Wednesday’s Book Review: “The Continental League: A Personal History”

Continental LeagueThe Continental League: A Personal History. By Russell D. Buhite. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014.

Fundamentally, this is a book about a scheme in the latter 1950s to expand major league baseball (MLB) to cities where it did not already exist. This was necessary, in the minds of many, because the National League and the American League were colluding to keep a product much in demand scarce and thereby jack up the price. But the status quo of MLB established in the first decade of the twentieth century began to break down after World War II and collapsed during the 1950s. Among the issues to be resolved was the location of the sixteen MLB franchises that had dominated the sport for fifty years. None was farther west than St. Louis, Missouri, nor farther south than Washington, D.C., and clearly the sport was not serving the changing demographics of the nation.

As revenues dried up in rustbelt cities and new markets beckoned due to population changes and the rise of airline transportation, franchises began relocating in the second half of the twentieth century. With the moves of the Boston Braves to Milwaukee in 1953, the Boston Braves to Baltimore in 1954, and the Philadelphia Athletics to Kansas City in 1955 the system truly began to change. The 1958 departure of the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants for Los Angeles and San Francisco, California, respectively, destroyed the existing structure of the sport forever.

Revered sportswriter Leonard Koppett once opined that while the moves of the Browns, Athletics, and Braves upset their fans in their old stomping grounds, few others cared. They seemingly accepted the shifts as necessary to meet the economics of the changing times. But when two of the three New York teams fled for the West Coast, bedlam broke out.

Enter the Continental League. There was still a lot of room for expansion in the latter 1950s after these franchise shifts and some very aggressive western and southern cities, to say nothing of New York, badly wanted new major league teams. The AL and NL refused to budge and this prompted William Shea and others to press for the new league. Shea, with the help of several other wealthy aficionados, organized to establish the Continental League with eight teams, one in New York and another in Toronto—hence the continental moniker. When this idea began to gain some support it scared MLB owners and they moved quickly to quash it by granting two expansion teams in each league, one of them in New York. This blew off the steam propelling the effort and the Continental League collapsed without ever putting a team on the field.

What makes this account most interesting is that it focuses its attention on a group of upstarts who wanted entrée into the rarified atmosphere of MLB ownership and found themselves thwarted at every turn. They rebelled quite publicly and forced their way in. They broke the stranglehold of the owners, to be sure, but MLB’s response to this challenge was at best nonplused. They decided to expand, and the way in which they did so was to gouge new owners and then to create an inherently weak set of expansion teams that could not contend in the leagues. Of the four teams created in the early 1960s—Mets, Colt 45s/Astros, Angels, and Senators—the Mets although hapless at first became the first to win a championship in 1969, while the Angels did not do so until 2002. Neither the Astros nor the Senators ever did so. This approach to expansion saddled these new teams with longstanding second class status, as Buhite makes clear in this history.

Buhite also discusses the relationship between the Continental League and the rising American Football League that challenged the NFL during the early 1960s, and the eventual merger of major league football into the current powerhouse. MLB might well have been better off had it embraced a Continental League with additional franchises and eventually merged it all into a single entity with strong new teams in much more diverse markets. It was, as the author concludes, one of many instances in which MLB owners made shortsighted decisions rather than think broadly and more strategically.

At sum, this book is about a group of buccaneers seeking to storm the bastions of a staid, conservative, and poorly led MLB. They achieved some but not all of what they wanted, but the core leaders of this rebellion were bought off by MLB with franchises of their own, especially William Shea and the Mets, and were thereafter unwilling to remain committed to the cause of the Continental League. That development left true reform of the MLB bleeding on the floor. I love this kind of backroom wheeling and dealing, and the history of the business of baseball is enhanced through this discussion.

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