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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Bob's Books - Bottom of the Ninth by Michael Shapiro

Bottom of the Ninth, by Michael Shapiro, is an interesting book. Subtitled Branch Rickey, Casey Stengel, and the Daring Scheme to Save Baseball From Itself, it is actually about two unrelated stories. The early part of the book focuses more on Casey Stengel's run as manager of the New York Yankees. The other story, which moves to center stage later, is about the attempt by Branch Rickey and William Shea to create The Continental League, a third professional circuit that would work with major league baseball, rather than be an outlaw league like the prior attempts.

 Both tales are about baseball, and the activities in the book take place in the short span of 1958 to 1960; though, of course, a great deal of background from prior years is included. From the title, I thought that Rickey and Stengel joined forces in some gargantuan baseball effort. But the Stengel and Rickey stories have nothing to do with each other. That's fine, but unexpected and resulting in a kind of disjointed book. I found the Continental League's brief time to shine the more interesting of the pair.

The National League had held off challenges from the American Association and other professional leagues.
Ban Johnson, Rickey's inspiration, had crafted the American League, tenaciously held on and then reached an agreement that resulted in Major League Baseball. The two then successfully fought off the Federal League in 1914 and 1915 (with help from Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who was rewarded with a lifetime appointment as the first Commissioner of Baseball).

A 1922 Supreme Court Decision granted Baseball exemption from anti-trust laws. It was a multi-million dollar monopoly run by barons. After the Dodgers and Giants abandoned New York City (to the Yankees) for southern California in 1958, New York lawyer William Shea and future hall of fame executive Branch Rickey (architect of the powerhouse Cardinals and Dodgers teams) set out to bring major league baseball to seven big cities...and New York City. Future major league cities such as Houston, Minneapolis/St. Paul and Atlanta were part of the proposed Continental League.

These nine men nearly revolutionized
baseball in 1959. And they did force
long overdue expansion.
Shapiro does a nice job examining the rise and fall of the Continental movement, including the initial attempt to work with the major leagues and, after that failed, to work with Congress. The Continental had an uphill fight, but in 1959, it was a real threat to the majors. Obviously, the Continental never played a game, but it did force baseball to expand; something it had resisted for decades. The Astros, the Mets, the Rangers (who were first the Senators) and the Angels owe their formations to the Continental League's impudent attempt. 

Casey Stengel had failed miserably as manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Boston (later Milwaukee, now Atlanta) Braves. He was managing the AAA Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League in a nice `almost retired' gig. (he was almost 60). He was a complete surprise as the new Yankee hire in 1949, then proceeded to win five consecutive World Series. But Stengel, who had a loose usage of the English language, was an unconventional manager who platooned ball players (not done at the time) and wasn't afraid to claim credit and criticize his men.

After "only" two World Series titles in six years, it appeared that Stengel was in danger of losing his job
heading into 1960. Shapiro provides a nice look at the inner workings of the Stengel Yankees, as well as the roles played by Hall of Fame front office exec George Weiss and owners Dan Topping and Del Webb (proud constructor of a Japanese internment camp during World War II). After a third place finish in 1959, Stengel led the Yankees back to the World Series, where Bill Mazeroski sealed `The Old Professor's fate.

 There are plenty of books that deal with Casey Stengel and his time with the Yankees. It's worth reading here, but nothing to write home about. But the Continental League stuff provides a fascinating look at the last major threat to Baseball's monopoly. This one is worth reading.

Jackie Robinson is my idol, so I'm an unabashed Branch Rickey fan. Rickey created baseball's minor league farm system, which is likely the most important development in the game's history. He also signed Jackie Robinson and smashed baseball's color barrier. And, at the end of his career, he nearly established a new major league and in the process, forced the first expansion in decades. Rickey may well have had the greatest influence on major league baseball of any man in the game's history. This book tells the largely unknown part of that story.

There is a brand new book out on the Continental League by Russell Buhite. It's on my "Must Read" list.

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