It has become the norm in American sports, but what is the history behind the practice?
WASHINGTON — A few weeks ago, a friend of mine was looking at Major League
Soccer playoff scores and became confused by the fact that they listed the
home team first.
“That’s stupid,” he said.
Whether or not you agree on its stupidity, one thing is for sure: It’s un-
This is not to insult soccer. It’s simply to point out that every major
American sport lists the home team last, unlike European soccer. The incident
with my friend made me wonder exactly why that was. And after speaking with
nearly a dozen sports historians across baseball and football and around the
world of sports statistics, I am only somewhat closer to the answer.
The most logical starting point for such a practice seemed to be in
baseball. After all, the home team bats last, so it makes sense to list them
underneath the visitors in a box score, to reflect the chronological order in
which the offenses take their chances. What I discovered, though, is that this
component of the game has not always been this way.
Peter Morris, a member of the Society for American Baseball Research and
author of the book “A Game of Inches: The Stories Behind the Innovations that
Shaped Baseball,” says the question of who
bats last has only defaulted to the home team as the game’s strategy
has developed, and that it’s only been a rule for the
majority of the sport’s existence.
“Managers were given the choice of whether to bat first or last,”
Morris explains. In the
1880s, they almost invariably chose to bat last. Very few people realize it,
Morris says, but managers could still choose to bat first
until 1950. “But none of them ever did, so at last the rule was changed in
to reflect that reality.”
This set of box scores from a doubleheader in Chicago shows each team batting last in one game. (Courtesy: Library of Congress)
Steve Hirdt, of the Elias Sports Bureau, confirms the “Choice of Innings” rule
did not change until 1950. Home teams only ever batted first to break out of
the mold, Hirdt
said, maybe to break a losing streak.
This could explain why an entry from the Boston Journal in 1885 lists a
doubleheader in Chicago on July 4 showing the White Stockings
batting in the traditional home half against the New York Giants in Game 1
(which they lost, 6-3), only to bat first in the second game (which they won
the same score).
“It has also been reported that teams might flip a coin or choose other
methods to determine who would start in the field or at bat,” says Matt
Rothenberg, of the Giamatti Research Center at the National Baseball Hall of
Fame Museum. “Baseball box scores have evolved greatly over the past 170 or so
years. It would seem, to me at least, that placing the teams in the order of
how they batted would be the most logical way of representing the facts.”
That works for baseball. But basketball and football don’t have the same
natural elements of the game that would induce such a construction of a box
score. So early college football results appear to have been marked
arbitrarily, such as the college scores from the Trenton Evening Times of Oct.
20, 1912, which show home teams listed first and last, even when both won
Providence is listed first despite being the home team because they won, while Princeton is listed last under the same circumstances. (Courtesy: Library of Congress)
Kent Stephens, a historian at the College Football Hall of Fame, in Atlanta,
says that listing home teams last was not necessarily a rule, but a common
practice that simply became the way things were done. Why does he think
football began doing things this way?
“My wild guess is that it came from baseball,” he says.
Dick Beverage, president of the Pacific Coast League Historical Society,
corroborates that theory.
“Baseball was the only professional league in America in the 19th century,” he
explains. “It set the standards in other leagues and sports.”
As games were more widely covered by an increasingly wide array of media
types, the desire for uniformity in reporting scores became more pressing.
There was also the matter of convenience in terms of how the games are
described in the modern world of sports broadcasting.
“The game is more easily described as Portland at Sacramento or Calgary at St.
Louis,” said Hirdt. “Both for clarity and brevity.”
While that’s true, does he believe ultimately that baseball’s somewhat
arbitrary evolution of rules led to the way every other sport does business?
“I think that’s probably right,” Hirdt says.
By the time the NFL and the NBA were fully established, baseball’s methods
were much more consistent. And while the exact reason why we do so may be lost
to the annals of history, the act of listing the home team last is firmly
ingrained into American sports culture. To do otherwise seems, well, un-