The history of people hating (and ultimately loving) major rule changes

February 1st, 2023

It is ingrained and obvious now, at all levels of baseball, that foul balls prior to two-strike counts are considered strikes. Without such a rule, at-bats -- and therefore games -- could go on for an eternity.

But way back in 1901, at the onset of the modern Major Leagues, the sport’s powers that be were roasted for this rule, which had not been in existence during the professional game’s earliest years.

“[The rule] calling a foul ball a strike came in not only for criticism, but also for ridicule,” The Pittsburgh Press reported in April of that year. “As a method of shortening the game it is very effective; as an encouragement to the batsman, it is a dismal failure.”

Characterized as a “radical” change, the foul-strike rule was dismissed by the magnates of the A-ball Eastern League, during their rules meeting, as “unnecessary and absurd.” The Cincinnati Post predicted the rule was “not destined to last long” in the NL and AL. And veteran second baseman Joe Quinn of the Washington Senators bemoaned, “The game is being ruined by consideration of the dollar.”

Somehow -- to the benefit of us all -- the foul-strike rule survived this onslaught of outrage. The game carried on, brisker and better.

This is the outcome today’s MLB rule-makers are rooting for with a series of changes going into effect in 2023. The pitch timer, defensive shift limits and bigger bases that were approved by MLB’s Joint Competition Committee are collectively aimed at improving the sport’s pace and enhancing the style of play with more action and more traditional results on balls put in play.

Yet like so many rule changes in the history of the major professional sports, these alterations have been dismissed as unnecessary and/or decried as absurd by those who would prefer baseball simply stay the same.

We don’t yet know the long-term effects these changes will have on MLB -- if they will act as intended and bring the game to a better place, or if the critics’ concerns will carry weight.

But we can take an enlightening -- and entertaining -- trip back in time to see how changes that seem so self-explanatory now were either misconstrued or unnecessarily vilified at the time of their adoption.

With any luck, these 2023 changes will one day be viewed similarly.


Football’s forward pass

Imagine a gridiron game in which teams are basically penalized for passing touchdowns.

That’s the game a subset of college coaches, who were appalled by the steady emergence of the passing game in the early 1920s, wanted to see.

In 1924, Harold M. Gore of Massachusetts Agricultural College decried the forward pass as “evil” and a “menace” to the sport, which he feared was morphing “into outdoor basketball.”

With the support of Wooster College athletic director L.O. Boles and former Rutgers coach Foster Sanford, Gore proposed to the collegiate rules committee that a forward pass for a touchdown score only three points instead of six and suggested the elimination of any run after a pass is received, allowing only the ground actually gained by the catch.

Fortunately, at a time when the nascent NFL mimicked the rules of the college game, this proposal did not -- ahem -- catch on. The opinion voiced by Springfield College backfield coach (and former Major League outfielder) Les Mann prevailed.

“To curtail the use of the forward pass as an offensive weapon would rob the game of its most spectacular play,” said Mann, “[and] cheat the public out of many of the thrills derived from watching a football contest.”

(Then again, Mann had his own extreme ideas, including eliminating the extra-point rule and runs after the recovery of a fumble or interception. Thankfully, those proposals didn’t gain ground, either.)

Basketball’s shot clock

Much like the pitch timer being implemented in MLB, basketball’s shot clock was created to cease the slog and improve the product.

In the NBA, the shot clock dates back to 1954, when it was mostly viewed as a positive but received criticism in some corners. Rochester coach Les Harrison said the 24-second clock took away much of the “finesse” with which his Royals set up their buckets. And Lakers veteran Jim Pollard said the clock “eliminates smartness.”

“Before this rule came in, we’d work hard on defense,” Pollard said. “But when somebody got a hoop, we had a chance to rest a little. We’d take six, eight, 10 seconds to bring the ball up the court, then start setting up a basket. In 24 seconds, there isn’t time to plan. It’s just run, shoot, run. Nobody’s going to play a full game.”

Though the clock outran those complaints and remained a mainstay in the NBA, it took another 41 years for the college game to adopt it. The pushback in 1985 to the NCAA’s embrace of a 45-second clock (since reduced to its current 30 seconds) was especially strong, because it came on the heels of Villanova’s underdog run to a stunning men’s national title with the help of a methodical, clock-eating offense.

Valparaiso coach Tom Smith called the shot clock “the biggest mistake we have ever made,” and Oregon State coach Ralph Miller said it would eliminate upsets.

“You will not see a team like a North Carolina State or a Villanova go through and win a national championship with a clock,” Miller said. “Teams with pure talent, size, this sort of thing, are going to win almost all of the time.”

The clock survived. And so, in fact, did the upsets. (Villanova has even gone on to win two more titles.)

Basketball’s 3-pointer

The NBA’s embrace of the 3-pointer caused even more hoop-la.

The 3-point shot had been used at different levels for decades prior to the NBA adopting it on a trial basis for the 1979-80 season. At the time, the 3-pointer had most recently gained traction in the ABA, an upstart competitor that had merged with the NBA in 1976, but left the 3-pointer behind.

When the NBA’s Board of Governors voted on adding it, the old guard argued against it “with vehemence more befitting a temperance rally,” according to an Associated Press report. When the vote for the 3-pointer passed, 15-7, Golden State Warriors owner Franklin Mieuli resigned from the board in protest.

“Whatever good it’s going to do, the price was too high,” Mieuli told reporters. “We’ve separated ourselves from the main body of basketball.”

(And yes, we recognize the irony of the owner of the Warriors, the team that has since become most synonymous with the 3-pointer, being most adamantly opposed to the rule.)

The legendary Red Auerbach called the adoption of the 3-pointer a “panic” move by the league, and Portland Trail Blazers coach “Dr. Jack” Ramsay called it a “gimmick.”

“Why not give three points to a team that executes the back-door play and gets a layup?” asked Warriors coach Al Attles. “To me, that’s worth more than just pulling up and shooting.”

Layups are, um, still worth just the two points.

When the NCAA added the 3-pointer seven years later, it was mocked anew.

“I think it’s a ridiculous rule,” Georgia coach Hugh Durham said. “It’s like giving a different number of points in football for field goals kicked from different distances or assigning a different run total to a home run hit over the fence 400 feet away than to one hit down the line 330 feet.”

As misguided as the 3-pointer’s detractors might have been, some of its supporters were also incorrect.

“I’m convinced of one thing -- it will not change the game,” then-rules committee chairman Jerry Colangelo said. “The basic structure of the game will not change at all, and that’s the important thing.”

All these years later, the 3-pointer has undoubtedly changed -- and in more recent years, almost taken over -- the game. At the NBA level last season, 3-point attempts were at an all-time high of 35.2 per game.

Not bad for a gimmick.

Baseball’s Expansion Era efforts to increase offense

Much of baseball is considered sacrosanct, and so any effort to alter the rules or dimensions over the years has been met with resistance. But the most radical changes -- and, therefore, the biggest uproar -- took place after run production reached its live-ball-era nadir in the late 1960s and early 70s.

In reaction to the Year of the Pitcher in 1968, MLB officials voted at the Winter Meetings to lower the mound height from 15 inches to 10 while also slightly shrinking the strike zone. The closed-door vote in a San Francisco hotel produced quite an outcry in the building.

“What you fellows are trying to do,” Oakland manager Hank Bauer said, “is make good hitters out of horse-feather hitters, and it won’t work.”

“For years,” added Dodgers manager Walter Alston, “we couldn’t score runs and nobody seemed to care. Now that the other teams can’t score either, they want to change the rules.”

Yankees manager Ralph Houk predicted, “The first sore arm, and you can bet the pitcher will blame it on the mound.”

And Red Sox manager Dick Williams was concerned his pitchers would be “crucified” by the lowered mound, combined with Fenway Park’s short distances down the lines.

Today, of course, the 10-inch mound is the standard at the professional, college and high school levels. And while pitching in Fenway remains difficult, no hurler has yet been martyrized.

The 1969 reduction in mound height, in concert with the strike-zone alteration, contributed to an 11-point jump in leaguewide batting average and a 19% increase in runs scored. But this rise proved short-lived, for, by ‘72, runs per game had again drifted back to Deadball-style levels. That’s when the designated hitter was born in the American League.

Of course, there were many complaints about the DH going into the 1973 season, and some of those complaints -- revolving around the reduction in strategy and the increase in specialization -- persist, even in the aftermath of the NL finally adopting the DH on a permanent basis in 2022.

What’s interesting, though, about looking back at the 1973 complaints, specifically, is how a commonly cited concern was that the DH would keep starting pitchers in the game longer.

“It would tend to leave the great pitchers in the game,” NL president Chub Feeney said in explaining his league’s opposition to the rule, “and it would be harder to score more runs when you never remove the [Bob] Gibsons and [Tom] Seavers and [Juan] Marichals.”

Orioles pitcher Dave McNally concurred.

“I think it will hurt a lot of the relief pitchers,” he said. “If we were behind in the sixth inning, 2-1 or 2-0, we pinch-hit for the pitcher. Now, if he’s pitching decently and it’s a close game, the starter can stay.”

Whatever merit they may have had at the time, these complaints seem trite now that we know that, if anything, MLB has become too reliever-dominant and could stand to benefit from starters going deeper into games. With pitcher roster limits and the three-batter minimum, MLB has made attempts in the rulebook to reduce the number of pitching changes, and it even experimented in the independent Atlantic League with the “Double-Hook DH Adjustment,” in which the starting pitcher was tied to the DH to incentivize longer outings by starters.

That’s the beauty of hindsight. We can look back at the past and see where the naysayers -- and, in some cases, even the supporters -- of supposedly “radical” changes had it wrong.

We don’t yet have that benefit with these new rules. But if this little history lesson teaches us anything, it’s that we best not be hasty with our opinions. Or else someone might dig them up to dunk on us 100 years from now.