A Conversation With Michael Shapiro
Michael Shapiro's Bottom of the Ninth is the story about the moment when baseball doomed itself to an eternity as America's second, and maybe even third favorite sport. In 1960 baseball had the chance to plant its flag in cities that for years had been begging for teams of their own. And not just one or two at a time. But eight new clubs. In a new major league—the Continental League.
What was the Continental League?
This was no fly by night operation: it had eight cities, with big money behind each team, and it had the vision; the man behind it was none other than baseball's greatest and most forward thinking mind—Branch Rickey.
Wasn’t he retired?
He was, and not happily. He was 78, and restless—his last stint as a general manager had ended in 1955, after five losing seasons in Pittsburgh. This was the man who invented the farm system in the 1930s and who integrated the game in the 1940s, and he was ready to revolutionize the game again.
Rickey believed that the worst possible course baseball could take would be to add a team or two at a time. Those clubs, he predicted, would end up as losers on the field, and at the box office.
So what was his plan?
Rickey wanted an eight-team league -- with teams in seven cities that had been shut out, and a team in New York, the media capital of the nation, and the key to the whole deal.
But New York had a team, the Yankees.
Yes, and it had just lost its two National League clubs.
Did the departure of the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants have anything to do with Rickey's scheme?
Everything. Only after the National League refused to allow a new club to move to New York did the city's representative, Bill Shea, seek out Rickey for his advice. It was as if Rickey had been waiting for someone to call to ask how to save the game.
Save the game? Wasn't baseball the national pastime?
Yes. But it was fading. Attendance was down. Ballparks were getting old. New sports, especially pro football, were capturing the nation's attention.
But surely the owners were ready to adapt and modernize?
Not a bit. The big leagues hadn't added a new club since 1903—even as the nation's fastest growing cities were clamoring for one.
How did they get away with this?
Because baseball has been a legally sanctioned monopoly since 1922, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was exempt from anti-trust laws.
But wasn't Congress beginning to look into changing that?
It was; which meant that the cities that joined Rickey's crusade had a lot of friends on Capitol Hill. But then, so did baseball.
So, New York wasn't alone. What other cities joined in?
Houston, Atlanta, Denver, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Dallas, Buffalo, and Toronto—which would be the first franchise outside the United States.
What made the Continental League different?
Exactly. Rickey insisted that the teams pool their money, so that no single, rich club could dominate the league the way the Yankees had been ruling the American League for decades.
But didn't football adopt that very idea?
Yes. In 1960 with the American Football League, whose founder, Lamar Hunt, always credited Rickey with having given him the idea when he sat in on the Continental League’s meetings.
Did the Continental League ever get off the ground?
No. It never fielded a team, or played a game.
The owners fought it as hard as they could. But facing an every angrier Congress, they made a deal: they offered to take in four of the Continental League cities immediately, and the other four at some point in the future, if the new league agreed to fold.
And the Continental League owners took the deal?
But why? Didn't the AFL stay together at the same time?
Because the men who joined on with Rickey did not believe in his league. They just wanted to join the big league club.
So they used him?
Indeed they did.
And did they all get those promised clubs?
New York and Houston did, right away. Minneapolis-St. Paul got the Washington Senators, but new expansion teams were put in Washington, D.C., and in Los Angeles, rather than in any of the Continental League cities. Atlanta got the Braves in 1966. Dallas got the Texas Rangers, but only in 1972. Toronto got the Blue Jays in 1977. Denver had to wait 33 years to land the Rockies in 1993. Buffalo never got a club.
But look at all those expansion teams.
Yes, and most of them were failures for years, just as Rickey had predicted.
So you're saying that if baseball had listened to Rickey and accepted his new league it would have remained the nation's game?
Maybe. But by refusing to accept Rickey's bold plan, the big leagues assured themselves of falling every further behind football.
How do you know?
When Gallup asked Americans to name their favorite game in 1960, about a third said baseball. Just over 20 percent chose football. By 1970, the numbers were reversed. And today football leads baseball in popularity by better than a three to one margin.