Why do rosters expand in September?

During a brief conversation in the bowels of Citi Field last night, the topic of MLB’s September roster expansion came up.

It’s a weird wrinkle, unlike any other I know of in professional sports. Managers spend the first five months of a season with 25 players to work with, then the last month with up to 40. It can lead to seemingly interminable games like Tuesday’s 13-pitcher affair between the Mets and Nationals, but it provides some relief for tired players down the stretch and gives teams and fans an opportunity to preview of some of the prospects that might soon contribute to the big-league club more regularly.

I got to wondering when and why the tradition started, figuring it must have been a product of some collective-bargaining agreement of yesteryear.

It turns out late-season roster expansion dates back to the earliest days of baseball. By 1910, teams kept active rosters of 25 guys for most of the season and could expand to 40 starting Sept. 1.

But why?

I emailed official MLB historian John Thorn for help. He writes:

I can only speculate that as minor-league seasons tended to close earlier than major-league ones, September seemed to be a good time to reward high-performing aspirants perhaps less expensively than inviting them to spring camp. The extra-manpower feature surely was not as important in the early days, when staring pitchers tended to complete a high percentage of their games.

That makes sense. I’d love to find a newspaper article or something from 1910 stating the exact reasons, but I have no idea what microfiche I’d have to pull up.

Some have complained that the rule creates an uneven playing field, in part because the league’s more cash-strapped teams might not have the resources to pay all the extra Major League salaries.

But as John Schuerholz points out in the linked article, it’s not as if teams are all working with the same payroll in the other five months of the season. And if a GM thinks September call-ups are enough to make a difference in a pennant chase, he could allot room for them in his budget before the season.

HT to @OldBiscuitPants, who points out that Lou Gehrig was a September call-up in 1923 and 1924.

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