The NFL Couldn't Pass It Up — Football (1933)
Cause: On a controversial third-and-goal play from Portsmouth's 2-yard line in the 1932 NFL title game, Chicago Bears quarterback Bronco Nagurski took a handoff and started towards the line of scrimmage. He then stopped, backpedaled and threw to a wide open Red Grange in the end zone, leading the Bears to a 9-0 victory. Portsmouth's coaches were outraged because they thought Nagurski didn't backpedal the mandatory five yards behind the line of scrimmage required to make it a legal pass. This five-yard rule was discouraging quarterbacks from throwing passes and making referees wanted men.
Rule: On Feb. 25 the National Football League made forward passes legal from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage.
Effect: This meant the days of unimaginative rugby-style football were numbered. The change altered NFL strategy and completely redefined the quarterback position. In 1932 (the season before the change) the NFL's leading passer - Green Bay Packers QB Arnie Herber - had 101 total attempts and nine touchdown passes. By the 1940's a new generation of quarterbacks, including future legends like Chicago's Sid Luckman and Washington's Sammy Baugh, was emerging. Baugh threw 24 touchdown passes in 1943 and rewrote the record books in 1947, completing 210 of 354 attempts and throwing for 2,988 yards and 25 touchdowns. The NFL was never quite the same.
The NBA Thinks It's Time to Make a Point — Basketball (1954)
Cause: The National Basketball Association recognized something was wrong with professional basketball just before the midway point of the century. Scores were getting lower and lower and crowds were becoming disinterested. The problem reached the bottom of the well on November 22, 1950 when the Pistons defeated the Lakers 19-18 in the lowest scoring game in NBA history.
Rule: Former Syracuse Nationals Coach Danny Biasone introduced the NBA to his new idea - the 24-second clock - following the 1953-54 season. The clock was used to put a time limit on possession of the ball for the offensive team. If the team with the ball does not shoot within 24 seconds of gaining possession the other team is given the ball. It is still used today.
Effect: According to the NBA, Biasone chose the unusual number of 24 seconds by figuring that the average number of shots two teams would take during a game was 120. He divided that number into 48 minutes (2,880 seconds), the length of a game, and ended up with the number 24. Regardless of his method, his rule change worked. During the first season with the 24-second clock (1954-55), teams averaged 93.1 points per game, an increase of 13.6 points over the previous season. With the clock in effect, the Boston Celtics became the first team in league history to average more than 100 points for an entire season, four years later every team in the league would reach that plateau.
Here's the Pitch — Baseball (1968)
Cause: In the 1960's pitchers were the ruling class of Major League Baseball. Batters were overmatched by the game's strikeout specialists like Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax who were recording strikeouts and ERAs not seen in forty years. Batting bottomed out in 1968 when major league hitters averaged a meager .237, compared to their .263 average 20 years earlier.
Rule: To balance the scales, the league's rules committee voted on Dec. 3, 1968 to lower the mandatory pitching mound height of 15 inches down to 10 and slightly narrow the strike zone.
Effect: These adjustments of a few inches meant more to the game than one might think. Offense took off immediately. Before the rule change there were 2,299 and 1,995 home runs hit in 1967 and 1968 respectively. The first two seasons after the rule change the league home run total surged to 3,119 in 1969 and 3,429 in 1970. Pitchers have not come close to dominating the way they once did since this rule change took effect.