The Biggest Sports Rule Changes and How They Have Affected History

Use your ← → (arrow) keys to browse more stories
The Biggest Sports Rule Changes and How They Have Affected History
(Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

Everyone knows that the only constant in life is change. 

This rule also applies to the sports world, and sometimes the rules make a huge difference on the history of the game.  In each major sport, a specific rule has changed the outcome of some of the most famous records and games, as well as the history of some of the most famous players.

Baseball

Baseball, first played in the mid-1850’s in New York’s Metropolitan area, has changed drastically over the years.  The first rule that jumped out at me on the list was that in 1887, base on balls were recorded in the stat book as a hit.  Making it an even weirder stat was the fact that five balls were needed to record a base on balls and four strikes were needed for a strike out.

If you look at the record book, the top two single-season leaders for hits, Pete Browning and Tip O’Neill, both came in 1877.  They each recorded 275 hits on the year with Browning drawing 55 walks and O’Neill drawing 50 of his own.  What is still impressive is that even if you take away the walks both drew in the season, their hits (225 and 220) would still rank in the top 100 of all-time for hits in a season.

Pete Browning had 275 hits in 1877 but walks also counted as hits.

Pete Browning had 275 hits in 1877 but walks also counted as hits that year.

The rule was changed after just one season and the walks were taken away from both players, but were later given back in 1999 by Major League Baseball.  Still, Browning and O’Neill are not recognized as the leaders on the list, but rather Ichiro Suzuki, who smacked 262 hits in 2004 to break George Sisler’s 84-year record.

On the single season hits list, nine of the top 100 players on that list accomplished their feat in 1887.

When looking at pitchers and their overall statistics, two rules jump out that might have changed the history books.  First, in 1893 the pitching distance was moved back from 50 feet to 60 feet, six inches.  Just think about that for a second.  Back when I played baseball for my town’s travel team, the fifth and sixth grade mounds were 48 feet away.

Looking back at the history book, 18 of the top 100 single-season ERA marks occurred before 1876.  Once again, the Major Leagues did away with counting stats in the official record book before 1876, but career marks included any outings before 1876.  That includes Jim Devlin who is fifth on the list, John Ward (7th), and Al Spalding (9th) amongst others.

Also, in 1917 the “spitball” and all other “freak pitches” were banned from the game of baseball because they gave pitchers too big on an advantage.  Many more of those career leaders in ERA pitched before 1917, and while there might not be a direct correlation with the spitball, there is something to be said for it.

Not that Ricky Henderson would care, but maybe Ty Cobb (4th all time in steals) and Honus Wagner (10th) would remember that in 1920, ninth inning uncontested steals were discarded and fielder’s indifference was introduced.

While times were completely different back then and starters threw innings upon innings, wouldn’t it be interesting to know who would have closed and saved the 110 wins for the 1927 Yankees?  Or the 116 wins of the 1906 Chicago Cubs?

From 1936 to 1943, a span of eight years, the New York Yankees won 799 games.  In that span, Johnny Murphy “finished” 219 games for the Yankees.  He only started 12 games for the Yankees in those eight years, so he was clearly the go-to reliever for the Bronx Bombers.

Unfortunately for Murphy, the Yankees had 77, 82, 91, 87, 76, 75, 88, and 83 complete games in that span.  For a guy coming out of the bullpen whose teams won 1259 games over his 13 year career (average of almost 97 wins per season), it stinks that the save was not around.

Football

The biggest change to the rules of football, which really has happened in every sport, is probably the number of games in each season.  The NFL went from 12 games to 14 games in 1960 and to 16 games in 1977.  Two or even four extra games every year did wonders for the players in that era and made some stats somewhat tainted.

Take the NFL’s rushing records, which to many are the most historic and valued of any in the game today.  The current leader, Emmitt Smith, rushed for 18,355 yards over the course of 226 games and 15 seasons.  That leaves Smith with an average of 81.2 yards per game played in.

Walter Payton, regarded by most as the game’s greatest rusher of all time, rushed for 16,726 yards over the course of 190 games and 13 years.  This means Payton rushed for 88.03 yards in each of his games, on average.

Barry Sanders is third on the all-time list with 15,269 yards in 153 games over ten years, leaving him with an average of 99.79 yards per game.  Sanders left the game earlier than most had wanted him to, but injury forced him out of the game as he did not want to end up with life-lasting pains.

As good as all three of those rushers were, they all played in 16-game seasons (with the exception of Payton’s first three years in the league). 

Now let’s take a look at Jim Brown, running back for the Cleveland Browns.

He played just nine years in the league, with his first four being 12 game seasons.  The last five were 14 game seasons and overall, the Syracuse alum rushed for 12,312 yards in 118 games.  That gives him an average of 104.33 yards per game over the course of his career. 

Let’s say Brown was able to play all 16-game seasons during his career.  That would give him an extra 26 games during his career and, when multiplied by his yards per game, gives him an extra 2,712 yards in his career.

That total would give him 15,024 yards for his career, right behind Barry Sanders for fourth all-time instead of eighth, where he stands now.  Remember also that Brown retired when he was 29 years old, the same age that Barry Sanders rushed for 2,053 yards and the same age Payton rushed for 1421 yards.  Emmitt Smith would rush for over 1,300 yards when he was 29 and would play six years after that age.

While the style of the game meant that players did not play as long as they do now, the games played sure had a lot to do with it.

Basketball

By far, the two biggest changes to the NBA in the league’s history have been the shot clock and the three point line.

Starting in 1954, the NBA introduced the 24-second shot clock that saw a huge jump in points scored per game.  George Mikan and Bob Cousy are two players whose careers started in the “pre-shot clock era” and had their points per game affected because of it.

While the NBA itself was affected greatly by the introduction of the shot clock, the three point line affected player’s stats much more.

Beginning in 1979, the NBA put in a stripe that, when shot behind, would count for three points.  The introduction of the three point line was the cause of much higher scoring games and, in return, more scoring records that were broken.

John Havlicek ranks 14th all-time on the NBA’s scoring list but never once played in an NBA game with a three point line.  As a 6′5″ guard/forward with a solid jump shot, it’s a good bet he would have shot up the charts if some of his baskets were worth three points.

Imagine what kind of numbers Bob Cousy would have put up with a three-point line.

Imagine what kind of numbers Bob Cousy would have put up with a three-point line.

Because it was the introduction to a completely new rule that some people had never seen before, it is hard to project what players would have done with the three point line.  Pistol Pete Maravich set the record of 3,667 points at Lousiana State in just three years to become the leading scorer in college basketball history.  He did this all without the three point line as well.

Also, in 1944, the three second violation was introduced. No player could be in the paint for more than three seconds at a time.  Twenty years later, Wilt Chamberlain was dominating posts inside like no one else had, so the lane was extended from 12 feet to 16 feet.

Can you imagine Wilt Chamberlain, for the first eight years of his career, in a lane that was two feet smaller on each side?  It’s a good thing for defending players that he did not come into the league before the three second lane violation was introduced.

What Does it All Mean?

It’s hard to call any of the records or numbers used in examples as tainted or not as legitimate as another in a different era.  The game has changed drastically and with it comes rule changes. 

Just about every rule change on any list you look at in major sports has made the game better in the long run.

In baseball, unrealistic numbers were being put up by pitchers and it was simply too hard for batters to keep up.  While pitchers still continue to out-do hitters as a whole, the playing field has been evened since the mound was lowered and the rubber was moved back.

In football, instant replay has changed the game around completely.  No longer are referees considered infallible and have the final say on calls.

Games have been added to the schedule that have changed records because, simply put, more games could be played.  16 game seasons and more wildcard teams have added more importance to the regular season and elongated the greatest game on earth.

In basketball, the game has been changed completely to make it more exciting and to see numbers go up.  The shot clock was probably the biggest rule change of any sport that made the game more strategic and more difficult.  Only the best shooters and quickest players would survive.

The three point line evened the playing field so that teams could make a comeback when trailing late in a game.

Rules will continue to come and go and records will continue to be broken.  It will be interesting to see an article written on the same subject 40 years from now.

Load More Stories

Follow B/R on Facebook