Roster Limits


In the early years of Major League Baseball, the only limit on the number of players a team could carry was economic. No one could afford to carry more than the minimum number of players needed to get through a season. Since the first seasons included many off days and most teams used only one or two pitchers, 11 or 12 players generally sufficed. Teams could be sure of keeping a player only for the term of his contract. Soon the National League decided that a greater measure of control over players was needed, so it instituted a reserve rule in 1879. This allowed teams to designate five players that other NL teams could not sign. Within a few years, the size of the reserve list was increased to 11, enough to cover all or nearly all of a team's players. The size of the list was gradually increased over the next decade, but except for a 25 man limit included in the 1884 National Agreement between the NL, American Association, and the minor leagues, no rule actually limited the number of players a team could have during the season. Once again economics came into play, though, following the merger of the two major leagues in 1892. Initially, each team was allowed fifteen players. Despite the new monopoly, attendance was falling, and many of the 12 teams in the NL-AA were losing money. In June of that year, a roster limit of 13, one below the reserve limit, was instituted. This had the side effect of allowing the weaker teams to acquire the players cut loose from the stronger teams.

As the sport's economic picture improved, reserve limits were increased, with a new roster limit of 18 being set in 1899. With renewed competition from the American League, a lower limit was made in 1901, but after the two leagues made peace, a new prosperity allowed larger rosters. In 1910, a new scheme was instituted, with teams being allowed to keep as many as 40 players under control during the offseason and the early and late parts of the season. Prior to 1921, this total did not include players on optional assignments. During the heart of the season, though, teams had to reduce their active rosters to 25 players. Adjustments were made from time to time in these limits, depending on competition from the Federal League and economic conditions. Beginning in 1957, teams were required to reduce their active rosters to 28 players by opening day, with the final reduction to 25 players coming 30 days later. Starting 1968, the 25 man limit was in effect from opening day, although teams were allowed to carry 40 players after August 31.

The other significant changes in roster limits came in response to special circumstances. During and following World War II, in order to accomodate players returning from military service, rosters were expanded by 20% for two years. This allowed teams to obey the law requiring them to give servicemen their pre-war jobs back. A similar rule was passed for Korean War veterans. The other major change came following the failure of the bonus rule to limit large expenditures. A first year player draft was instituted, and to allow teams to take advantage of it, an additional reserve list spot was created just for drafted first year players. This rule was in effect from 1962 to 1965.

In 1977, for the first time, a minimum limit was established as part of the collective bargaining agreement between the players and owners. All Major League teams had to maintain at least 24 players on their active rosters.  (From 1986-1990, they acted as though the maximum was also 24.) This persisted until 1991, when the minimum became 25, and was reinstituted in 1993.

A detailed listing of roster limits throughout major league history follows. 
Year(s)    # Dates Off-season  
1879-1882       5 Reserve limit
1883       11 Reserve limit
1884   25   25  
1885-1886       12 Reserve limit
1887-1891       14 Reserve limit
1892       15  
6/1892   13   14  
1893-1898       14  
1899-1900       18 Reserve limit
1901 NL 16   
Cutdown date 6/15
  AL 15 O/D + 28 days N/A  
1902-1909 NL     N/A  
1902-1903 AL 15 6/1  N/A  
1904 AL 16    N/A Cutdown date 6/1
1905 AL
Cutdown date 6/15

1910 25 5/15-8/20 40  
1911-1913   25 5/15-8/20 35  
1914   N/A   N/A  
1915-1916 NL 21 5/1-8/31 35  
  AL 25 5/15-8/15 35  
1917-1919 NL 22 5/15-8/31 35  
1917 AL 25 5/1-8/31 35  
1918 AL  N/A   N/A  
1919-1920   25 5/15-8/31 35  
1921-1922   25 5/15-8/31 40  
1923-1931   25 6/15-8/31 40   
1932   23 6/15-8/31
1933-1938   23 5/15-8/31 40   
1939-1941   25 31st day-8/31 40  
1942   25 5/25-8/31 40  
1943   25 31st day-8/31 40   
1944   25 6/15-8/31 40   
1945   30 6/15-8/31 48  
1946   30 6/15-8/31 48  
1947-1956   25 31st day-8/31 40  
1957-1961   28 O/D+30 days 40  
    25 31st day-8/31    
1962-1965     same as
41 including 1 drafted first year player
1966-1967      1957-1961
1968-1989   25 O/D-8/31 40  
1990   27 O/D-5/1 40 Due to lockout during spring training
    25 5/1-8/31    

25 O/D-8/31 40

Sources-Baseball Blue Book, 1910-1986; The Sporting News, The Sporting Life, New York Times, Reach
Guide, Spalding Guide, 1900 National League Constitution, 1990 Basic Agreement

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