Division I college baseball has seen unprecedented growth in the 21st Century. Baseball has long viewed the minor leagues as the primary developmental system for the sport, but with the level of competition and the quality of athletes increasing, college baseball has gained substantial ground in recent years.
Players, especially pitchers, are now moving from NCAA premier programs like Southern California, Stanford, Vanderbilt and Coastal Carolina in Major League-ready form. With this elevation in talent, the CWS in Omaha has attracted more attention than ever before.
A History of the College Baseball World Series
The College World Series has a largely unknown history that has shaped college baseball as we know it today, and therefore has had an impact on one of America’s favorite pastimes: Major League Baseball.
The history of the College World Series can be broken down into four main categories:
- Humble Beginnings
- Regional Dominance
- A Television Home
- Return to Normalcy
So, how did the CWS get to this point? Unlike football, where the college game preceded the professional game, baseball was not a major collegiate sport. For many schools, the varsity baseball program isn’t even considered a revenue-driving sport. Despite this reality, the College World Series has been an exciting tournament that has featured many future MLB stars.
The College World Series has enjoyed remarkable stability since its inception in 1947. The tournament was first played in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The original format of two four-team double-elimination playoffs culminated in a best-of-three series between the last two teams standing.
In 1950, the tournament moved to its current home of Omaha, Nebraska and involved one team from each of the NCAA’s then eight districts.
A Place to Call Home
Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha was home to the NCAA College World Series for a remarkable 61 tournaments, from 1950 through 2010, when the South Carolina Gamecocks closed out the venerable stadium, winning the series. South Carolina would then open the new home, TD Ameritrade Park, with a second CWS championship in a row.
Changes in the Field
The College World Series format has grown with the times. Originally, the field was limited to the eight district representative teams, but in 1954, the NCAA added a preliminary round of up to 32 teams to determine who got to make the trip to Omaha. In 1987, the preliminary field was increased to a 48-team playoff with eight six-team regionals that fed winners into Omaha.
By 1998, with almost 300 colleges playing Division I baseball, the field was again increased, this time to 64 teams. With the increase to 64, a new format was introduced where eight “National Seed” teams spread out across 16 four-team regionals. The regionals fed winners into eight “Super Regional” championships. The winners of the Super Regionals then move onto Omaha for the eight-team College World Series double-elimination tournament.
College baseball has been a sport dominated by Southern and Western schools. The University of Texas has been to the CWS a gaudy 36 times, with schools like Southern California, LSU, Arizona State and Miami also making frequent visits to Omaha.
While northern and midwestern schools have certainly been represented at TD Ameritrade Park, the names of schools on the list of Top 10 all-time wins in the college series reads like a drive across America on Interstate 20.
A Television Home
Some professional sports writers say that you can trace college baseball’s popularity back to ESPN’s coverage of the College World Series. The College World Series got another major shot in the arm when the NCAA was able to ink a deal with CBS to start televising the finals in 1988. CBS carried the finals until 2002.
ESPN had been carrying some college baseball games as early as 1980, including high-profile regional and super regional games. Then, in 2003, the entire College World Series tournament, including select regionals and super regionals were picked up by ESPN.
The exposure has brought attention to the excellent baseball and offered fans the opportunity to see highly competitive baseball featuring stars on the rise.
Return to Normalcy
The series had been played in Omaha, Nebraska without fail for 70 years before the global pandemic forced the unthinkable. With the uncertainty and unpredictability of the pandemic, the NCAA had to cancel spring sports, including the beloved CWS in Omaha.
The pandemic may have slowed college baseball, but it has definitely not stopped the growing sport. The NCAA is looking forward to returning to the permanent home of college baseball’s ultimate tournament, Omaha, for the 2021 College World Series. The 2021 CWS is scheduled to begin on June 19 and will feature the popular double elimination format again.
Future of the College World Series
And the NCAA sees no reason to stop the tradition any time soon. Omaha has entered into a contract with the NCAA that will keep the Division I College World Series there for at least 25 more years.
Teams from the Maine Bears to the San Diego State Aztecs, the Oregon State Beavers to the Florida Gators will continue to strive to get on the road to Omaha for many more years.
Minor League Contraction
The future is bright for college baseball and the CWS. Many sports writers have pointed to the College World Series when considering the contraction of the minor league system.
Major League Baseball has carried an enormous minor league system for more than a century as a systematic way to develop young talent. The cost has been crippling for many franchises, covering player and coaches’ salaries, in addition to trainers and medical investment in players.
The college game, on the other hand, offers very high-level player development, often producing athletes that are ready or nearly ready for the big leagues. The College World Series provides a showcase for the top players in the same way the College Football Championship or the NCAA March Madness does.
One needs only speak to the coaches and players that have had the opportunity to play in the College World Series to know how they feel about their hosts in Omaha. From Augie Garrido to Pat Casey, Ray Tanner to Skip Bertman, the trip has always been the highlight of their careers.