From left: Casey Stengel, Branch Rickey and baseball Commissioner Ford Frick in the fall of 1960, a time when Stengel would be fired as the New York Yankees’ manager and when Rickey’s plans for a rival league were unraveling. Bettmann/CORBIS
- The pitch: Spaulding must have thought there’d be a Continental League ready to launch in the late ’50s or early ’60s. Or how else do you explain the baseball it all prepared for this thing?
The plans to construct this rival to Major League Baseball (before such a phrase like “Major League Baseball” was even thought to be an entity to compete with the National Football League or National Basketball Association) has been documented in several places. Most notably, see the 2009 amazing biography of Branch Rickey by Leo Lowenfish and the 2010 book by Michael Shapiro called “Bottom of the Ninth: Branch Rickey, Casey Stengel and the Daring Scheme to Save Baseball From Itself.”
Buhite, a professor emeritus of history at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, has made his mark with books about Douglas MacArthur, FDR’s fire-side chats, foreign policy, and decisions made at Yalta. But where his history crosses with the interest on how the Continental League almost came to be is directly related to the fact that he was a first base prospect in the late 1950s who, after some time in the New York Giants,Baltimore and Washington, signed a contract to play with the Western Carolina League. That was to be a minor-league feeder for the Denver team of the Continental League, according to plans.
Buhite sites the work by Lowenfish and Shapiro in his own account, but adds: “Despite their excellent work, however, the story is in many ways incomplete.” Buhite’s own work on documenting what happened actually preceded their publications, he notes.
The Socialistic principles for the Continental League, for those who aren’t much familiar with it, was to counteract the current structure that had given the National and American Leagues such dominance in professional baseball to date — Rickey had devised a plan, not unlike a major corporation concept of management and labor, where all eight teams would share TV and gate revenues and there would be a fair player draft. Plus, cities that had been overlooked by the NL and AL could get their own teams at last.
Among those who stood to get a franchise as one of the first five ownership groups was Jack Kent Cooke, based in his native Toronto (before moving to L.A. to start his NBA Lakers and NHL Kings ownership in the late ’60s, as well as building the Forum).
“The only competition (Rickey) envisioned in the Continental League would occur on the field,” Buhite writes. “Rational as the new system seemed and for all of the good it might have instituted, it could not, in all likelihood, have sustained itself for long. Like many such models it contained the seeds of its own undoing.”
Presumably, having someone with Cooke’s ego involved, sharing would not have come so easy, even if profits were abundant.
Still, Rickey’s baby could have brought “significant benefit and reform to baseball” in a number of ways, Buhite contends. Not just in player opportunity, but also in lower costs for fans who end up footing the bills for escalating salaries. Anti-trust protection and reserve clause rules would have also come into play much sooner.
If the Continental League, as Buhite writes, “led by a creative, articulate baseball legend, built an incipient rival organization that threatened the interests of the contemporary baseball establishment” eventually led to pro baseball eventually adding four teams in 1961 and ’62 — including the birth of the Angels as an AL team — then some good did some of it.
As Buhite concludes in his last chapter: “The Continental League, with its new ballparks, high-quality young players and its aforementioned reforms, would have led Organized Baseball to some fundamental changes in the way it did business. Eventually, however, the Continental League would have moved, inevitably it would seem, into a structure not unlike that created the merger of the AFL with the NFL (in the mid ’60s). It would have been subsumed into a large corporate sports’ structure with many of the attending qualities — some positive, many negative; some enhancing fan enthusiasm, some driving fans away; some contributing to the public interest; some not.”
If Rickey had pulled this off to the complete disdain of Dodgers owner and rival Walter O’Malley, it would have been even more interesting to see how Rickey’s legacy had been rewritten. The Continental League Angels had even talked about renting out Dodger Stadium for their games, and Mark Scott, the broadcaster for the Hollywood Stars (and later on the campy “Home Run Derby”) was a liaison between Rickey and O’Malley in pitching the idea of a L.A. competitor.
The Los Angeles dynamic in all this strategy does create an intriguing subplot to Buhite’s version. And imagine how history could have changed as well if Cooke had made his fortunes in this baseball league and never wanted to see about putting hockey in L.A.
- More to know:
== In some weird way, having plowed through this book, we’re more apt to try to circle back to the 1995 Philip Roth book, “The Great American Novell.” The plot: How something called the Patriot League once existed as a rival to the major leagues but as some of its players became embroiled in a Communist plot during World War II, the league was expunged from the record books by the House Un-American Activities Committee. A Communist plat and capitalistic scandal? So how would a socialist Continental League have been viewed in that kind of political arena?
(For the record, Buhite says the league considered calling itself the Pan-Am League and the United States League before the Continental League was agreed upon.)