step up here, if for no other reason than self-preservation.

Russ Walsh is a retired teacher, die hard Phillies fan, and student of the history of baseball with a special interest in the odd, quirky, and once in a lifetime events that happen on the baseball field. He writes for both the SABR BioProject and the SABR Games Project and maintains his own blog The Faith of a Phillies Fan. You can reach Russ on Twitter @faithofaphilli1.

Extra Innings

“The batters were griping to end the game. … I don’t say I wasn’t a little tired after those 26 innings, but I have been more fatigued in some nine-inning games when I got into a lot of jams. They are what wear a pitcher out. There weren’t too many tight situations in this long game. … If a pitcher couldn’t go the distance, he soon found himself some other form of occupation.”

- Joe Oeschger, who started the 26-inning game in 1920 for the Braves