Best of America

Baseball Trivia: 9 Moments That Changed the Game Forever

As the new baseball season gets underway, a look back at the deals, rule changes, and cultural shifts that shaped the evolution of the American pastime.

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Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers.
When he took the field in April 1947 as the first African-American player since the major leagues were segregated in 1887, Robinson launched a new era in which the best competed against the best, regardless of skin color. He not only opened the door for generations to come, including fellow Hall of Famers Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Reggie Jackson, but he helped advance civil rights at a time when segregation was still widespread.

Players won the right to become free agents.

Players won the right to become free agents.Rich Schultz/Getty Images
In 1975, six years after All-Star center fielder Curt Flood sued unsuccessfully to prevent a trade—the case having gone all the way to the Supreme Court—pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally won the right to sign with the team of their choice. The rule they fought was officially changed the next year. Famous free-agent signings include Reggie Jackson with the Yankees in 1976 (five years, $2.96 million) and pitcher Cliff Lee, left, with the Phillies in 2010 (five years, $120 million).

The "Dead-Ball Era" died.

The "Dead-Ball Era" died.
Pitching and defense dominated baseball during the first two decades of the 20th century, the period known as the “Dead-Ball Era.” Pitchers like Walter Johnson, left, and Cy Young, with 928 career wins between them, ruled, and home runs were rare; in many years the league leaders would hit fewer than 10 for the season. Two simple changes helped unleash the hitters and bring the dead-ball era to an end: outlawing the spitball, a devastating pitch that gave hurlers a huge advantage; and using more balls in each game. Fresh, clean balls were easier to see and hit, and they were harder, so they traveled farther.

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The designated hitter was created.

The designated hitter was created.
The DH turns 40 this season, but don’t expect a party. And if there is one, bring boxing gloves. Sending “designated” sluggers (who didn’t play in the field) to the plate in place of pitchers was intended to add pop to the game after several seasons of drooping offense. It worked. It also extended the careers of scores of big hitters, including David Ortiz, and made life more difficult for American League pitchers. But it may have had its biggest impact in America’s sports bars, where National League purists (the NL rejected the DH) and AL fans have been arguing about the rule for what seems like a lot longer than 40 years.

Lights!

Lights!
Until 1935, Major League Baseball was played only during the day. The first night game was held on May 24th that year at Cincinnati's Crosley field; FDR threw a ceremonial switch at the White House and the lights came on at 8:30 p.m. The home team Reds beat the Phillies 2–1. Within 10 years, every team had installed lights except for the Chicago Cubs, who didn't illuminate Wrigley Field until 1988. Lights expanded baseball's fan base to include people who weren't able to attend day games, and eventually transformed the sport into a prime-time television staple.

Babe Ruth became a Yankee.

Babe Ruth became a Yankee.
The Great Bambino’s home-run power would have changed the game forever no matter what uniform he was wearing. But thanks to the most famous and (for Boston fans) infamous deal in baseball history, made in 1920, Ruth established the long ball as the raison d’etre of the game while playing for the Yankees instead of the Red Sox. As a result, the greatest player ever helped create the most enduring dynasty in sports.

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Latino players rose to fame.

Latino players rose to fame.
Hall of Famers Roberto Clemente, left, Orlando Cepeda, and Luis Aparicio established their superstar credentials in the 1950s and 60s and blazed a trail that hundreds of Latino players have followed. As a result, many of today's best players hail from Latin countries, including Mariano Rivera (Panama), Albert Pujols (Dominican Republic), and Carlos Beltran (Puerto Rico). One measure of their dominance: nearly half of the players in the 2012 World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Detroit Tigers, 22 players in all, were Latino.

Steroids happened.

Steroids happened.
An entire generation of major leaguers has played in the shadow of the steroids era, and some of the game's biggest stars—including Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, and Roger Clemens—have been linked to performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). Steroids were banned by Major League Baseball in 1991, but it was more than 10 years before league-wide testing happened. The thrilling home run races of the late 1990s and early 2000s, which helped revive the sport after the 1994 strike, are now viewed as almost wholly the tainted products of PEDs.  It's generally accepted that the steroids era is over, but as Bonds, Clemens, and other stars become eligible for the Hall of Fame in coming years, there's sure to be fallout from one of baseball's shadiest periods.

Bill James invented the super stats.

Bill James invented the super stats.
For decades, baseball fans, players and executives alike lived and died by a handful of basic stats: batting average, runs-batted-in (RBIs), and runs-scored for hitters; wins, losses, earned-run-average (ERA), strikeouts, and walks for pitchers. A few additional offensive stats, like slugging and on-base percentages eventually became popular as well. But with the arrival of the first Bill James Baseball Abstract in 1977, the statistical analysis of the game took on the complexity of quantum physics. James's explication of the game-within-the-game—his innovative stats included "Runs Created" for offense and "Range Factor" for fielding—eventually changed the way managers managed players, fans watched the game, and executives ran their teams.

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