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The Forgotten History of MLB’s Pitch Clock

Though baseball’s pitch timer may be new, its origins are anything but

AP Images/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When the MLB regular season starts on Thursday, baseball won’t look like its old self. If you’ve watched spring training or seen the league’s rule-centric marketing campaign, you know what’s in store: restrictions on defensive positioning; restrictions on pitcher step-offs and pickoff attempts; slightly bigger bases; and a pitch clock that counts down from 15 seconds with the bases empty and 20 seconds with runners on.

That last change may be the most immediately noticeable, and the one with the most predictable (and desirable) result. The pitch clock trimmed about 25 minutes per game, on average, in the minor leagues last season, and repeated the trick in spring training this year. If it does the same during the regular season, the decrease would almost triple MLB’s largest recorded year-to-year reduction in average game duration, essentially turning back (game) time to what it was four decades ago. “The pitch timer is—by far—the biggest change that’s coming this season,” MLB executive vice president Morgan Sword said last month. “Frankly, it’s probably the biggest change that’s been made to baseball in most of our lifetimes.”

In principle, a pitch clock would appear to tamper with one of baseball’s bedrock traits: It’s the sport without a clock, befitting its status as a pastime that preceded standardized time. In practice, though, the pitch clock is less radical than it seems, for four reasons.

First: MLB still won’t use a clock in the way most sports leagues do—the kind of clock that dictates exactly how long play lasts. The pitch clock limits the time between pitches, but not how many pitches there are, which depends on the number of innings, the number of plate appearances, and the number of pitches per plate appearance—all unknowable, and theoretically infinite. (Albeit somewhat constrained by the game-shortening zombie runner.) Roger Angell observed that “baseball time is measured only in outs.” Now we might amend that to, “baseball time is measured mostly in outs.”

Second: I said baseball in 2023 won’t look like its old self, and that’s true if we’re comparing it to baseball in 2022. But if all goes well, it will look like its even older self. Baseball rule changes are “reflexively conservative,” writes Richard Hershberger in Strike Four: The Evolution of Baseball, adding, “What matters is that the game has changed, and the rule makers want to return it to its former state.” MLB isn’t trying to break new ground in game time by imposing a pitch clock. It’s just trying to make games move and look like they used to. “Field like Ozzie [Smith], run like Rickey,” Bryan Cranston says in one of MLB’s ads about the new rules, invoking two ’80s icons. These measures are intended to revert changes as much as they are to effect them—to restore the straight-up defense, stolen bases, and faster tempo that distinguished the game when many of its aging fans (including Cranston) were young.

Third: A limit on the time between pitches has been on the books almost since time immemorial—1901, to be specific. That year, the National League (followed in short order by the brand-new American League) adopted this mandate: “The umpire shall call a ball on the pitcher each time he delays the game by failing to deliver the ball to the batsman for a longer period than 20 seconds.” More than a century later, in 2006—by which time games were a full hour longer, on average, than they had been in 1901—MLB made an amendment: “When the bases are unoccupied, the pitcher shall deliver the ball to the batter within 12 seconds after he receives the ball.” This year’s 15-second ceiling with the bases empty is less strict than that. In other words, the rule book has called for a clock for most of baseball’s history. The only difference this season is that MLB is belatedly heeding that call in a concerted fashion.

And fourth: Thursday won’t be the first time that pitch clocks—the 20-second rule made manifest—have been in operation at big league games. In fact, timers much like the ones we’ll see this week made their major league debuts before divisions and DHs. The pitch clock may be the biggest change made to baseball in most of our lifetimes—but its origins predate any of our lifetimes. And though the concept of the clock may strike some fans as newfangled or heretical, its present implementation is 60 or even 120 years overdue.

Let’s time travel.

Once upon a time, when the world moved more slowly and baseball moved more quickly, speed was one of the sport’s selling points. “From the moment the first striker takes his position and poises his bat, it has an excitement and vim about it, until the last hand is put out in the ninth inning,” wrote the Brooklyn Daily Times in an 1866 account of baseball’s preeminence among American outdoor sports. “There is no drag, but all activity from beginning to end; and if one feels disposed to leave the ground temporarily, he will generally waive his desire, especially if it is a close contest, from fear of missing some good point or clever effort of the trial.”

An American crowd, the same author asserted, couldn’t be kept in one place for two hours or more sans exciting entertainment; centuries before smartphones and TikTok, Americans were, apparently, “too mercurial and impulsive … not to get drowsy and dissatisfied with anything which permits their natural ardor to droop even for a brief space of time.” Hence their affection for slam-bang baseball. “In short,” the author concluded—and back then, it was short—“the game suits the people, and the people suit it.” The sport’s pace suited some non-Americans, too: “In base-ball, action is continuous and rapid,” marveled one English observer in 1874. Another Londoner noted, “it is a fast game, full of change and excitement and not in the least wearisome.” (Admittedly, the Brits were comparing it to cricket.)

“In 19th-century baseball something was always happening and players and fans were always kept on their toes,” writes Peter Morris in A Game of Inches. How did we get from the fast-paced game of the 1860s to the interminable slog described in John Irving’s 1989 novel A Prayer for Owen Meany? “Baseball, in my opinion, is boring,” Irving’s narrator, John Wheelwright, laments, bemoaning the time between pitches. “It is a game with a lot of waiting in it; it is a game with increasingly heightened anticipation of increasingly limited action.” (Here’s a disconcerting thought: MLB games were almost 20 minutes slower in 2022 than they were when Irving’s book came out. Even if the pitch clock is a rousing success, it might only get us from Moneyball back to Meanyball.)

Baseball’s lack of a clock left it vulnerable to entropy, gamesmanship, and mission creep. Routine delays and timeouts multiplied, both because of the sport’s increasing stakes and complexity—substitutions, the proliferation of spectators and equipment, signals and sign-stealing, and so on—and because players pursued every chance to tactically lollygag. Just as pitchers constantly tested the constraints on their deliveries, gradually raising their arms until overhand throwing was legalized, they also tested the constraints on not delivering, holding the ball like proto-Pedro Báezes to disrupt batters’ timing. When umpires relented and let disadvantaged batters take timeouts, the batters began to delay. Then as now, dawdling could improve performance, which sent the sport’s pace sliding down a slippery slope. Strikeouts tend to increase over time partly because pitchers are incentivized to record them more than batters are incentivized to avoid them. Both batters and pitchers have good reason to slow down, so games gradually get longer if umpires aren’t empowered, equipped, or encouraged to rush them along.

In Strike Four, Hershberger argues that game length (along with scoring fluctuations and overburdened umps) is one of the main drivers of rules changes: “We think of this as a modern issue, but it has been a concern throughout the history of the game.” (Walks and strikeouts were invented to curtail endless at-bats.) The sport’s stall tactics metastasized and intensified in the lead-up to 1901, when a number of pace-improving tweaks—including the toothless 20-second rule—went into effect. “The loafing tactics indulged in of late years … will not be tolerated hereafter,” went one reaction. They were, of course, and the complaints continued.

We don’t have great data on 19th-century game times, but we know that in 1901, the average nine-inning game time was roughly one hour and 47 minutes. Although it ticked up from there in fits and starts, it was still under two hours as late as 1944—and then never again. As Bill James wrote, “Until about 1945, baseball did have a clock. It was called the sun.” Before baseball could be played at night, umps and players had to hurry to get games in. Granted, players sometimes stalled so that games couldn’t be completed, but the pressure was mostly applied in favor of fast play. Artificial lighting removed much of that pressure, and as Morris noted, “the effect was dramatic.”

It took 25 years for the average nine-inning game time to go from two hours—in 1935, the year of the first night game in the white major leagues—to two and a half hours (in 1959). It then took 55 more years, until 2014, to climb another 30 minutes (a smaller change on a percentage basis) and reach the three-hour mark for the first time. Retrosheet’s game-time data is complete back to 1930. As the graph below shows, the mid-1950s through the mid-1960s saw a much higher percentage increase in game time compared to 20 years previous (when day games were still supreme) than did the decades-later spike that spurred its own experiments in speeding up play. Electricity made baseball less electric.

Not by coincidence, it was during that early-’60s peak that the pitch clock was born.

By the spring of 1950, baseball’s leading powers admitted that games had gotten too slow—two hours and 19 minutes, on average, per nine-inning affair—but no one could agree on a remedy. “The shortening of games is mainly up to the pitchers and players themselves,” said AL president Will Harridge, ensuring that there’d be no shortening of games. NL head (and future commissioner) Ford Frick also threw up his hands, asking, “Who is going to make a pitcher hurry up when that is his bread and butter?” Evidently, neither the American nor the National League!

Even in 1901, it had been clear that the 20-second rule would go nowhere without some means of enforcement. “The rule cannot be commended too highly, but unless there is to be an official timekeeper, like there is at a boxing match, it is difficult to see how the 20 seconds can be determined accurately,” said Lebanon, Pennsylvania’s Evening Report. The author added that “time has been made such an important factor that each umpire in the future will not only have to carry a guidebook but a stopwatch with split-second hands as well.”

The aged sportswriter (and future Hall of Famer) Henry Chadwick was more dismissive of the 1901 rule. “I do not think it can be practically worked to advantage,” he harrumphed. The following five decades appeared to prove him right.

With game times still soaring in 1955—a year after the shot clock came to the NBA—the Playing Rules Committee asked umpires in both leagues “to use a stopwatch during spring training as an experiment to see how many times pitchers aren’t delivering the ball within 20 seconds when bases are empty.” Supposedly, the restriction was tightened from 20 seconds after “assuming pitching position” to 20 seconds after getting the ball back (which is when the clock starts now). It didn’t make much difference: With no restriction in place with runners on, and no serious commitment to close scrutiny, only infrequent infractions occurred.

Umps paid more lip service to the 20-second rule in 1957, but standards were still laxer than last season’s sticky-stuff inspections. “It’s a practical matter of umpiring judgment,” said AL umpire Eddie Rommel, explaining why he wouldn’t use a stopwatch. Another, Larry Napp, echoed, “I figure to count—use my own judgment.” However, one baseball luminary knew this wouldn’t work and favored a more rigorous, comprehensive solution: Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg, then Cleveland’s GM. In March of ’57, AL ump supervisor Cal Hubbard pooh-poohed the idea: “Greenberg wanted to put up a big 20-second clock in all the parks, but we won’t need that.” Had Greenberg gotten his way 66 years ago, the game-time graph above might have looked very different. (You can make your own meme of “The World If.”)

In 1960, Greenberg’s friend, business partner, and future fellow Hall of Famer Bill Veeck, the owner of the White Sox, debuted his so-called “exploding scoreboard” at Comiskey Park. The scoreboard had a hidden feature: a pitch clock that Veeck called the “pitchometer.” “When the hand hit the 20-second mark it activated a siren that was guaranteed to knock the pitcher’s hat off and startle lovers in the downtown hotels,” Veeck wrote in his 1965 book The Hustler’s Handbook. “With luck, it might even call the umpire’s attention to the violation of the rule.” Luck wasn’t with him: Ill health forced him to sell the Sox the next year, before he was able to add the pitchometer to his long list of infamous publicity stunts. “I was so intent on getting the maximum value out of my pitchometer that I got no value out of it at all,” Veeck wrote.

Veeck’s whiff with the clock was a blow, but 1962 was a watershed. That January, president Raymond Dumont of the National Baseball Congress—an organization of amateur and semipro leagues that dates back to 1935—announced that the 28th National Baseball Congress Tournament, to be held that August in Wichita’s Lawrence Stadium, would feature a 20-second pitch clock (and a 90-second between-innings clock) installed in the scoreboard by Timex, which would “set off a horn automatically at a given time.” Dumont estimated that the clock—which would run with the bases empty and with runners on and penalize players with automatic balls and strikes—would cut 20 to 30 minutes off games. When it went into action, it drew rave reviews and, according to Dumont, slashed game times by 25 minutes—at least until a rainy night short-circuited the clock. Undeterred, Dumont predicted that the majority of professional leagues would adopt the clock the next season, and that they would enjoy an attendance boost of at least 20 percent. He was wrong about that, but right about this: “The rules just won’t work unless a penalty is invoked.”

The NBC may have been the first to announce the pitch clock, but it wasn’t the first to use one. Before the ’62 season, Dewey Soriano, president of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League, announced that the 20-second rule would be strictly enforced (for real). In most PCL parks, the third-base umpire monitored the time via stopwatch, but the Portland Beavers (a Kansas City A’s affiliate) and the Spokane Indians (a Dodgers affiliate) installed pitch clocks. Portland GM Bill Sayles thought the clock would “put a little showmanship back into the game”; Spokane GM Spencer Harris, no fan of the 20-second rule, still turned a tidy profit on it, selling a sponsorship of the $1,500 installation for $2,500.

Old-timers’ scorn was withering: Hall of Fame pitcher (and Giants farm director) Carl Hubbell spoke for future generations of pitch-clock skeptics when he said, “The idea is absolutely silly. It’s the worst thing that could happen to baseball. One of the advantages of the game is that there is no time element.” The clock in Spokane, which was operated from the press box by the PA announcer, didn’t work so well: It wasn’t ready for the first game, blew a fuse in the second, and rarely, if ever, caught a culprit. (“I never saw the thing unwind past nine seconds,” said Seattle Rainiers manager Johnny Pesky.) In a Portland-Vancouver game, the clock twice “ran down to zero without the umpire calling a ball.” Even though no penalties had been issued as of late May, Soriano claimed that the threat of the clock had shaved 15 minutes off games.

In 1963—the year MLB enlarged its strike zone to shorten games and lower offense, which in the latter case worked too well—the pitch clock spread to the entire Texas League, a six-team Double-A circuit. But because the Texas League’s clock, like the PCL’s, was idle with runners on base, there were “few violations and fewer enforcements of the violations.” Umpires went along only grudgingly, fans soon lost interest, and the mechanisms proved prone to malfunctions. “There was a $50 bill for parts every time we turned around,” one GM moaned. On the plus side, the Quad Cities Angels—the lone pitch-clock outpost in the A-ball Midwest League—had great success with their timer, which they continued to use for the rest of the decade.

The Daily Times (Davenport, Iowa)

Despite those mixed minor league results, the pitch clock briefly made the majors in 1965, courtesy of A’s owner Charlie Finley, a relentless promoter, experimenter, and spiritual predecessor of the Savannah Bananas. Finley announced in April ’65 that he’d install a pitch clock devised by Dumont at Municipal Stadium for a weekend series against the Yankees. He made good on his promise, and though the clock was only for show—its buzzer was silenced, and no penalties were applied—it identified a total of 33 violations in the last two games of its three-contest trial. “Finley’s real problem,” one wag said, “is that his own pitchers, sooner or later, have to throw the ball.” The A’s staff was weak, but Finley liked the clock. During the few weeks it was up, Sports Illustrated reported, “he was about as popular with umpires as a foul tip.”

The ever-confident Dumont now predicted that every MLB park would feature his timer in two years.

It could have happened, too—if not in two years, then in four, and if not in every MLB park, then in every AL one. In 1969, baseball was reeling from the low-ebb offense of the “Year of the Pitcher,” which put the sport in an experimental mood. The strike zone and mound were downsized, and divisions and playoffs premiered. But something was still off: “Baseball lacks the continuous action of football and basketball, where the action is strictly enforced by time-clocks,” one pessimistic piece noted. Maybe a clock could help.

At the winter meetings before the ’69 season, the AL decided to install “pitchometers”—Veeck’s word—at every park. “Hell, yes,” said Senators manager Ted Williams. “I think it’s great.” No sooner had reports circulated, though, than AL president Joe Cronin walked them back, explaining that only some parks would feature pitch clocks, while in others the third-base ump would do the timing with a stopwatch. (The NL planned only to urge its umps to enforce the rule yet again, without electronic aids.) Cronin later explained that while he was “sold on the idea,” the response he received to a memo instructing all clubs to clock in was “so sharply divided” that he decided to make the use of timers voluntary. Basically, he caved, though his support still outstripped that of NL president Warren Giles, who fretted that “Once the clock got up to 15 seconds, the pitcher would start rushing. It would rob him of his effectiveness and destroy the entire tempo of the game.”

The AL initiative was still limited to bases-empty situations, and stopwatch enforcement was suspect, but three teams agreed to go ahead with the original plan for a scoreboard clock: Cleveland, Chicago—which had Veeck’s old pitchometer already installed—and Baltimore. “As far as we know, it’s to be used all year,” Orioles VP of business affairs Jack Dunn III said that January. Dunn, an advocate of deleting the dead air from games, borrowed an old cigarette slogan to sum up his stance on length and pace: “It’s not how long you make it, but how you make it long.”

The Orioles’ clock, manufactured by Longines, was first installed at spring training in Miami. When the clock arrived, “several key parts were missing.” Then there were technical difficulties, a common theme in an era when the haptic-feedback devices umps will wear this year might have seemed like sci-fi. The radio-controlled timer, set to 20 seconds, jumped to 50 every time a plane passed over Miami Stadium—which happened, Baltimore’s Evening Sun said, every 20 seconds. (The author suggested timing the pitchers with planes instead of the clock.) It also suffered interference from police-car radios. A change in radio frequency fixed that flaw, but a defective part delayed its regular-season debut at Memorial Stadium. It was used eventually, but a late-April report said its countdowns didn’t begin until the pitchers were picking up signs. As a result, “the timer never got below 10 seconds all night,” preventing anyone from witnessing its “loud trumpet-like noise and flashing lights.”

Through April 25, Dunn had manned the clock at eight Orioles home games, triggering the unofficial timer at a hand signal from the second-base umpire, who kept the official time with his stopwatch. Dunn had caught only one offender, the Senators’ Frank Bertaina—and the ump didn’t call it.

Former Orioles executive and pitch-clock operator Jack Dunn III
Richard Stoll Armstrong,

By late July, use of the clock had been discontinued, though its display still stared out darkly from the scoreboard. (For all the preseason stopwatch/clock hoopla, AL games were slightly longer than the NL’s in 1969.) “Must be hard to toss a $20,000 timepiece into the trash can,” jeered the Associated Press. At least the Orioles’ Longines legend lives on through this explanatory page from an August 7, 1969, program, which gives us a glimpse of the clock in its brief better days.

In early 1970, Dumont declared that he was lowering his 20/90-second timer to 18/75. Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn caught wind of Dumont’s pitch-clock confidence and had his assistant place a call. “The commissioner feels we have to do something to speed up baseball,” the assistant told Dumont. Dumont scoured the spring schedule for an exhibition game where he could put the clock through its paces for Kuhn. Maybe this would be the breakthrough.

Submitted by Jody Madron

It wasn’t. The 1960s’ pitch-clock fever faded faster than flower power. At the winter meetings in December 1970, the Rules Committee met and nixed a slew of proposals, some of which had been tested in the minors and some of which had existed only in Finley’s vivid imagination: colored bases and foul lines, widened foul lines, automatic intentional walks, various DH antecedents—and the 20-second pitch clock. The MLB pitch-clock dream was dead. Several months later, Dumont was too.

It’s been so long since the pitch clock’s first moment in the major league sun that few fans are aware of the faltering but promising precedents for the modernized, standardized system we’ll see in every big league ballpark this week. I asked a few ’69 Orioles whether they remembered the star-crossed clock that presided over the outset of their 109-win, pennant-claiming campaign. “I don’t remember one stinkin’ thing about it, to be honest,” says Eddie Watt. Dave Leonhard is “shocked” to hear about it, though he goes on to say, “It wouldn’t have been an issue with me, because I liked to get the ball and throw it right back.” He tells me to try Jim Palmer: “He can remember what he had to eat 20 years ago.” Yet Palmer, the Hall of Famer who’s famous for forgetting nothing, says, “I really don’t recall the O’s having a pitch clock in 1969.” The closest I come to a positive ID is outfielder Merv Rettenmund’s hazy, possibly-humoring-me memory: “They were trying to speed up the game. … The only thing I remember is they were talking about the number of seconds they were saving. They weren’t cutting any time off the game.” I’ll take it.

After the failure of the first pitch-clock movement, it took 40 years for timer momentum to begin to build back up again. In the long, clockless limbo after Dumont’s death, MLB game times ballooned by as much as 40 minutes relative to 1970, and the minutes between balls in play skyrocketed. Even as that crisis became more acute, it took more than a decade—longer than the span of the sport’s first flirtation with the technology—for pitch clocks of varying aggressiveness to incrementally infiltrate college baseball, the independent Atlantic League, the affiliated minors, MLB spring training, and, this week, the MLB regular season. Thanks to its decidedly slow-paced reintroduction, the pitch clock is popular with fans and familiar to players. It’s amazing how many of baseball’s new rules are old ideas. Some changes, like some baseball games, take an unaccountably long time.

One lesson of the long countdown to the pitch clock’s permanent stay is that left unchecked and unguided, the game will go to seed. People have complained about baseball games getting longer for almost as long as baseball’s been played, but just because the concern is cyclical doesn’t mean it’s silly: Games have been getting longer for almost as long as baseball’s been played. They won’t in 2023, an overdue victory for vigilance born of the hard-earned knowledge that rules aren’t worth the pixels they’re printed on unless they’re crafted carefully, applied consistently, and enforced from the top down.

The pitch clock can’t totally turn back the … well, you know. There are more foul balls hit than there used to be, and more pitches thrown; there are more pitchers used, and more ads aired. The more pitches there are, the more seconds can be saved by cutting time between them, but there’s no way to stuff the sport back into its 19th-century suit—nor, in most ways, would we want to. The game’s got good bones; it just needs a polish.

The pitch clock could be baseball’s elbow grease. The answer to the sport’s length-and-pace-of-play problems—an answer, anyway—was out there for ages, biding its time for a lot longer than 20 seconds. Which has to make you wonder what fixes for baseball’s other ills are still waiting their turn to trample inertia, as time keeps ticking away.

Thanks to Richard Hershberger, Kenny Jackelen, and Jody Madron for research assistance.