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Taking On The Big Boys

Steve Bilko
1954 Bowman baseball card of PCL star Steve Bilko (United States Public Domain)

Major league baseball has had a monopoly for over a hundred years now. Why? Because they know how to take on any “Third Major League” competition and pound them into the ground. After three significant threats, they’ve become experts at punching it out with anybody who chooses to challenge them. In the last few decades, the National Football League and National Hockey League have merged with their respective competition: the American Football League with the NFL, and the World Hockey Association with the NHL. And we can’t forget basketball: the American Basketball Association and the National Basketball Association called a truce and joined forces, too.

But not major league baseball. No way

When the Federal League reared its ugly head in 1914, MLB didn’t take them very seriously at first. That is until this new “outlaw” league, as they were calling it, offered the American League and National League baseball stars some big money, and without reserve clauses attached to their contracts, making it the first appearance of Free Agency. The biggest signing was a three-year deal offered to Washington Senators hurler Walter Johnson by the new Chicago team. It took Senator owner Clark Griffith stepping in and talking his pitcher out of it with a better offer.

In the Federal League’s two years of existence then-era stars Chief Bender, Hal Chase, Mordecai Brown, Eddie Plank, Joe Tinker, and many others jumped. As a result, MLB salaries increased substantially for the players to stay put on their current rosters. Stars Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker, in particular, received much better paychecks. Eight cities emerged with teams in the first year of the FL operations: Chicago, St Louis, Pittsburgh, Brooklyn, Baltimore, Indianapolis, Kansas City, and Buffalo. Although they played a full 154-game schedule, most of the teams barely broke even.

The beginning of the end for the FL occurred during the 1914-15 offseason, when the fledging league filed a lawsuit against the established American and National Leagues on antitrust issues. The federal judge handling the case--Kennesaw Mountain Landis who became MLB’s commissioner six years later--let the paperwork lag in court as he waited to see if the two sides could hash it out and reach an agreement on their own.

By the end of the second season, only two Federal League teams were in the black. Money problems and sparse attendance weighed too heavy on them to continue. Four of the teams were bought outright by individual MLB owners who used the new rosters to stock their respective squads. Two of the FL owners were offered struggling MLB teams, which they took. After two years, the threat was over, and MLB salaries dropped back to previous levels, including Walter Johnson’s Washington contract.

The antitrust lawsuit was finally settled in federal court in 1922: It ruled in MLB’s favor. By the way, in 1916, the Chicago Cubs took over the ball field--called Weeghman Park--that had been built for the Chicago Federal League team, the Whales. They are still using it today: We know it as Wrigley Field.

Major league baseball saw the next threat in the 1950’s with the rise of the Pacific Coast League. A cut above the other minor leagues, this league, more or less on its own due to distance from the eastern major leagues, had a high level of talent. They played an exciting brand of ball and paid their players quite handsomely. Teams operated in centers like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Hollywood, Oakland, Seattle, Spokane, Portland, and San Diego. Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Tony Lazzeri, and Joe Gordon, among others, had emerged from the PCL, before they headed to the majors. Those who chose to stay could make an excellent career playing on the west coast.

The biggest name in the 1950’s was massive first baseman Steve Bilko of the Los Angeles Angels. He had a couple chances in the majors with the St Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs--including a full season with the 1953 Cardinals--before settling down to become the PCL’s MVP for three straight seasons from 1955-57, while smashing a grand total of 148  home runs.

Due to the mild climate, the PCL seasons could stretch from February to December, as many as 170-180 regular games, and sometimes more. The players didn’t mind the large amount of games because a longer season allowed an extra two months or so of salaries, ruling out off-season jobs. The owners didn’t mind it either: longer seasons entailed more money at the gate.

William Shea
Continental League founder William Shea (United States Public Domain)

Alarm bells went off for MLB in 1952 when the PCL declared itself an “Open Classification” league. It was now a notch above its previous Triple A category--you might say AAAA--and as a result limited the majors from drafting their players. MLB and the press took this daring move to mean that the PCL was looking into seeking future major league status. As it turned out, the PCL picked a bad time to announce such intentions. In the next couple years, attendance slipped all over the league. Not only that, but minor league attendance, in general, was nose-diving throughout the continent by the middle 1950’s. The culprit: MLB games on the new phenomenon known as television.  The final nail in the coffin occurred when the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants moved to Los Angeles and San Francisco, respectively, forcing three PCL teams--Los Angeles Angels, Hollywood Stars, and San Francisco Seals--to relocate. Beginning in 1958, the Pacific Coast League dropped back to AAA status. MLB did it again.

The next and last challenge came from the Continental League. The idea for this league sprouted as soon the Dodgers and Giants vacated New York in 1957. With only the Yankees left in town, the main focus on this new league was to place a second ball team in New York, a team that the former Dodger and Giant fans could hold dear to their hearts. The Yankees and the American League may as well have been a thousand miles away.

The league was the brainchild of New York lawyer William Shea.  At a press conference in New York City on July 27, 1959, he announced that the new Continental League would begin play by 1961 with a full 154-game schedule, and would not brand itself as an outlaw league. In fact, Shea insisted he wanted the league to exist within baseball’s structure as a third league, along with the American and National Leagues. Five cities were granted franchises at the time: Denver, Houston, Minneapolis-St Paul, Toronto, and New York City. Three more were added to the list within months: Atlanta, Buffalo, and Dallas-Ft Worth. Toronto’s bid came from Jack Kent Cooke, who, at that time, owned the Triple A Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League. A few years later, Cooke went on to bigger ventures owning the NFL Washington Redskins, New York City’s Chrysler Building, and the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings, among other things.

Potential owners agreed to a $50,000 entrance fee plus a capital investment of $2.5 million. Venues asked for were a minimum stadium capacity of 35,000 seats. Ex-Cardinals-Dodgers-Pirates president Branch Rickey was named the league’s new president. One of his ideas was to stage a round-robin World Series with the two established leagues by the early-to-mid 1960’s.

On September 13, 1959, Rickey appeared on the iconic TV show, What’s My Line. One of the questions asked was: “How about that third league?” To which Rickey replied: “Inevitable as tomorrow.” He should never have been that confidant.

Once again, major league baseball took offense to any new league muscling in on their territory. In early 1960, they reacted by suddenly announcing expansion plans of their own: two new teams in both the American and National leagues to bring their total of teams to 20, up from 16. For 1961, the new cities in the AL would be Los Angeles and Washington, because the Senators made it known they were set to move to Minneapolis-St Paul after the 1960 season. Then the clincher: About the same time, Houston and New York were granted franchises in the National League, beginning play in 1962. Once all this hit the fan, Shea immediately removed his support from the Continental League. By August 2, 1960, the league disbanded before it ever got started.

The new National League New York team became the Mets. They played their home games at the old, decrepit former home of the Giants, the Polo Grounds, from 1962-1963, while a new stadium was being built in nearby Flushing Meadows. In 1964, the Mets moved into their sparkling new home named after William Shea: none other than Shea Stadium.

Over the years, some people believed that the whole Continental League idea was just a well-conceived plan--or a conspiracy--to force the majors into bringing a National League team back to New York. If that’s true, Branch Rickey, William Shea, Jack Kent Cooke, and rest of them had the last laugh. 


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