Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Expansion Pt. 2

The pressures forcing Major League Baseball to expand were multifold. The population of the country had shifted decidedly westward since the turn of the century, making the 16 Eastern and Midwestern teams unable to fully exploit the country's growing population. The deterioration of the major cities inhabited by the majors called for a move to new, burgeoning metropolises west of the Mississippi. Westward expansion was pioneered by teams such as the Braves and Athletics, illustrating the money to be made in new cities. The practicalities of expansion became more manageable the more teams moved out west, with the growing opportunities of air travel making westward road trips much easier. All these factors were weighing on the minds of baseball men in the early 1960's.
But the most immediate factor was the pressure being brought on baseball by Congress, threatening to look into baseball's anti-trust exemption. When Washington Senators owner Calvin Griffith urged the American League to let him move his franchise, the owners faced even more backlash from influential Washington figures. Expansion now became not only likely, but necessary.
The AL's solution was to allow Griffith to move his franchise to the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. The league would then install an expansion franchise in Washington, D.C., still to be named the Senators. Construction on a new stadium (later named RFK Stadium) would allow the Senators to leave cavernous Griffith Stadium and find friendlier quarters.
The AL also decided to place an expansion franchise in Los Angeles. Many teams had attempted to move into the city in the past, but nothing had come of it. And since Walter O'Malley had moved his Dodgers to Chavez Ravine and seen unprecedented attendance, he was not anxious to see another team on his turf. The assigning of the Los Angeles franchise to singer Gene Autry came after a great deal of backroom finagling between league owners, with Walter O'Malley feverishly pulling strings to protect his interests. Hall-of-Famer Hank Greenberg (then part owner of the White Sox) put together a syndicate to secure the Angels. But the league took exception to the fact that one of Greenberg's partners in the syndicate was Bill Veeck, whose maverick nature and publicity stunts made the other owners refuse to grant Greenberg the franchise unless he dropped Veeck. Greenberg refused, and the league moved on.
Not only did Autry pay $350,000 to O'Malley as an indemnification against invading his "territory," but he also agreed to lease the Dodger-owned Wrigley Field, a minor league park, until their own stadium could be constructed. The Angels entered their first season already under a good many fiscal obligations, a state that would continue throughout the franchise's history.
So entering the 1961 American League season, the major leagues boasted new franchises for the first time since the AL's birth in 1901. It made for an interesting practical challenge that the new 10-team AL was forced to adopt a 162-game schedule, whereas the 8-team NL stuck with the traditional 154-game campaign. This would prove to be no small issue when Roger Maris entered the summer poised to challenge Babe Ruth's all-time home run record.

The (New) Washington Senators
The New Senators entered the league under a bit of a cloud. They were meant to replace Calvin Griffith's team, which claimed that the city couldn't support his franchise and left town. Few executives seemed to have asked whether the new Senators wouldn't ultimately face the same problems that forced their forebears out of town. But, not looking to alienate Congress, the owners eschewed forethought and established the franchise anyway. Ten years later, the Senators would be gone, for most of the same reasons the original franchise left.
But the 1961 team entered play with some bare optimism. In the expansion draft held in December of 1960, the Senators had selected the core of their first ballclub. Familiar faces taken in the draft included: Dick Donovan, a relatively successful pitcher with the White Sox, journeyman slugger Dale Long, veteran left fielder Gene Woodling and former Yankee MVP pitcher Bobby Shantz.
The 1961 season opened with former Washington All-Star Mickey Vernon managing. Offense was hard to come by in Griffith Stadium, and it wore on the team. Catcher Gene Green led the team with 18 HR and a .280 batting average. The veteran Woodling hit .313, but in limited duty. The fair performance by the pitching staff (6th in the AL in ERA) was largely an effect of the stadium; only the established Donovan pitched well, posting a 2.40 ERA that belied his 10-10 W-L record. The Senators finished the season 61-100, tied with the Athletics for last place in the league. It got no better for the team, as they took over sole possession of last in 1962 and 1963. Vernon was fired mid-way through the 1963 season, being ultimately replaced by Gil Hodges.
Hodges took what was essentially a nothing team and started to build a contender. The ownership realized that most of the unknowns they took in the expansion draft were unknown for a reason, with only outfielder Chuck Hinton developing into a valuable part of the team.
The team gradually rose above the cellar as the 60's wore on. They finished 9th in '64 (their first year out of the basement), 8th in 1965 and 1966, and then rose all the way to 6th place in 1967. A good part of the team's success came from a trade with the Dodgers in late 1964. The Senators gave up young pitcher Claude Osteen and John Kennedy to the Dodgers in exchange for 3B Ken McMullen, OF Frank Howard, P Phil Ortega and P Pete Richert. Osteen developed into a good pitcher in L.A., but the trade brought the Nats McMullen, a good-hitting third baseman, and Howard, who would be the franchise's biggest star in Washington.
Howard was a home run hitter in Los Angeles, but fans and management soured on his low batting averages and strikeouts. Howard came to Washington and became a hero. Nicknamed "The Capital Punisher" for his titanic blasts, Howard slugged 239 HR in 7 seasons in Washington. Many seats in the nether regions RFK Stadium are still marked as the landing place of one of Howard's big blasts.
"Hondo" (as he was more commonly known) was the only truly potent hitter on the team, and he put together a few monster seasons. In 1968, the year of the pitcher, Howard slugged 44 HR, leading both leagues by far (no one else hit 37). His .552 slugging percentage also paced the majors.
Perhaps as a consequence of his new-found BabeRuthness, Howard began drawing more walks. Combined with the league's efforts to shrink the strike zone to favor the hitter, Howard nearly doubled his previous career high in walks (60) by drawing 102 in 1969, and then 132 in 1970. He posted an OBP of over .400 each year, the only two times he would top the mark. Howard's 1968 heroics earned him 8th place in the AL MVP voting. He would top that with a 4th-place finish in 1969 and a 5th-place finish in 1970. Howard stayed with the team after Washington, getting traded to Detroit and retiring after the 1973 season.
Pitching-wise, the Nats didn't have as much to be happy about. Ortega, obtained in the Osteen trade, combined with Dick Bosman, Joe Coleman, and former Senator Camilo Pascual as the only strong hurlers on the staff.
Despite the lack of any evident stars beyond Howard, Hodges was still able to bring the team back to respectability. His reputation as a manager grew a little too much, though, and the New York Mets convinced him to take over their squad in 1968. The Hodges-less Nats plummeted back to last place, while their former skipper took the Amazin's to the 1969 World Championship.
After a year under Jim Lemon, the Nats introduced a new manager in 1969: none other than legendary slugger Ted Williams. Partly as an attempt to shake up the team, give the hitters a first-rate tutor, and simply nab a gate attraction, Williams was given his first managing job just 9 years after retiring. Worries that Williams would serve to piss of the hitters more than help them dissipated when the team won 86 games in 1969, shooting up to 4th place in the newly-formed AL East and giving it the best record for a Washington baseball team in nearly 25 years. The good news was 1B prospect Mike Epstein (30 HR, .278 AVG), a solid left side of the infield in McMullen and defensive whiz Ed Brinkman at short, and a respectable 1-2-3 of Coleman, Bosman, and Jim Hannan in the starting rotation. Ownership was even more impressed by the clicking of over 900,000 fans at the turnstiles, a relative achievement (they were still 5th in the league), but certainly the sign of great things to come.
But Williams made the mistake of making his first season his best. Fans kept waiting for the good news as the team sank back under .500, bottoming out at 96 losses in 1971. With an attendance of 655,156 just edging Cleveland for second-worst in the AL, all the old Washington problems were back at the fore. With owner Bob Short claiming poverty, he said that unless someone in Washington could pony up some cash, he was selling the team off to Texas. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn made it his personal mission to keep baseball in Washington (with fears of Congressional investigations still dancing in his head), and he . . . well, failed. Short took off for the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. Kuhn made an effort to attract other franchises to the nation's capital, but all the efforts failed, illustrating Kuhn's loss of influence and subsequent loss of the Commissioner's job. Baseball wouldn't return to Washington until 2005.

Texas Rangers
About all the Rangers had was manager Williams and slugger Howard. And all that got them was 100 losses and a last-place finish. Williams lost his job after the season, being replaced in 1973 by Whitey Herzog. Herzog didn't last long, eventually being replaced by a manager with an equally titanic (and surly) reputation: Billy Martin.
But in 1974 Martin, warts and all, helped pull the team all the way up to 2nd place in the AL West. The biggest star was MVP Jeff Burroughs, who hit .301 and slugged 25 HR. But the biggest story on the team might have been the work done by Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins (25-12, 2.82 ERA). The Rangers got Jenkins from the Cubs in a trade for Bill Madlock and Vic Harris. Oh, those Cubs . . .
But the biggest story of the 1974 season was David Clyde. Clyde was a big star in Texas high school baseball, and the Rangers took him with the #1 pick in the 1973 draft. Failing to heed the warnings of the "baseball people," Clyde was sent right to the major leagues as a much-needed gate attraction. The ploy worked for a while, as Clyde started out well and the fans came to see him, but Clyde ultimately just wasn't good enough for the majors yet. Subsequent arm injuries limited him to just 56 games after the 1973 season, finishing off what should have been a promising career prematurely.
With most of the same players returning, the team dropped to 3rd place in 1975, with a 79-83 record. Martin was fired, partly because of the decline and partly because he's . . . well, Billy Martin. The presence of four separate managers didn't stop the Rangers from going 94-68 in 1977, posting a .580 winning percentage that stood as the franchise record for over 20 years. Unfortunately, they still finished 8 games back of the Royals, who won 102 games.
There was a whole new cast of characters representing the 1977 Rangers, many of whom would become closely associated with the franchise over the coming years. One was 1B Mike Hargrove, known as the Human Rain Delay for his exhaustive pre-at bat rituals. SS/3B Toby Harrah was a fine hitter, but some kind of dreadful defensively, so the Rangers traded him for glove wizard Buddy Bell, who would become a fixture at the hot corner.
Catcher Jim Sundberg was another fan favorite. A 3-time All-Star and 6-time Gold Glove winner, Sundberg was given a good deal of credit for fashioning contenders out of some pretty lean pitching staffs. The Rangers basically failed to produce their own pitchers, forcing them to sign free agents or secure established pitchers in trades. Jenkins, Bert Blyleven, Dock Ellis, and Gaylord Perry were among the established stars who somehow managed to (for the most part) leave their best years outside the Lone Star State.
After another 2nd-place finish in 1978, the Rangers retreated back into mediocrity. Managers come and went under owner Eddie Chiles, a Texas oil man with his own ideas about running a baseball team, which included giving players "performance reviews" where the manager would go over a player's strengths and weaknesses. This, combined with the franchise's inability to sign or develop quality players, made the franchise a perennial also-ran in the 1980's. Although new manager Bobby Valentine did drive the club to a 2nd-place finish in 1986 (87-75), the team never produced a consistent and reliable star. With the exception of reliable knuckleballer Charlie Hough, the franchise's stars tended to be of the "flameout" variety (see Pete Incaviglia).
The Rangers' re-emergence in the 1990's was largely due to two main reasons: 1) their move into the hitter-friendly Ballpark at Arlington and 2) using the money from the increased revenue to sign free-agent hitters. Through trades and big free agent contracts, the club secured the services of very useful players such as Rafael Palmeiro and Will Clark, as well as some less-than-successful bats (Jose Canseco).
But the two main reasons the club vaulted back into contention in the mid-90's were 1) they had two bonafide homegrown All-Stars in Juan Gonzalez and Ivan Rodriguez and 2) they played in a 4-team division, the AL West. The odds that all four teams would suck one year were pretty high, but hey -- somebody's gotta win the division. This was almost illustrated in the strike-shortened season of 1994. When the season ended, the Rangers were 52-62 . . . and in 1st place, ahead of 3 teams that were even worse.
The 1996 Rangers combined their offensive juggernauts (Rodriguez, Gonzalez, Palmeiro, Clark, and Dean Palmer) with solid pitching from Ken Hill to secure the AL West title. After 35 years, the Rangers were about the become the last American League franchise to reach the postseason.
The Rangers lost the ALDS to the Yankees in 4 games. This was to be the pattern in the late 90's: great slugging, (barely) adequate pitching, losing to the Yankees in October. The Rangers returned to the ALDS by winning the division again in 1998 and 1999. The Rangers were swept both years, only managing to score one run in each 3-game series.
The all-offense Rangers started caving in on themselves. The signing of Alex Rodriguez to a historic contract in the 2000 offseason gave the Rangers a great player, yes, but the other 24 guys weren't so hot. The difficulty in convincing free agent pitchers to come to Arlington was best expressed when the Rangers doled out a 5-year, $75 million deal to Chan Ho Park. Park wasn't such a superstar pitcher to begin with, and he pitched terribly in Texas, posting ERAs of 5.75, 7.58, 5.46, and 5.66 during his injury-plagued reign of a mere 380.2 IP.
The Rangers are still well behind the A's and Angels as the 2006 season opens. Despite fighting back to 89-73 in 2004 under new manager Buck Showalter and pitching coach Orel Hershiser, the Rangers retreated to 79-83 last year.
The lesson to be learned in Texas is the same one that the Senators never learned: Develop your own players, and make sure some of them can pitch.

Tomorrow, the Angels (and I promise to make it shorter).

Total Baseball Encyclopedia 2004 Ed.
Total Ballclubs by Donald Dewey & Nicholas Acocella

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