The book: “Baseball’s New Frontier: A History of Expansion, 1961-1998”
The pitch: Expansion is something we shouldn’t take for granted. From our waistlines to our credit debt to our neighbor’s backyard fence somehow inching closer toward our back door.
Expansion’s historical context in baseball is interestingly just a phenomenon that’s a half-decade old, considering all that’s gone into the game leading into it. And the reasons for super sizing each time are usually related to someone getting pissy about their territory.
The Dodgers (and Giants) expanding their horizons from New York to the West Coast changed the sport forever, but it was the right time. (You also have to wonder what could have happened if Jackie Robinson didn’t retire in 1957, stayed with the Dodgers during their final year in Brookly — even though he was officially traded to the Giants — and got to play on game in L.A. in 1958 before calling it quits).
Too many people west of the Mississippi that had other things to preoccupy their time with — including the Pacific Coast League — but travel had caught up with the times and made the idea seem at least doable, if not totally practical.
What Zimniuch decides to do is explain better how the mechanisms went into place every time an MLB commissioner was forced to appease someone with a new land grant.
It may not be material to inspire less-than-sterile explanations, but Zimniuch, who entertained us with one of his other books, “Crooked: A History of Cheating in Sports,” did more than rehash previous history. He also freshened it up with interviews that include Dick Beverage, Dean Chance, Pat Gillick, Tim McCarver, Bill Stoneman and Branch Rickey III, grandson of the former Dodgers GM who tried to start his own rival league because of the MLB’s resistence to change.
Anti-trust threats were always a good way to act as a catalyst for change, especially when offered up by politicians in cities that really wanted a team. The Angels’ creation in 1961 is well documented already, but that came partnered with a promise to put a team in Washington D.C. — for only a year, then it could move to Minnesota. It wasn’t as if Gene Autry threatened baseball with some kind of court case, but how could you not want The Singing Cowboy as part of your new course of direction in baseball’s expanding map?
A year later came the rebirth of a New York NL team (the Mets) and one in Houston. By 1969, it was San Diego, Kansas City, Montreal and Seattle (the Pilots, who moved to Milwaukee a year later). So the turmoil going on in the nation during the ’60s really did inspire and ignite thoughts of anti-establishment. As Branch Rickey used to say: “Baseball is the proving grounds for civil rights.”
The expansion later in the late ’70s (Toronto and Seattle again), ’93 (Rockies and Marlins) and ’98 (Arizona and Tampa) were more about greed, really, which led to more talk about a watered-down product, even thoughts of contraction.
Where this book doesn’t quite push well forward is coming to a clear thought about where expansion can or will go from here. It talks about the “havoc” that could be caused by the National League having to move a team to the American League in order to create balance that “would cause” purists to be upset over more interleague scheduling.
“That won’t work,” Zimniuchi writes.
Guess what? It’s already happened. Go watch the Angels play the Astros in Anaheim this weekend.
Zimniuchi’s idea instead was more expansion could resolve that 16/14 previous split of the 30 teams “despite the economy and the difficult times in society.” Why not try a team in Las Vegas? San Antonio? Orlando? Nashville? Memphis? New Orleans? Even back in Brooklyn?
The NBA and NHL just called. They want to do their own books about that.
More to know:
== A mention of “Baseball’s New Frontier” in the L.A. Times’ baseball book reviews from March 31.