Complete history of baseball’s postseason formats

October 4th, 2022

The process of determining a champion in modern Major League Baseball began simply enough: Pit the winners of the two leagues against each other, and may the best team win.

But even then, there was early inconsistency over how many games were played and how home-field advantage worked. Then, as MLB expanded, the postseason format necessarily expanded with it, setting the path for an array of additions and adaptations over the years.

With the format having been altered yet again to a 12-team field in 2022, it’s a good time to look back at the evolution of the postseason in MLB, from the earliest playoff series all the way up to the upcoming Wild Card Series.

This is how we got where we are today.

1876: “Champions of the West"
Prior to 1884, professional baseball championships went to the team with the best record at the end of the season. A slight exception was in the inaugural season of the National League, in 1876, when the Chicago White Stockings (who would later become the Cubs) won the league championship outright with the best record but agreed to play a five-game unofficial exhibition series -- billed to determine the “Champions of the West” -- against the St. Louis Brown Stockings, who were the only team to have a winning record against every other team in the league. St. Louis won, four games to one, but Chicago was nevertheless the real NL champ.

1882: The first meeting of champions
After the National League terminated Cincinnati’s franchise for violating league rules banning beer sales and Sunday games, Cincinnati sportswriter O.P. Caylor and businessmen from other cities formed a new major league, called the American Association, in 1882. At the conclusion of the league’s first season, the American Association champion Cincinnati Red Stockings and the National League champion Chicago White Stockings agreed to face each other in two postseason exhibition games. The “series” was a split, and Cincinnati’s victory in the first game was seen as a major step in legitimizing the American Association.

1884-90: The first World Series ... sort of
Though they had agreed to that 1882 exhibition series, the National League and the American Association were mostly at odds at first. The NL poached several players already signed by AA clubs. Following an 1883 peace settlement known as the National Agreement, the NL and AA respected each other’s player contracts, paving the way for an actual championship series between the top team in each league. The winners of these series received the Dauvray Cup (named after actress Helen Dauvray, who was married to infielder and pitcher John Montgomery Ward). Alas, these were not particularly well-organized affairs. The “World’s Championship” series lasted anywhere from three to 15 games, depending on the year, and twice -- in 1885 and 1890 -- no champion was declared because the series ended in a tie. Then, in 1891, the battle between the two leagues resumed ... and the series, therefore, did not.

1892: The NL does the splits
With some of its stronger teams making the jump to the NL, and with the brief existence (in 1890) of another rival league -- the Players’ League -- affecting its talent pool and gate receipts, the American Association ultimately collapsed in 1891. Once again, the NL was the only Major League, and, for one year, its championship was determined by a playoff (billed as either the “World’s Championship Series” or “World’s Series”) between split-season champions. The first-half champion Boston Beaneaters defeated the second-half champion Cleveland Spiders with a five-game sweep in the best-of-nine.

1894-97: The Temple Cup
This best-of-seven series pitted the NL’s first- and second-place clubs against each other, with the 30-inch-high silver Temple Cup (donated by coal and lumber baron William Chase Temple) on the line. Like the Stanley Cup and the aforementioned Dauvray Cup (which disappeared after it was awarded to the 1893 NL champion Boston Beaneaters), there was only one Temple Cup, passed down from one champion to the next. The Baltimore Orioles appeared in all four Temple Cup series, winning the final two.

1900: The Chronicle-Telegraph Cup
This was a one-off gimmick, modeled after the Temple Cup, in which the Pittsburgh Chronicle-Telegraph offered a silver cup to the winner of a best-of-five series between the local Pittsburgh Pirates, who finished second in the NL, and the NL champion Brooklyn Superbas. The Pirates hosted, but Brooklyn prevailed, three games to one.

Game 1 of the 1903 World Series at the Huntington Avenue Baseball Grounds in Boston.

1903: The first modern World Series
The 1901 formation of the American League led to two years’ worth of disputes over player raiding. An accord was reached with the second National Agreement in 1903, allowing for the first World Series between the two leagues. The AL champion Boston Americans and NL champion Pittsburgh Pirates played a best-of-nine in which Boston stormed back from a 3-1 deficit to win the final four games and the championship. Alas, with no official requirement that a Series be played, the would-be World Series of 1904 never took place, because owner John T. Brush of the NL champion New York Giants refused to allow his team to participate in a series against the champions of what he deemed the “inferior” upstart AL.

1905-68: The World Series stands alone
After that 1904 boycott, the World Series (originally known as the “World’s Championship Series”) was played every year from 1905-93, until the 1994 players’ strike forced the cancellation of the MLB postseason. The vast majority of World Series have been best-of-seven, with the exception of the first one in 1903 and, in an effort to generate more revenue, three other best-of-nines from 1919-21. Also, teams initially alternated home and away duties each game. The 2-3-2 format we are familiar with today was introduced in 1924 to reduce travel and has been used ever since, with the exception of two World Series (1943 and 1945) during the World War II effort. The World Series trophy -- now known as the Commissioner’s Trophy -- was introduced in 1967 and has been given out ever since (unlike the Stanley Cup, a new trophy is created and awarded each year).

1969-84: Arrival of the LCS
The 1969 expansion to 12 teams in each league caused the creation of divisions (East and West in each league) and a “semifinals” to determine which division winners would advance to the World Series. This series -- the League Championship Series -- began with a best-of-five. Home-field advantage rotated between the divisions, but the team without that advantage actually hosted the first two games and the higher seed hosted the last three. This ensured the lower seed would not be able to clinch at home, but it also ensured that team two home games and, of course, the luxury of starting at home.

1981: A strike and a split
Between 1969-93, the only exception to the two-round postseason was in 1981, when a midseason players’ strike from June 12 to July 31 caused Major League owners to adopt -- for the first time since the NL in 1892 -- a split season. The first-place winners from each half in each division faced each other in a best-of-five Division Series. The winners of those series progressed to the LCS round. This also led to the unusual circumstance of the Reds finishing with the best record in the league but failing to reach the playoffs because they finished second in the NL West in both halves of the season. When all was said and done, the Los Angeles Dodgers (winners of the NL West in the first half) had won it all.

1985-93: The LCS expands
In 1985, the LCS adopted the World Series format -- a best-of-seven, with the team holding home-field advantage opening at home and hosting Games 6 and 7, if necessary. This resolved the issue of the lower seed potentially having more home games than the team with home-field advantage under the 2-3 format. However, the overall format made it possible for a team with the second-best record in its league to miss the postseason by finishing second in its division. This notably happened to the 1993 San Francisco Giants, who won 103 games -- six more than the NL East-winning Phillies, but one fewer than their NL West-rival Atlanta Braves.

1995-1997: Return of the Division Series
MLB’s 1994 realignment to three divisions per league (East, Central and West) was paired with the creation of a Wild Card postseason spot in each league (giving the postseason an even number of teams) and a permanent version of the “quarterfinal,” best-of-five Division Series. The eight-team format ensured that the team with the second-best record in the league, regardless of division, would reach the playoffs. Because of the 1994 players’ strike, this format did not debut until '95. As with the original LCS, it was initially a 2-3 format, with the higher seed (the team with the supposed home-field advantage) opening the series on the road and then hosting Games 3-5. Rather than seedings based entirely on record, the East, Central and West division champions rotated the first three seeds of the postseason, with the Wild Card always the fourth seed.

1998-2011: The reconfigured Division Series
After just three years with the original Division Series format, in 1998 the round was changed to the 2-2-1 setup we are familiar with today. The two division winners with the best records had home-field advantage and opened at home, while the division winner with the worst record of the three and the Wild Card team opened on the road.

2003-16: “This Time It Counts"
Traditionally, home-field advantage in the World Series had alternated between the two leagues. Then, in 2002, a tie finish in the All-Star Game compelled MLB to add more meaning to the Midsummer Classic by granting World Series home-field advantage to whichever league won the exhibition. This method lasted from 2003-16. The AL wound up going 11-3 in the All-Star Game during the existence of this rule, but the NL pennant winner wound up winning eight of 14 World Series during that span. Beginning in 2017, home-field advantage went to the pennant winner with the superior regular season record.

2012-19 and '21: The Wild Card Game
Under the three-round postseason format from 1995-2011, a Wild Card team won the World Series five times, and a Wild Card team appeared in the World Series each year from 2002-07. This led to debate over whether the Wild Card teams were properly disadvantaged in the format. The result was the '12 creation of a second Wild Card spot in each league, with the two Wild Card winners in each league facing each other in a one-game, single-elimination Wild Card Game at the home site of the team with the better record. The winner advanced to a Division Series against the league’s No. 1 seed, with the dual disadvantages of opening that series on the road and having had to use its best available pitcher(s) to get through the Wild Card Game. (For the 2012 season only, the expansion of the postseason after the regular-season schedule was already set led to more condensed October schedule in which the DS reverted to its old 2-3 format.)

2020: The pandemic postseason
With the start of the 2020 regular season significantly delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 162-game season wound up being reduced to just 60 games. The MLB Players’ Association and the owners agreed to temporarily expand the postseason format to 16 teams (eight per league), with an opening-round Wild Card Series replacing the Wild Card Game. The three division winners had the top three seeds and rested for the opening round. The three division runners-up held the fourth through sixth seeds, and the two teams with the next-best records held the seventh and eighth seeds. The Wild Card Series was a best-of-three, with all three games held in the home park of the team with the higher seed. All other series (DS, LCS and WS) remained the same. In an effort to reduce travel and the potential spread of the virus, the DS, LCS and WS were played in neutral sites. All games of the series were played in the same venue, and the 2-2-1 and 2-3-2 formats were followed simply by teams changing from their home to road (or vice versa) uniforms and changing the order of who bats when. The Dodgers beat the Rays in a World Series played at Globe Life Field, home of the Texas Rangers.

2022: The expanded expanded Wild Card
Though not quite to the degree of the pandemic year, the pool of postseason teams and the opening round itself expanded again in 2022. A third Wild Card spot was created in each league, bringing the total number of postseason teams to 12. Seeking to address the issue of a single game determining a postseason entrants’ fate without having the top division winners rest longer than necessary, the Wild Card Series from 2020 returns -- again as a best-of-three, with all three games in the home site of the higher seed. The top two division winners automatically advance to the DS, the division winner with the third-best record hosts the Wild Card winner with the worst record, and the other two Wild Card winners face each other. The top division winner faces the winner of the Wild Card Series between the Nos. 4/5 seeds, and the second-best division winner faces the winner of 3/6. The DS, LCS and WS then play out as normal.