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Thursday, May 28, 2015

Branch Rickey's Dream: The Continental League Becomes the Third Major League in Baseball

Perhaps the most revered Scioto County resident is Branch Rickey. Rickey was an innovative Major League Baseball executive elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1967. As all of us know, he was best known for breaking Major League Baseball's color barrier by signing African American player Jackie Robinson. Largely for his courageous commitment to civil rights, Rickey is known as a true leader who not only changed the world of professional baseball but also changed the world.

But ...

Did you know that if Branch Rickey had his way, Major League Baseball would now be comprised of three leagues?

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, organized baseball faced a serious challenge. After a decade of prosperity, the nation and the game had reached a cultural crossroads. For baseball, there was a need to expand. With a growing economy and Americans spreading west and south from an old population core in the Northeast and the upper Midwestern rust belt, baseball perceived the potential to seek out spectators in new locales.

(Russell D. Buhite. The Continental League: A Personal History. 2014)

The Continental League was to be Major League Baseball’s third league: an eight-team circuit meant to ensure baseball's position as America’s pre-eminent spectator sport. The vision for the league came from Branch Rickey, who gave it instant national legitimacy on the day it was officially announced -- July 27, 1959.

The league was comprised of franchises in the United States and Canada and was scheduled to begin play in 1961. Unlike predecessor competitors such as the Players League and the Federal League, it sought membership within organized baseball's existing organization and acceptance within Major League Baseball. Owners in each city had agreed to pay $50,000 to the league and committed to a capital investment of $2.5 million, not including stadium costs.

The announcement of the proposed league came from a politically connected lawyer, William Shea, who for almost two years had tried without success to lure a National League team to New York to replace the two clubs, the Dodgers and the Giants, that abandoned the city for California in the fall of 1957.

Shea, an emissary of Mayor Robert F. Wagner Jr., had no leverage in trying to entice a club to New York even with the city’s promise that it was prepared to build a state-of-the-art multipurpose stadium in Flushing Meadows, Queens.

Shea had been advised to seek out Rickey, who was only too happy to talk. Michael Shapiro, author of Bottom of the Ninth and reporter for The New York Times said ...

"He (Branch Rickey) disabused Shea of the idea of trying to persuade the owners to add a new team or two, itself a heretical notion; the big-league roster had remained frozen at 16 clubs since 1903. The new clubs, he cautioned, would be unable to compete with the established teams, and after the novelty of their appearance wore off they would become losers at the gate as well as on the field.

"Rickey had something altogether bolder in mind: a separate league, under the aegis of the majors, with franchises in seven cities that had been futilely seeking clubs of their own and a team in New York. In Rickey’s view, New York and its concentration of news media were essential. The clubs would play only one another for perhaps five years until they were ready to take on the older clubs. Competition, Rickey preached, was relative: it did not matter whom the home team played as long as the outcome was in doubt.

"If all this was not enough of an assault on the existing order, Rickey had one more idea sure to provoke: the clubs would pool and share their television revenue so that no club could dominate, as the Yankees did then."

(Michael Shapiro. "Memorabilia From the What-If Drawer."
The New York Times. July 22, 2009)

Of course, Major League owners were critical, and they insisted the new league would have to feature suitable stadiums, compensation to the minor league clubs they would supplant, and a full roster of clubs.

In addition to the equitable distribution of television revenues, Rickey had also proposed a player draft from a shared minor-league system. Theoretically, these systems would preclude any one team from achieving a financial and competitive advantage.

The Continental League was to begin with only five teams:  Houston, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Toronto, Denver and, of course, New York. Shea was quick to say other cities were vying to join.

“What impresses me is the dream of baseball hasn’t perished in this country,” Jimmy Cannon wrote in The New York Journal-American. “We still want it in our cities and important people are willing to risk fortunes to buy it for their hometowns.”

Where was the new league to acquire players. Rickey made it clear that the league would have some big-league players -- so long as the major league owners were willing to part with some of the lesser men they held under major and, effectively, minor league contract.

Shapiro reported "behind the scenes the big leagues were working furiously to kill the new league."
Shea knew the biggest impediment to the new league was the prospect of riches from a new source: pay television. The technology for scrambling images and charging for access had existed since the early 1950s.

Shapiro said:

"The owners had calculated that by keeping the number of franchises limited to 16, they could effectively render every major league stadium into a television studio, expanding the box office exponentially. And no owner was more savvy about the possibilities of pay television than Walter O’Malley, whose power in the league had only grown with his move to Los Angeles.

"The owners might have controlled the players, but the Continentals were not powerless: Congress was once again questioning the wisdom of the antitrust exemption that the Supreme Court granted baseball in 1922. Rickey and Shea did not necessarily want to see the exemption overturned. But as the majors’ resistance stiffened, Rickey began contemplating the possibility of establishing the league without baseball’s blessing and support. He would find players in the low minors, and in Latin America."

(Michael Shapiro. "Memorabilia From the What-If Drawer."
The New York Times. July 22, 2009)

Yet, even as legislation limiting the antitrust exemption gained momentum in the Senate, Rickey saw the new league was faltering. Those leaders who had joined to support the venture were much more eager to have big league cities than to crusade for the game of baseball. They told Rickey "big league did not mean an independent league filled with castoffs and men with Spanish names."

Still, Major League owners sensed expansion was inevitable, and they invited the Continentals to Chicago in August 1960, and there, a year after the new league’s announcement, made an offer: they would immediately take in four of the league’s eight clubs, and the other four, eventually, if the Continental League disbanded.

The Continental League vanished quickly. The league disbanded in August 1960 without playing a single game. When the story was told in the years that followed, it was said to be a ruse that had compelled the owners to expand. The Continental League undoubtedly forced MLB to hasten expansion. Most of the men who joined Rickey got their Major League teams, though not all -- Denver waited 33 years for the Rockies, and Buffalo never did get a Major League franchise.

But in his many letters and memos Branch Rickey was seen as a man who so believed in his vision for the game’s salvation that he was willing to turn his back on the institution he shaped and championed to see the new league through. For him, the Continental League was real. He fought baseball's resistance to change.

I so wish some gifted entrepreneur would establish a suitable hall and museum in Scioto County in honor of Branch Rickey. (Wouldn't Lucasville be a perfect site?) I am aware Ohio Wesleyan has many Rickey artifacts, and I'm sure relatives here also have heirlooms that could be put on permanent display. Branch Rickey is considered by many to be the most respected baseball personality in history. He deserves more recognition from his native county.

I wonder if the Negro League Hall of Fame in Kansas City, which currently shares a site with the American Jazz Museum, could be enticed to move to a Scioto County Branch Rickey memorial.

I honestly believe most residents of Scioto County do not realize the tremendous accomplishments of Mr. Rickey. In a hotbed of baseball, our most famous native son is relatively unknown for his tremendous lifetime of accomplishments. Perhaps the Major League players from the area, local investors, and Major League Baseball itself could join forces to begin a project to instill a beautiful point of light here in honor of a man who changed baseball, human rights, and the face of America.
"If Rickey's ideas were radical, he was at heart a company man,
a baseball lifer who earnestly believed the league would come
to see the reason of his proposals."

--Michael Shapiro

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