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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

This Day in Baseball (May 21, 1959) - The Continental League Is Coming!

This book taught me about
the Continental League
Branch Rickey is rightfully in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Rickey created the minor league system, which made the St. Louis Cardinals the dominant team of the nineteen forties and was copied by every single franchise. It's still in use today, with my hometown Columbus Clippers (AAA affiliate of the Indians) a prime example.

As if that wasn't enough of a revolution, Rickey would then go on and bring Jackie Robinson to Brooklyn, smashing baseball's unofficial but absolutely real color barrier. I could (and have) written pages about that.

But Rickey, who built on Larry MacPhail's work to turn the perennial loser Dodgers into a powerhouse, had one more major move up his sleeve.

Starting in 1917, the Boston Braves finished in fourth place or worse for THIRTY consecutive seasons: finishing under .500 twenty-three times. The 1948 squad (Spahn and Sain and pray for rain) had made the World Series and the team drew over 1.4 million fans. By 1952 they were back under .500 and drew only 281,000. So, they packed up and moved to Milwaukee in 1953. In only their thirteenth home game of the season, they surpassed their ENTIRE seventy-seven home game total for the prior year in Boston.

The men who took on Major League Baseball
Teams unhappy in their current situations (the Philadelphia A's, St. Louis Browns, NY Giants) paid attention. Especially one Walter O'Malley, who would grow so dissatisfied with his aging stadium and changing demographics in Brooklyn over the next few years that he would demand significant public assistance and, not getting it, move to Los Angeles, taking the Giants with him to San Francisco.

An excellent insider read!
Minor league baseball was popular on the west coast and in the mid-fifties, the AAA Pacific Coast League had been declared an Open League. The general intent was for it to grow to major league status, opening up the west to major league baseball. But that dream died when the Dodgers and Giants moved to California after the 1957 season.

On May 21, 1959, owners met at Pirate owner John Galbreath's Ohio farm. They voted against adding new teams to the majors. Unlike today's over-expanded professional sports world, baseball owners wanted to limit membership in their tightly controlled, anti-trust cabal. The National and American Leagues actually wielded more influence than the Commissioner of Baseball did and ran things as (as Harold Parrot titled his excellent memoir) Lords of Baseball.

Lawyer William Shea wanted to bring National League baseball back to New York City. For decades, fans could root for the Dodgers or Giants (never both) while hating the Yankees. Suddenly, they were bereft of a team: and they could no more remain loyal to the ones who had abandoned them than they could root for ...gasp; the Yankees!

The Federal League was a major
threat in 1914 and 1915
Major League Baseball wasn't going to expand. So Shea teamed up with Branch Rickey to form a third major league that would become part of the two existing leagues, rather than an outright competitor like the American Association and Federal Leagues had been years before.

So, on July 27, 1959, only two months after that owners' meeting, a press conference was held, announcing the newly forming Continental League. Soon owners were found in seven cities that did not have major league baseball: Atlanta, Buffalo, Denver, Houston, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Toronto. Plus of course, a NL team for New York City.

Major League Baseball mouthed platitudes of cooperation while doing everything they could to kill the proposed league. Rickey and his group were eventually forced to go to the courts. Baseball's Reserve Clause, which bound a player to one team in perpetuity, made it difficult for the Continental League to get players without resorting to open warfare (the model pursued by the Federal League in the mid-1900s).

Fighting major league baseball is pretty much a losing proposition and the Continental League folded in the summer of 1960 without ever having signed one player. However, the threat that the Continental posed was very real to baseball owners at the time. As well, Congress was pressuring baseball and threatening to revoke its antitrust exemption. That would have spelled doom for the old boy's club.

So, baseball announced they would be adding four teams: two in each league. 1962 saw the New York (Mets) and Houston (Colt 45s, to become the Astros) added to the NL and Los Angeles (Angels) and Washington (the existing Senators were moved to Minnesota and an expansion Senators started up) to the AL.

In 1969, Montreal (Expos) and San Diego (Padres) joined the NL and Kansas City (the Royals, replacing the previously lost A's) and Seattle (the Pilots, who would move to Milwaukee only one year later, replacing the previously lost Braves!) began play in the AL.

A decade after declining to expand, MLB had eight new teams: the same number that the Continental League would have brought into the fold. And when the Colorado Rockies began play in 1993, seven of the eight Continental League cities had major league franchises. Only Buffalo, home of the AAA Bisons, hasn't joined the club. Buffalo's economic situation and location makes it unlikely it ever will.

Just published this
But there is no doubt that Rickey's Continental League pushed baseball into unwanted expansion. And when the threat was looming large, MLB knocked the supports out of the Continental by offering NL expansion franchises to the prospective owners in Houston and New York City (Shea). If not for that, it's possible that the Continental League would have filled rosters and played games.

MLB requires expansion teams to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to join the league. Then they "allow them" to draft unwanted players from the existing teams to fill their rosters. Thus, expansion teams usually stink: in the pre-free agency era, for several years. Ricky's approach of 'separate and someday equal' would have created a third league that could initially stand on its own legs and get stronger. As he said:

"It may seem illogical that you can't get manpower for four extra clubs but you can for eight. But eight teams can compete equally while recognized as a third major league. Our new league would not pretend to be major the first year. But by the end of the third year that would not be unthinkable."

Interestingly, this would have been a strength of the Pacific Coast League, which had the top minor league players and many former major league players. And they had established fan bases. Either the Continental or Pacific Coast League would have likely enjoyed greater competitive and financial success than the expansion teams did. But the Lords of Baseball would not have that monopolistic control over a third league. 

Branch 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, even if his final accomplishment is largely forgotten today.

I plan on doing a much more detailed essay on the Continental League somewhere down the line. Along with the Federal League, I find it a fascinating story in baseball's history.

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