What I’m Reading: Bottom of the Ninth: Branch Rickey, Casey Stengel, and the Daring Scheme to Save Baseball from Itself

Bottom of the Ninth, by Michael Shapiro, is about ex-Pirates/Cardinals/Dodgers manager Branch Rickey and his plan, starting in 1958, to create a new major league to compete with the existing National and Americal Leagues. HIs partner in this effort was New York attorney Bill Shea, who had decided that after the departure of the Giants and Dodgers from New York for California in 1957, leaving only the Yankees in the city, he would lead an effort to bring a National League team to New York. When it became obvious that Major League baseball wasn’t supportive of his effort, he joined Rickey in attempting to create the new league, to be called the Continental League.

Now since the astute reader will recognize that there are not today three major leagues, it’s obvious from the beginning that this book is a tragedy. Indeed, Rickey’s and Shea’s audacious plan was doomed to failure, largely due to the machinations of Yankees owners Del Webb and Dan Topping. But Rickey and Shea gave it their best shot, and nearly succeeded.

In the baby boom after World War II, the American population was exploding, and tons of burgeoning new cities wanted Major League teams. And with the new technology of the jet airplane, it was feasible for teams from across the continent to fly to a distant city for a three-day baseball series. By 1957, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Los Angeles, and San Francisco had attracted teams that had moved from cities where they had been the second, lesser team. But those secondary teams had now all moved. How would Houston, Atlanta, Denver, Minneapolis, or Toronto get their teams?

Here’s where Rickey’s idea for a new league came in. A new eight-team league could put a second team in New York and satisfy most of the really serious ownership groups in the quickly-growing newer cities. Plus, Rickey had a plan to correct a flaw that afflicted the existing American and Nationals leagues. That flaw was that teams in larger, wealthier cities, particularly the New York Yankees, were able to make so much money from their greater attendance and fanbases that they could easily outspend the Pittsburghs, Clevelands, and Washingtons to monopolize the best players and prospects. (The Yankees in the 1950s had ten minor league teams to keep the pipeline of new players flowing.)

Rickey’s plan for the Continental League was to take money from television deals–a promising new source of revenue for baseball teams–and divide it evenly among its teams. That, along with a few other ideas, would ensure that each team had enough cash to remain competitive. No longer would there be permanent second-class teams, relegated to the bottom of the standings in their respective leagues for decades on end.

This is a complicated story, but Michael Shapiro deftly weaves together its several different threads. First, there’s the coordination between the new league and the several different ownership groups in the cities that want in. Second, there’s the negotiations between the Continental League and the existing major leagues, who do not like the idea of a new competing league, but also don’t want the Continental League going rogue and trying to poach all their players. The third thread is Congress, which had granted baseball an exception to the national monopoly laws decades earlier so they did not have allow players free agency, but was not inclined to continue with this exception–an ace in the hole for the Continental League.

The final thread is the actual run of the baseball seasons from 1958-60, as seen from the viewpoint of Casey Stengel, the once-heralded Yankees manager who now felt his job threatened as the Yankees former dominance had eroded at the end of the 1950s.

In October 1960, the threads unravel, as the plans for the new league dissolve when the American and National leagues strategically promise a few ownership groups that they will get expansion teams if they quit the Continental League. The other cities are basically left out to dry for years or decades. Meanwhile, Casey Stengel’s Yankee lose that year’s World Series to Pittsburgh in seven games in one of the weirdest and best World Series ever, after which he’s unceremoniously fired.

I have to say, after reading this, I was totally convinced by Branch Rickey’s plan. This is the way it should have happened, and baseball would today be the better for it. And in fact, his plan was so good that the fledgling American Football League at the time did adopt it, with many of the ideas transferring to the combined league when the AFL later joined the more established NFL. To this very day, the NFL is a far more competitive sport than Major League Baseball, and it’s no coincidence that football passed baseball as America’s favorite sport in the 1970s.

A lost opportunity indeed, and a fascinating book about this nearly forgotten episode in baseball history. I highly recommend this fascinating and readable book, which would be of interest to any baseball fan interested in the business side of the sport.

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