The Far-Reaching Legacy of the League That Never Was
Part Two: The Continental League's Legacy
The Continental League was proposed as a third major league after two New York teams relocated to the West coast. It failed to field a team, but as a concession from the existing major leagues four of its owners were allowed to purchase new teams (except the Twins which relocated from Washington) in the two extant leagues. Eventually baseball would either expand into or shift teams to all but one of the CL's proposed cities (Buffalo). So what aside from an interesting anecdote in the histories of four major-league teams does the CL's legacy add up to?
First and foremost, the CL engendered the concept of expansion to baseball. Today it is difficult to understand the degree to which the existing major leagues were calcified against expansion. Every new league was seen as a threat to be subdued. The American League was the strongest, and it gained equality with the existing National League within two years of proclaiming itself a major league. After the Federal League of 1914-15 was broken, some of its owners were allowed to buy into teams in their respective cities in organized ball and the rest were paid nominal fees. The Federal League's Baltimore Terrapins brought suit and their case ended in the 1922 Supreme Court case that bestowed baseball's so-called antitrust exemption upon organized ball (though it was more a referendum by the court for Congress to formulate laws to regulate the sport, one that was never fulfilled). The Mexican League had been broken and has been a nominal Triple-A league ever since.
The concept of expansion was a brokered solution, and a rather ingenious one at that, to avoid both the existence of a third major league and the threat of a lawsuit and possibly loss of antitrust exemption if that third major league were not allowed to exist. MLB went into siege mentality, hunkering down to wait out the new league. When they wouldn't fade away but rather started to threaten the majors both by attempting to access their greatest resource, the players, and by lobbying what political leadership they could muster. The majors came to the solution of a controlled expansion orchestrated by the existing regime as the best answer. Once half of the owners were admitted into MLB, the need for a third major league was obviated.
The CL was something new in baseball annuls when it comes to new or rival leagues. Prior to the CL, leagues had two results. One, they failed to materialize either due to internal strive or external pressure from other leagues. Or two, they fielded teams and soldiered sometimes successfully (for example, the American League and to a lesser degree the American Association, whose teams were co-opted by the NL) and sometimes not (for example, the Players League and Union Association, which did have one team, St Louis, enter the NL). Some had mixed successes like the FL and Mexican League that "survived" via brokered deals. The CL, however, never materialized as an on-field entity, but through expansion CL owners and CL cities were allowed to enter the major leagues. MLB would now buy out or pressure any future proposed major league, that was de riguer, but now if the league withstood, instead of fielding its own teams, they would be absorbed into the existing structure. Organized ball seized on the idea and quickly added it to its repertoire when dealing with pockets of recalcitrance either in the government or in a community itself.
Donald Trump proposed a 1987 league that died on the vine, in part due to the economic woes of the time. The A-League was proposed during the 1994-95 strike, but never fielded a team and evaporated once the strike was settles. The Triple-A owners threatened to form their own major league once negotiations broke down for a new National Agreement with MLB. A new agreement was then worked out and the minors have seen a boom of merchandising (the main concession from MLB) and attendance gains since.
Expansion became the way to avoid lawsuits, congressional pressure to remove baseball's antitrust exemption, and the threat of too many viable yet vacant cities forming a third major league. The CL experience taught the majors how to maintain its monopoly by allowing slow, contained growth overseen by MLB itself, of course, with the best interests of baseball (theirs) in mind at all times.
Seattle was granted an expansion team in 1977 in part to avoid a lawsuit over the relocation of the Seattle Pilots to Milwaukee in 1970 (the Mariners expansion fees were reduced $500K as a partial settlement of their lawsuit as well).
The two Florida expansion team and the Colorado Rockies were added to placate Senators Connie Mack III (Fla.), grandson of the Hall-of-Famer, and Tim Wirth (Col.) lead members of the Congressional Task Force on Baseball Expansion and proponents of legislation ending baseball's antitrust exemption. The Task Force had set a goal in 1990 of six new teams by the year 2000. However, it lay fallow after the Miami and Denver expansion teams were granted in the NL expansion decision of 1991 and failed even to meet again.
The Tampa Bay franchise was launched to avoid a possible lawsuit by St. Petersburg against MLB for blocking the relocation by the Giants. The White Sox, Mariners, Orioles, Indians, and Rangers
also vehemently pursued moving to the area at various times (mostly when a new stadium was being extorted from the locals and while the St. Pete area was the hot spot of the hour). However, the Giants had actually been sold to an owner in St. Petersburg who intended to move the team there. The MLB owners met and voted against the move. The Giants were eventually sold to a group that kept them in San Francisco, where they remain today.
As the various lawsuits and Congressional pressures were being exhausted, a new impetus for expansion started to take hold, one that the CL never did presage. That would be exorbitant franchise fees. Actually, franchise fees were initially an afterthought. In the 1961-62 expansion, the four teams had to pay for players that they were obliged to draft from the existing teams' rosters. The resulting fees ranged from, $1.8 to $2.15 million in player draft fees. And the Los Angeles Angels were required to pay a $550 thousand indemnity fee to the Dodgers for invading their territory of only three years. But there were no franchise fees.
The 1969 expansion saw the creation of the first fees but they were still small in the AL ($100, 000). Only the NL had caught on ($4 million plus $2.5 in "working capital"). The player draft fee was still large ($6 million in the NL and $5.25 million in the AL). The AL also barred the new teams from a share in the national television contract for 3 years, which cost them an additional $2 million. Therefore, the AL though behind the NL in franchise fees had invented hidden fees that would come more into play in the future.
The 1977 expansion saw the fees grow to $7 million (Seattle paid $6.5 million but their fee was lowered as partial settlement of their antitrust lawsuit). The expansion fee included the player draft fees ($5.25 million). Finally, the franchise fee reigned supreme. It had subjugated the player draft fee and would now become the biggest driving force in future expansions.
There was a long hiatus from expansion (14 years between the 1977 expansion and the 1991 expansion announcement), the longest in its short history. Without a pending lawsuit, the majors dragged their feet on expansion. It took a groundswell of Congressional pressure, criticism over different schedules between the two leagues given the disparity in their size, and owner greed to finally grant two new NL teams in 1991. The franchise fees in 1993 were $95 million and $14 in a hidden fee barring them from TV rights for a year. The player draft is no longer even itemized. The expansion teams were just granted the right to draft 36 ballplayers.
In 1998, the franchise fees were a staggering $130 million spread over 4 years. Additionally, there was a hidden fee barring the new teams from sharing in MLB's central fund for five years, a total cost of $25 million. Again the player draft is not itemized-the right to draft 35 players is merely ceded to the new teams.
It's no wonder that MLB so wants to foist their ill-conceived contraction plan as to draw the ire of whole populations of fans and risk debasing their product in the national media. Once two teams are desolved, there will be two more cities begging for an expansion team (witness Houston, Baltimore, and Cleveland in the NFL) as well as two more communities to threaten to move to. The fees can only go up if there is a demand and by contraction baseball will help create that demand.
There is one thing that they are forgetting. Expansion was not born to extort millions from new baseball communities. It was started to control minimize Congessional pressure, avoid lawsuits from denied cities, and to obviate the need for a third major league. Those pressures had reached an equilibrium in the last decade or so. However with contraction, MLB may be arrogantly turning a blind eye to these very powerful, primordial forces behind their business. They should remember the lessons of the Continental League.