Wednesday’s Book Review: “Baseball’s New Frontier: A History of Expansion, 1961-1998”

baseballs-new-frontierBaseball’s New Frontier: A History of Expansion, 1961-1998. By Fran Zimniuch. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013.

One of the most significant changes to Major League Baseball (MLB) in the latter half of the twentieth century was its transformation from an insular regional set of two leagues with eight teams each into a national organization with 30 teams. It deserves a good history; unfortunately, it has yet to receive one. I had hoped that Baseball’s New Frontier: A History of Expansion, 1961-1998 would succeed here, but this book is poor discussion of the subject. Its sophomoric narrative takes the reader on a magical mystery tour of individual decision to expand into new cities and to create a divisional, two-league system of professional baseball.

The author begins with the iconic story of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants making the move to Los Angeles and San Francisco, respectively, at the end of the 1957 season. It is once over lightly at best, despite there being excellent historical research and writing from which to draw in crafting this section of the book. Indeed, author Fran Zimniuch’s skimpy three-page bibliography did not even cite Neil Sullivan’s indispensable The Dodgers Move West (Oxford University Press, 1987). I am surprised by this omission.

But this is just the beginning. The author barely mentions the situation that led to MLB expansion. There were three important franchise shifts predating the Dodgers/Giants transfer that spoke volumes about the era of expansion about to be inaugurated. The moves of the Boston Braves to Milwaukee and the St. Louis Browns to Baltimore in 1953 and the Philadelphia A’s to Kansas in City in 1954, along with the later Dodgers/Giants shift suggest that the longstanding business situation for the MLB was no longer tenable. I could add to this the move of the Washington Senators to Minnesota in 1960 as another indicator of the same situation.

When six of the sixteen franchises in MLB move because of dire financial straits over a seven year period there should be cause for alarm. More than this, these changes suggest that there were other cities that might be capable of hosting major league franchises, and the expansion of the two leagues was the both possible and potentially lucrative. At the same time, the cities fled by MLB franchises had local and state politicos who railed at the lords of the game and demanded that new franchises be established.

The ploy of establishing another major league, the Continental League, which seemed a possibility as the 1960s began also meant that the time was ripe for expansion. Zimniuch has a chapter on this important story, indicating that it served as an important impetus for expansion. Russell D. Buhite, The Continental League: A Personal History (University of Nebraska Press, 2014) had not yet appeared when this book was written, but for those interested in the subject Buhite’s work is the gold standard on the subject.

The vast room available for expansion after all the franchise shifts led some very aggressive western and southern cities, to say nothing of New York, lobbying for badly wanted major league teams. The AL and NL refused to budge and this prompted William Shea and others to press for action, eventually scaring MLB owners into granting two expansion teams in each league, one of them in New York.

There is a considerable business, economic, and political story here, one that is essentially lost in Zimniuch’s account. MLB owners were brought kicking and screaming to expansion, but did so in ways that gouged new owners and created an inherently weak set of expansion teams that could not contend in the leagues. Of the four teams created in the early 1960s—New York Mets, Houston Colt 45s/Astros, Los Angeles/Anaheim Angels, and Washington 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, something Zimniuch fails to makes clear in this history.

The book continues with this general approach to the subject through the various waves of expansion until the last teams were added in 1998 to create two leagues of fifteen teams each. We learn about the individuals drafted from other teams for each expansion team, and a bit about the on-field activities of these franchises. We learn almost nothing about the politics, finances, or structure of the MLB and how it changed through this expansion process. Every single time a wave of expansion took place there were negotiations over stadiums, infrastructure, territorial rights, league relationships, etc., etc., ad nauseum, but you would never know about it from this book.

Whatever merits this book has relate more to the discussion of on-the-field activities than the business history of the MLB. It is very much a traditional baseball book that does little to enhance serious understanding of how and why the expansion of franchises took place. Let me suggest just a couple of areas worthy of consideration. Why did some franchises—Kansas City Royals, Florida Marlins, and Arizona Diamondbacks come to mind—enjoy success fairly early in their histories? Why did others toil in mediocrity for so much of the time? Are there structures to how ownership groups approached the management of the team, capitalization, etc. that affected on-field success?

There is an important story to be told here, but Baseball’s New Frontier utterly fails to illuminate it. I wish I could be more positive, but this book is virtually useless for anything but the most cursory overview of this fascinating and significant subject.


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