The Far-Reaching Legacy of the League That Never Was
Part One: The Continental League's History
We twenty-first century baseball fans proudly look back on the past century and know with complete certainty the developmental history of major-league baseball was a progressive evolution from primordial bucolic avocation to a highly organized, billion-dollar business. First, baseball emerged from the Dark Ages of 19th century ball and became "modern." That's why we can completely discount any record before 1900 (the true end of the 19th century just as 2000 was the true end of the last century).
Then baseball went through a brief period of flux like the seven days in Genesis required to create the earth. The American League was created. And it was good. AL teams moved around a bit and then team names and identities developed.
Next, there were about fifty years without any changes-there were the same eight teams per league in the same ten cities, none further West than St. Louis. This was known as the "Golden Age" because most of the great teams ('27 Yankees, '44 Cardinals, '29-'31 A's, etc.) and great players (Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Walter Johnson, etc.) played.
Then in the fifties, somehow on by a combination of Jackie Robinson's breaking the Color Line and Manifest Destiny, baseball suddenly moved into new areas: Milwaukee, Kansas City, Baltimore, and especially the West Coast with the Dodgers and Giants moving to Los Angeles and San Francisco respectively.
In the 1960s more changes came (and now new clubs were needed to meet the demand). Expansion was born. The New York Mets replaced the relocated Dodgers and Giants. Houston, Los Angeles (a second team), Minneapolis/St. Paul, San Diego, Seattle, and Montreal were new cities added to the major-league roster. Teams still moved and MLB branches into Oakland, Atlanta, and finally Dallas/Ft. Worth in 1972.
Since then no teams have moved but expansion has continued to be a useful tool at growing baseball's fanbase. A second Canadian team, Toronto, was added in 1977 (and Seattle was re-added). In the '90s Denver, Miami, Tampa/St, Petersburg, and Phoenix were all added. And thus the 20th century ended. Baseball now is more concerned with eliminating existing rather than adding new cities and fans to its fold.
There are many fallacies made out of whole cloth in this commonly held history of major league baseball's development. Perhaps the one that is the most glaring and has the most resonance today is that team movement led directly and logically to expansion. And that the Powers That Be in the majors embraced expansion with the optimism and foresight needed to expand their business into new areas. Actually, they had to be dragged into expanding their market kicking and screaming. The impetus for expansion lay not within organized baseball but from the outside, from a new league that at first just wished to join the majors quietly and amicably but that quickly became organized baseball's ultimate threat. That league called itself the Continental League.
When the Dodgers and Giants moved out West after the 1957 season, the New York metroplitan area was left with only one major-league baseball team for the first time since 1883 (technically, New York and Brooklyn were separate cities until the 1898 incorporation of modern New York). New York mayor Robert Wagner was outraged that New York now had one team while Chicago still had two. He established a committee to lure a National League team to the city. The task was ill-fated. The Giants and Dodgers had just left for greener pastures and could not be lured back. By the way, the relocation of the two NL clubs had evicted three Pacific Coast League teams (LA Angels, San Francisco Seals, and Hollywood Stars) in one fell swoop and also helped remove the PCL's "open" classification. The Open classification was a designation designed specifically for the league when it had grown extremely powerful and semi-autonomous, with the idea in mind that the PCL would one day become a third major league. It was a classification that the league had held for six years and they had controlled their our players and had their own development teams all the while.
Even if New York could lure one of the California teams back, due to travel expenses the other would have to incur being the sole West-coast team, there would certainly be a fight either in the league office or in the courts to consummate the deal.
Of the remaining 6 candidates, the Milwaukee Braves could not be lured having just moved from Boston and enjoying success on the field and an exuberant fanbase. St. Louis and Philadelphia clubs were just starting to enjoy the rewards of being the sole representative in their cities, which would certainly have fought tooth and nail to prevent the lose of a second team. The Chicago, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh teams were the only other possibilities left but New York was unsuccessful in bagging any of them.
Wagner next turned to eminent lawyer William Shea, who in turn called on septuagenarian Branch Rickey to organize a third major league. Rickey lined up both the money and the baseball men, and the Continental League was all but ready to hang up their shingle and begin operations. Teams were set for New York, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Denver, Houston, Toronto, Dallas, and Buffalo.
They proposed integrating the CL with the existing major leagues with revenue sharing, common player pools, and cross-scheduling. MLB met on May 21, 1959 and issued a statement welcoming a third major league. Of course, they may have been influenced by Congressional interest in legislating a third major league into being. Shea and Rickey lobbied Seantor Estes Kefauver and Representative Emmanuel Celler. Those two Congessmen represented the subcommittee on the Study of Monopoly Power, which in 1951 began protracted hearings with many baseball players and officials involved. Though nothing came of it, there were then three bills and eight antitrust cases pending against MLB.
Baseball had also recently survived the threat of a rival league in the form of the nascent and rogue Mexican League (founded 1946). Commissioner Happy Chandler had declared a ban of five years on all players who jumped to the league. Danny Gardella was one such player who changed his mind and petitioned for re-instatement. When he was denied, he sued MLB. The ban was finally lifted in 1949, and Gradella settled out of court. But those in MLB still remembered the incident.
MLB started stalling on the issues with the CL. They demanded usurial repayments for the territorial rights to the CL cities which were at the time occupied by minor-league teams in organized ball. Senator Kefauver then proposed a bill to limit the number of minor-leaguers that MLB could control, though it was defeated 45-41.
In March 1960, the CL attempted to create a minor league to develop the players for the soon-to-be major league. Then-commissioner Ford Frick would not allow it. Rickey threatened to raid existing teams.
On July 18, 1960, the National League voted to expand and the American League followed suit. MLB promised the CL group four new major-league teams. The Mets, whose stadium was later named for Shea, and Houston were added to the NL in 1962. Two Continental League owners were given teams in the AL in 1961 (the Minnesota Twins relocated from Washington and the Los Angeles Angels, even though they were not originally among the CL group). Four more CL cities acquired teams subsequently: Atlanta in 1966 (relocated from Milwaukee), Toronto in 1977 (expansion), Dallas/Ft. Worth in 1972 (relocated from the second Washington Senators, that was poorly conceived as a replacement when the originals moved to Minnesota), and Denver in 1993 (expansion). Despite drawing over one million people from 1988 to 1992 inclusive in the minors, Buffalo has tried unsuccessfully to nab an expansion team in both the 1993 and 1998 expansions.
Part Two: The Continental League's Legacy-coming next week.