Tuesday, December 13, 2005

An expansion pre-history

Before I start dealing with specific expansi0n teams, I thought it would be best to begin with a look at how the AL and the NL arrived at the point in time where they decided to expand. Books have been written about the period from 1901-1960, the modern-day pre-expansion era. But I'll try my best to summarize and deal with the necessary background before we deal with the expansions of 1961 (AL) and 1962 (NL).

The 19th Century
Dealing with teams and franchises is especially problematic in the 19th century, as teams came and went on a yearly basis. Franchises were amazingly unstable, being born, moving, and dying in a matter of years. The common undercurrent was the National League, as well as a couple of other major leagues. The National League was established in 1876 with 8 franchises: Chicago, St. Louis, Hartford, Boston, Louisville, New York, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati. Most record books begin with the 1876 season, as statistics are much more available and complete than in the NL's forerunner, the National Association. The Chicago Cubs won the first NL pennant, thanks to players and moguls Cap Anson and Al Spalding. If any one team dominated the 19th-century NL, though, it was the Boston Braves. Built from the remnants of the old Cincinnati Red Stockings, the Braves won 8 NL pennants between 1877 and 1898.
The NL co-existed with the American Association from 1882 to 1891. The two leagues even met in a postseason exhibition series similar to the modern World Series. Although the AA began as a rival to the older NL, the two leagues made peace with each other in 1884 in time for the emergence of the Union Association. The UA was an attempt to establish a third major league, but was by and large a failure. Very few name players were attracted, and the league folded after one year. The inclusion of the UA as a major league in baseball encyclopedias is a rather odd one. The league was really no more competitive or respected than many minor leagues of the era, and allowing UA statistics to stand beside AA and NL marks is a dubious decision.
In 1890, a third major league, the Players League, was established. It was championed by John Montgomery Ward, an early unionist and activist for players' rights. The new league proved a sufficient challenge to the other two leagues, extracting some measures to favor the players before the PL folded in 1891. The Players League was one of the chief factors bringing about the downfall of the AA, which was not as successful as the NL in surviving the labor war and subsequent rise in salaries. The AA folded after the 1891 season, leaving the NL as the only major league until 1901.
Ban Johnson stepped into the void and worked feverishly to turn his Western League into a new major league. His opportunity emerged when the NL contracted from 12 teams to 8 after the 1899 season. Johnson used the leverage, along with his tireless personal energies, to redub his league the American League and challenge the NL as a rival major league in 1901.

The Early Modern Era
The AL was successful in stealing away some of the NL's biggest stars, most notably pitcher Cy Young and star 2B Nap Lajoie. The two leagues fought through the 1901 and 1902 season, and the AL appeared to be winning. The far-flung NL was having difficult competing with Johnson's operation, as the AL's power was concentrated almost solely in his hands. Johnson billed his league as the more family-oriented league. The NL in the 1890's became increasingly adult-oriented, with nasty brawls and obscene language a fact of life. Johnson succeeded in poising his league as a practical alternative.
The NL in 1901 drew 3,423 fans per game. The AL averaged 3,067. In 1902 the AL drew 3,990/game, while the NL dropped to 2,995. The NL owners saw which way this was going and made peace. The National Agreement, baseball's unofficial constitution, was signed between the leagues after the 1902 season. The last straw seems to have been Johnson's desire to field a team in New York, challenging the NL's two franchises and giving the AL access to the country's largest city. The terms of the agreement recognized the contracts of both leagues, with player "jumping" curtailed. Many players were forced to return to their old teams as part of the peace agreement. The Agreement also provided for a 3-man board of governors to function as the ultimate power between the leagues. The 3 men sitting on the board were AL president Johnson, NL president Harry Pulliam, and Cincinnati owner Garry Herrmann. The board would function as the chief executive of major league baseball until supplanted by the office of the Commissioner in 1920.
These would be the only two major leagues forevermore, with the exception of 1914-1915. 1914 saw the emergence of the Federal League, an attempt to create a third major league. The FL succeeded in attracting a few major league stars (Mordecai Brown, Joe Tinker), but was staffed for the most part by career minor leaguers and washed-up veterans. The biggest consequence of the FL was the ability of players to extract huge salary increases from the owners in order to ensure their loyalty. Few big leaguers actually jumped, but everyone threatened to in order to get a sizable raise from the otherwise tight-fisted owners.
The collapse of the FL after the 1915 season removed the players' bargaining chip. Owners ruthlessly hacked salaries down to their pre-FL levels, leaving ballplayers once again helpless in their fight against the owners. It was in this context that the Chicago Black Sox rebelled against the especially stingy Charles Comiskey in throwing the 1919 World Series.

The Teams
The NL entered the 1901 season (the first season of more-or-less "modern" baseball) with 8 teams. Five of those teams, the Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds Philadelphia Phillies, Pittsburgh Pirates, and St. Louis Cardinals, still exist today in the same cities. The other three franchises were the Boston Braves, Brooklyn Dodgers, and New York Giants.
The Braves, after dominating the NL during the 1890's, dropped to 5th place in 1901. They rose back to 3rd in 1902, then fell again to 6th place in 1903. The Braves wouldn't finish in the 1st division again until 1914, the year the team known as the "Miracle Braves" stormed from the league's basement to take the NL pennant and win the World Series in surprising fashion over Connie Mack's dynastic Athletics. They just missed doing the same thing in 1915 (finishing 2nd), and after a 3rd-place finish in 1915, never made it above 4th place again until 1947. The team (led by Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain) won the 1948 NL pennant, losing the World Series to Cleveland.
The fiscal realities of sharing a city with the Red Sox wore on the weak sister Braves. Construction magnate Lou Perini, who had owned the team since 1941, looked into the prospects of moving the club to Milwaukee. The move of the Braves from Boston to Milwaukee would be one of the most significant moves toward paving the way for future expansion. Perini took a gamble that many of the more staid owners wouldn't have considered, uprooting his franchise after the 1952 season and having it in place in Milwaukee in time to begin the 1953 campaign. The 8.822 fans who saw the Boston Braves on September 21, 1952 didn't even know they were seeing the end of the NL in Boston.
But the real thing that got the attention of the other NL owners was how well the Braves did in Milwaukee. After a franchise-record 1,455,439 million in attendance in 1948, the Braves saw those numbers drop more than 80% before they left town (sporting a bare 281,278 in 1952). Other NL owners started to dread going to Boston, knowing they weren't going to leave town with much in the way of gate receipts.
But the city of Milwaukee was very, very happy to see the Braves. The long-time home of the AA Milwaukee Brewers, the city was anxious to see the first big-league baseball west of the Mississippi. The result was an attendance of 1,826,397, a new major league record. In 1953, the 2nd-place Braves (92-62) not only outdrew the NL Champion Dodgers (105 wins and an attendance of barely 1.1 million) but also outdrew the World Champion New York Yankees (who drew a little over 1.5 million).
With the Braves franchise awash in cash, the league became much more open to the possibilities of seeing baseball move to new cities. It also planted the seeds of expansion. But more importantly, the Braves' success in Milwaukee got a few other men thinking about moving their teams ...

Which brings me to the other two 1901 NL franchises: the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Giants were the best team in the NL by far pre-World War II. This was due mainly to the tireless efforts of Hall of Fame manager John McGraw. The Dodgers, on the other hand, posted a couple of NL pennants (1916 and 1920), but were never able to match their Manhattan rivals in either quality or revenues.
This all changed in the years immediately preceding World War II. This was mainly due to the retirement of McGraw and the subsequent fall of the Giants to also-ran status, and the emergence of the Dodgers as the best NL team of the 1940's and 50's. It was mainly the work of executives Larry MacPhail and Branch Rickey that brought Brooklyn some of the best NL teams ever in the last two decades of its existence. Finally, in the early 1950's, New York fans finally had two NL teams to be proud of. The Dodgers and Giants won every NL pennant between 1951 and 1959. (The only two exceptions were back-to-back pennants by the Milwaukee Braves in 1957 and 1958).
But as everyone knows, Brooklyn owner Walter O'Malley was determined to move his team west. O'Malley's heartlessness is still legendary in Brooklyn, but the truth is that O'Malley was no more or less money-grubbing than anyone else that ran a baseball team in the first half of the 20th century. Although the Dodgers were doing well in attendance, O'Malley saw the neighborhood around his ballpark degenerating quickly. He knew that the middle-class was fleeing to the suburbs, so he pressured the city of Brooklyn into building a new ballpark (the more things change, huh?). The city may have thought O'Malley was just bluffing when he threatened to move the team, but he certainly wasn't. While it's true that O'Malley may have been using the new stadium as a blind and was planning to move regardless, it was just a matter of time before some team ended up in the metropolis of Los Angeles, anyway.
Due to travel concerns, the NL rules stated that two teams would have to move to California for the shift to be feasible. O'Malley (one of the greatest backroom powers in baseball) persuaded Giants owner Horace Stoneham to foresake Manhattan for San Francisco. Stoneham, much moreso than O'Malley, had reason to leave town. Whereas the Dodgers still ranked 5th in the league in attendance before they moved to LA (drawing 1.02 million in 1957, their last year in Brooklyn), the Giants ranked dead last. Even perennial losers like Pittsburgh and Chicago were outdrawing the Giants, who won the 1954 World Series and had in Willie Mays one of the most exciting players in baseball history. Not only that, but the Polo Grounds (the Giants' home ballpark) was located in northern Manhattan on the Harlem River. It hadn't been a garden spot in years, but the realities of the neighborhood became more and more clear when a spectator was shot and killed in 1956 by a stray bullet fired from the street. Stoneham, a free spender, was feeling the bite of the dollar as he was finding it more and more difficult to get upper-middle class white people to come to Harlem and watch a ballgame. It's interesting that O'Malley was the driving force behind the shift, when Stoneham had much more pressing reasons to move.
Both teams moved west for the 1958 season. The Giants took up temporary residence in Seals Stadium, former home of the famous Pacific Coast League franchise, while Candlestick Park was built. The Dodgers moved into the Los Angles Memorial Coliseum, a facility built for the Olympics. It's hard to imagine a building less suited for baseball. The field was shaped in such a way that the left-field foul line was a cozy 250 feet away, whereas the power alley zoomed back to a distant 440 feet.
One thing the building was perfect for, though, was holding lots and lots of people. The Dodgers drew 1.8 million in their new facility (an increase of 800,000), setting a major league record when 93,103 fans attended an exhibition game against the Yankees to benefit paralyzed catcher Roy Campanella. Although Seals Stadium wasn't nearly as spacious, the Giants still managed to nearly double their New York attendance, drawing 1.27 million fans (after drawing barely 650,000 their last year at the Polo Grounds).
While the Dodgers and Giants still reside on the West Coast, the Braves took a further move. For a variety of reasons, initial enthusiasm in Milwaukee soon dulled down over a number of disputes between locals and owner Perini. Even after Perini sold the Braves to Milwaukee-based interests, it wasn't clear whether they would still remain in Milwaukee. The city of Atlanta started to look like a very attractive option. Atlanta would open up the Braves to the television revenue (a new factor in baseball business) of the entire Deep South, whereas Milwaukee was particularly lacking in this potential.
After seeing attendance drift back below the 1 million mark (it had peaked at 2.2 million in the World Championship season of 1957), ownership announced the Braves would be moving to Atlanta for the 1965 season. A series of local lawsuits halted the move temporarily. The Braves weren't able to work out a solution in time for the season to start, so they were forced to remain one more year in Milwaukee. It was a lame-duck season in every sense of the word, as a sense of doom followed around the still-potent team (86-76) and a bare 555, 584 fans dropped the Braves to last in the NL in attendance (only the KC Athletics drew worse in the AL). The move finally happened in time for the 1966 season. The entire affair left a distaste in Milwaukee for the MLB. Local interest still pursued a major league team, and finally succeeded in 1970, when local car dealer Bud Selig bought the dying Seattle Pilots and moved them to Milwaukee as the Brewers.

The AL
The American League's first season as a major league (1901) saw 8 franchises take the field. Four of those teams, the Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians, and Detroit Tigers, are still where they were 104 years ago. The other four teams were the Baltimore Orioles, Milwaukee Brewers, Philadelphia Athletics, and Washington Senators.
The Baltimore Orioles were Johnson's attempt to capitalize on the popularity of the old Baltimore Orioles, managed by John McGraw. The Orioles were the most famous team of the 19th century, a team whose exciting, aggressive style is remembered nearly as much as their fights and brawls. Johnson got McGraw to manage the team and even returned some stars from the old Orioles, such as McGraw protege Wilbert Robinson. But the Orioles and the AL were doomed from the start. Johnson was billing his league as the family alternative to the NL, while McGraw and his Orioles went out every day and fought as dirty as any team in history. Johnson tried disciplining McGraw, but it became clear that these two titanic egos just could not co-exist. When Johnson expressed his desire to field an AL team in New York, he targeted the Orioles, who had finished last in the league in attendance in 1902, as perfect candidates. McGraw had other ideas. He jumped to the NL to manage the New York Giants, and even took some of his best players, such as Roger Bresnahan, Joe McGinnity, Mike Donlin and Robinson along with him. The McGraw-less Orioles moved to New York and were re-named the Highlanders (their home park was on a hill in uptown Manhattan).
Johnson sought to shore up the New York club by moving players around from the other teams. It wasn't anyone's idea of fair play, but it did bring new meaning to the term "competitive balance." Catcher Deacon McGuire and SS Kid Elberfeld (Detroit), OF Patsy Dougherty (Red Sox) OF Willie Keeler (Brooklyn in the NL), P Jack Chesbro (NL Pittsburgh) and P-Manager Clark Griffith (White Sox) were brought in to shore up the team. They succeeded, contending for the 1904 AL pennant to the final day of the season, when Chesbro wild-pitched in the pennant-losing run. The Highlanders would later be re-named the Yankees and developed into the greatest sports franchise of all time.
The Milwaukee Brewers were one of the original AL franchises, but were also the only one not to last past the inaugural season. They finished dead last in the AL in attendance, and Ban Johnson decided to shift the team to St. Louis to directly challenge the Cardinals. The team was re-dubbed the Browns, and it proved to be one of the saddest franchises in major league history.
There are really only two seasons worth remembering from the Browns' 52-season history. One is 1922, when the Browns fought a very close pennant race against the Yankees, finishing the season a bare 1 game back, with a 94-60 record (their .604 winning percentage was a Browns franchise record). The other season to remember is 1944, when the Browns made their only postseason appearance. It was only appropriate that the Browns won the pennant during the World War II era, when other freak occurences such as one-armed ballplayers were relatively common. The Browns beat out the Hank Greenberg-less Tigers by 1 game, but lost the World Series to the crosstown rival St. Louis Cardinals.
There weren't many famous faces on the Browns, but some of the more notable players to appear for the team were Hall of Famers George Sisler and Goose Goslin, as well as All-Stars Urban Shocker, Vern Stephens, and Bobo Newsom. The most memorable character on the Browns wasn't a player; it was owner Bill Veeck. Veeck's reign as owner of the team saw some of the more memorable stunts in baseball history including, but not limited to: the appearance of Eddie Gaedel as the only midget to play major league baseball, Millie the Queen of the Air sliding down a tightrope from right field to third base, and Grandstand Managers Day, where Browns manager Zack Taylor relaxed in a rocking chair while the fans in attendance coached the team. Using large placards such as "hit and run," and "steal," the fans managed the team. League officials were not pleased, although the Browns won, defeating the Athletics 5-3.
Veeck was not, however, able to field a competitive team, nor was he able to reverse the team's dire economic condition. He ended up selling the team to a group that moved the franchise to Baltimore. The team was re-named the Orioles, after the legendary minor league team. And from 1966-1983, the Orioles put together one of the greatest teams in American League history.
The Philadelphia Athletics became as identified with one man as any other team, perhaps, in history: Cornelius MacGillicuddy, known to friends as "Connie Mack" and to players as "Mr. Mack." Perhaps it's because he won 10 pennants and 5 World Series. But it's probably because the Philadelphia A's existed from 1901-1954, and Connie Mack was their manager from 1901-1950.
The Philadelphia A's were a great example of an up-and-down team. Mack showed the managerial brilliance that got him elected to Cooperstown in 1937 by building two separate dynasties: the 1910-1914 A's, who won 4 pennants and 3 World Series, and the 1929-1931 A's, who won 3 straight pennants and 2 World Series. The unfortunate fact is that, with the exception of these two oases of winning, the A's generally sucked for the majority of the time they existed. Mack won 3,582 games as manager of the A's, a feat that will never be equalled. But neither will his 3,814 losses with the team. Any man who watches his team lose 3,948 baseball games (he also managed in Pittsburgh from 1894-1896) and still lives to be 94 years old is some kind of amazing.
The A's were actually the first of the original 8 AL franchises to shift since the Orioles moved to New York in 1903. It was 1953, and the Philadelphia team hadn't finished higher than 4th in 20 years. The attendance reflected this: a 362, 113 mark that was lower than any other big-league team by 200,000. It started becoming clear that Philadelphia wasn't big enough to support two major league franchises. But there were lots of opportunities out west. The Mack family (Connie's sons ran the franchise) got only one solid offer for the team. It came from Arnold Johnson, a Chicago millionaire with strong connections with the Yankees who showed interest in moving the team to Kansas City. In a complex wrangle that must have made for some interesting discussions around the Mack family dinner table, the team ended up getting sold to Johnson, who kept his word and moved the team to Kansas City.
The Kansas City A's were never good; they were never even really remotely good. The club actually has one of the more shameful records of any modern franchise, which comes only in part from what happened on the field. Johnson's connections to the Yankees made some wonder if the A's wouldn't just end up as a big-league farm team for the New York powerhouse. As it turned out, that's exactly what happened, as the Athletics gave up hot young prospects such as Roger Maris, Clete Boyer, and Ryne Duren to the Yankees in exchange for a pittance; the Kansas City team was left with washed-up former Yankees such as Ewell Blackwell, Johnny Sain, and Don Larsen.
Hope emerged when the team was sold to Indiana insurance executive Charlie Finley, who had courted major league franchises for years without success. Finley is one of the most interesting characters in the history of baseball; words do not do justice to a man who was simultaneously a progressive-thinking maverick and an insufferable horse's ass with more harebrained schemes than Ralph Kramden. Ideas such as the designated hitter originated with Finley, making him one of the few baseball executives to seek creative solutions to problems. Finley was also responsible for offering a bonus to any A's player who grew facial hair; he felt it would give the team personality. It gave them all that and more, as the Moustache Gang became the best team ever that absolutely hated each other.
The Kansas City version of the team was perhaps doomed from the start, and Finley hounded the other owners to let him move the franchise. With the litigation-happy Finley threatening to sue, the AL owners backed down and permitted him to move the club to Oakland for the 1968 season. The ensuing brouhaha raised by Kansas City officials and Missouri politicians led baseball to promise the city an expansion franchise sometime before 1971. When this failed to appease the itinerant Missourians (Missourites?), the AL was forced to rush through plans for expansion for the 1969 season, providing for a franchise in Kansas City.
But we'll get to that later. The A's moved west, won 4 World Series, appeared in the postseason 14 times, and then reinvented themselves as a sabermetric baseball organization at the turn of the century.
The last club we come to is the Washington Senators. The Senators were famous for being losers, but they were, for most of their existence, a fairly competitive team. They won 3 pennants and one World Series and while they were often in the second division, they weren't as bad as the Browns. It wasn't until the late 1930's that the Senators became the cellar-dwellers everyone remembers. This helped prompt them to move the team.
Owner Calvin Griffith (nephew of franchise patriarch Clark Griffith) was, by the late 1950's, constantly pressuring the league to allow him to shift the franchise. The arrival of the Orioles in Baltimore in 1954 had further depleted an already bare fanbase, and Griffith had his eyes on the twin cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul. Behind-the-scenes politicking occurred that even Richard Nixon would be proud of. Former Commissioner Happy Chandler promised the club a 50,000-seat stadium if they would move to Louisville. Talks opened up with Los Angeles mayor Norris Poulson (with Chief Justice Earl Warren reportedly offering behind-the-scenes encouragement), but Walter O'Malley stepped in and took LA for himself. The Twin Cities gradually emerged as the most likely location of the Senators in the future.
There were, however, worries among baseball higher-ups that it would be rather unseemly to shift so many teams in such a short span of time. With the A's, Braves, Browns, Dodgers, and Giants jacking up their teams and heading off for the highest bidder, baseball officials were worried about their public appearance as monopolistic puppeteers with no loyalties to cities nor their fans. It was especially problematic, as the Washington, D.C. fanbase was somewhat more influential than most.
The solution was that the league would expand from 8 teams to 10. Griffith would be allowed to shift his team to Minnesota (re-dubbed the Twins), and the AL would place a new expansion franchise in Washington. So although the 1960 Senators and 1961 Senators would be two entirely different franchises, baseball would remain in Washington for the foreseeable future. The other expansion franchise was to be located in Los Angeles. They were to be known as the Angels.

And that takes us to the end of part 1. Part 2 will pick up with the 1961 AL expansion that added the New Washington Senators and the Los Angeles Angels.
Until then ...

This essay was produced thanks to generous assistance from these references:
Total Baseball Encyclopedia, 2004 ed.
Total Ballclubs by Donald Dewey and Nicholas Acocella
The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract by Bill James
and of course www.baseball-reference.com.

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