Major League Baseball is the premier professional baseball association in the world. There is a total of thirty major league ball clubs that occupy six divisions across two separate leagues. Fifteen teams play in the American League (AL), while an equal number of clubs remain in the National League (NL).
Despite both falling under the umbrella of Major League Baseball, where they are led by a single Commissioner of Baseball, the two leagues have operated independently for the majority of their existences. At ages well over one hundred years old, both leagues have seen numerous Hall of Fame players, legendary games, and iconic moments grace the pages of their respective history books.
This article is all about the humble beginnings, enduring legacies, and the history of competition and cooperation between baseball’s American and National Leagues. We’ll see how each organization was established, study the differences in rules including how they affect interleague matchups to this day, and examine how these two individual entities were eventually merged into what’s now the MLB.
Most baseball historians anticipate a future in which the league is a single unit with one rulebook and teams that play all 29 other clubs an equal number of times. We may be in the final days of the centuries-old AL versus NL feud. Let’s celebrate their rich histories and unique situation while we still can!
American League History
What would eventually become Major League Baseball’s American League began as a struggling minor league baseball organization called the Western League. The young association struggled financially early on, even disbanding and reforming multiple times. Eventually, the Western League was purchased by Ban Johnson and Charles Comiskey, who hoped to clean up the sport.
The two new owners empowered Western umpires to suspend players for speaking profanities or arguing calls, which appealed to the spectators of the time. After Johnson’s first season at the helm, most of the league’s clubs were profitable, with ever-improving attendance. As popularity continued to grow, so did the level of talent willing to sign with Western League franchises.
In 1891, the National League’s original rival, the American Association, disbanded. The Western League owners saw an opening but decided to hold off in pursuing major league status, worried that they’d befall the same fate as the AA. Finally, in 1899, the owners met in Chicago and changed the name of their organization to the American League of Professional Baseball Clubs. While the NL was hurting from declining attendance numbers, the new American League was thriving, thanks to their strict rules and the ban on foul language.
To grow the former Western League into an association worthy of the majors, Comiskey and Johnson began working to establish new franchises in cities. Along with the seven clubs from the former minor league, the two owners expanded into Chicago, Buffalo, Detroit, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and Kansas City. The Indianapolis, Minneapolis, and Buffalo teams ultimately did not survive until the 1901 inaugural season, but they were replaced by squads in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Boston before play began, so it didn’t matter.
Finally, in 1901, the American League was granted “Major” status. The new association, with its lack of a maximum salary, immediately began attracting star players. In those early years, competition between the NL and this new upstart major league was fierce. The two sides called for a truce in 1902, and the NL officially recognized the American League. In 1903, the championship squads from either league faced off in the first-ever World Series.
National League History
Before the National League was established, the National Association of Professional Baseball Players was a weak grouping of teams without a central authority figure or much stability or organization. The league floundered. One of the NAPBBP clubs was the Chicago White Stockings, led by William Hulbert.
While five of the White Stockings’ best players were being threatened with expulsion after Hulbert signed them using questionable means, the Chicago franchise officer began some maneuverings of his own. He first met with the owner of the St. Louis Brown Stockings, with whom he devised a plan. In order to avoid losing his best players, Hulbert would lead the charge for a new major league, this time with a strong central authority figure.
With St. Louis on board, the Chicago club’s leader met privately with the heads of four other squads, where he shared his vision. On February 2, 1876, the National League was born, along with eight charter franchises. The National Association of Professional Base Ball Players was disbanded as a result, with the remaining teams either moving down to the minors or closing their doors altogether.
Over the next several years, the National League struggled. Franchises were constantly joining and folding. In fact, by 1880, only two of the original eight clubs remained; the other six all folded. New teams took their place, and the beginning of the 1882 season marked the first time that all eight squads from the previous year returned without any turnover.
During that same year, the American Association was born, with franchises located in cities without NL teams. Over the course of the next decade, the two organizations would have their championship teams face off in a World Series-like competition that changed from year to year. Some series were best-of-three, while others were scheduled for fifteen contests.
In 1887, the Pittsburgh Pirates made the jump from the AA to the National League. Eventually, the AA clubs that would ultimately become the Cincinnati Reds, Los Angeles Dodgers, the St. Louis Cardinals, along with several other teams, merged with the NL after the American Association disbanded.
The MLB Umbrella
In 1902, the heads of the NL and AL signed a National Agreement that started the organizations on the road towards modern baseball. The agreement served three primary purposes. It put an end to the talent raids committed by rival associations by making all leagues recognize and respect player contracts. It also reinforced the “reserve clause” which stopped players from experiencing free agency. They could either sign the deal offered by the team that owned their rights, or they were prohibited from playing at all.
The agreement also led to the creation of the World Series. In 1903, the championship teams from the National and American Leagues faced off for the first time, with the AL’s Boston Americans winning the inaugural matchup. The agreement also created the National Commission, a single ruling body to govern all of professional baseball. Lastly, it basically made the various other independent leagues a minor league system for the two biggest majors.
The Commissioner of Baseball
Following the Chicago Black Sox scandal in 1919, which involved Chicago players purposely throwing the World Series in exchange for cash from a betting syndicate, owners from both leagues were desperate. They needed to clean up the sport quickly in hopes of preserving baseball’s reputation as well as the integrity of the leagues.
The owners tapped Kenesaw Mountain Landis, a federal judge, to be the first-ever Commissioner of Baseball. He accepted the position, but only under the conditions that he was the sole commissioner with unlimited authority to do whatever it took to act in the “best interest of baseball” and that it was a lifetime contract. His terms were granted by the desperate owners, and Landis banned all eight White Sox players suspected of involvement in the scandal for life.
With the National Commission and then the Commissioner of Baseball, the sport finally had a central governing body that loosely united the two leagues. Despite some bumps in the road, including a near-exodus of three American League teams to the National League in 1920, which would have decimated the AL, the creation of the Commissioner role would ultimately lead the two leagues closer and closer together under one Major League Baseball umbrella.
The first discussions regarding interleague play began as early as 1903 when the World Series was first established. Then, in 1904, the National Commission Chairman proposed the two leagues shorten their seasons to 116 games, and then have every AL and NL team play four times, two at home and two away. The Boston Americans’ owner had another plan, which was to finish the 154-game season, and then have every National League team face the American League team with their same ranking. So, the two championship teams would face off, as would the two second-place teams, and so on down the line.
Over the next many decades, proposals were often made for interleague play, but nothing was implemented. It wasn’t until 1997 that Major League Baseball’s first regular-season interleague game took place. In the years since, numerous adjustments have been made regarding which divisions will be matched up and when in the season interleague games will be scheduled. Interleague play is now a permanent fixture in the MLB.
The Leagues as Legal Entities
In 2000, Major League Baseball finally became a single baseball league. The National and American Leagues were both dissolved as legal entities so that the MLB could operate similarly to other professional sports leagues like the NBA and NFL. The AL and NL kept their names and their unique rulebooks, but otherwise became something akin to conferences in other sports rather than actual individual organizations.
The American League and National League have the same rules and regulations for the most part. The only difference is the American League’s use of a designated hitter. While the pitchers in the NL have to take at-bats, they do not hit in the AL.
Instead, American League teams get to replace the pitcher’s spot in the lineup with a designated hitter. As the title suggests, this player does not play defense. They exclusively hit, while the pitching staffs only pitch.
During interleague matchups, the team that’s playing at home follows their league’s rules. This is true for the World Series games as well. The annual All-Star game always utilizes the designated hitter, regardless of location or league affiliation.
The World Series
The first World Series was played in 1903 as a result of an agreement between the AL and NL following over a year of cutthroat competing and talent raiding. The Boston Americans defeated the Pittsburgh Pirates in that inaugural series, with Boston winning five games to three.
In the early years of the contest, the matchup was an unorganized affair, with teams playing a different number of games from year to year. Some years consisted of only three games, while others involved a best-of-fifteen series. After the Giants felt the exhibition was beneath them and thus skipped the 1904 World Series, the championship showdown fell under the jurisdiction of the National Commission and was subsequently played annually.
Head to Head
The two leagues have sent their league champions to face off in the World Series 113 times. The American League is currently ahead in the all-time record with 65 wins. National League teams have won the series 48 times.
Home Field Advantage
From 2003 through 2016, home field advantage in the World Series was determined by which league triumphed in the All-Star Game. This system resulted in the American League pennant winner having home field advantage in every series from 2002 through 2009. It was eventually decided that having a mid-season exhibition game carry such enormous stakes was a bad idea.
As of 2017, home field in the World Series goes to the club with the best regular-season record. If both league champions have identical records, their head-to-head record becomes the tiebreaker. If they still are tied, the squad with the best divisional record gets home field.
The National League team with the most World Series appearances and wins is the St. Louis Cardinals. St. Louis has won the NL pennant and earned the right to represent the National League on nineteen different occasions. They’ve won the World Series eleven times, with the most recent win occurring in 2011.
In the American League, the New York Yankees are the cream of the crop. Not only have they won more World Series titles than any other AL team, but they’ve won more than any Major League Baseball franchise. The Bronx Bombers have won the AL pennant a staggering 40 times. They went on to win the World Series as well on 27 of those occasions. Their most recent championship was acquired in 2009.
The National League and American League were both established in the early days of professional baseball in North America. Without much organization or coordination, the sport was a bit chaotic at first with leagues continually starting and folding, while clubs were having an even harder time operating consistently. The NL was born out of desperation when a team owner was faced with having his best players banned from the squad. Instead, he met in secrecy with other league owners and formed the National League in 1876.
The American League struggled early on as well. It began as a minor league organization before eventually being purchased by Johnson and Comiskey, two owners whose strict rules and bans on cursing attracted many fans. Finally, the AL was founded, and the two major league associations began to compete viciously for each other’s talent.
It wasn’t until 1903, with the signing of the National Agreement, that the framework was put into place to create modern baseball. That first agreement led to the creation of the World Series and a central governing body, both integral parts of baseball history. This eventually led to the appointment of a commissioner. Interleague play came next, and by 2000, the two leagues were dissolved as legal entities and instead became pieces of the single league umbrella organization called Major League Baseball.
To this day, the two leagues play under slightly different rules. Everything is the same except for the designated hitter rule. Most baseball historians anticipate a future in which the associations are forgotten altogether. Instead, the designated hitter will always be used, and all MLB franchises will play each other an equal amount of times.
Regardless of how things evolve, these two associations have a lot of history together. They’ve competed for talent, joined together to form a united professional baseball governing body, and faced off for the World Series 113 times. Today, the American League holds the all-time lead by a record of 65 – 48, but who knows what the future may hold?