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Rickey forced baseballs expansion era
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Forsyth County News
Happy 50th birthday!

The Continental League was born fifty years ago Monday. Where were the parades? The balloons? Where was the cake?

Most important of all, where was the Continental League itself? What was the Continental League?

The league was the brainchild of Branch Rickey, the man who did more to shape Major League Baseball as we know it today than anyone.

He wasn’t known as the Mahatma for nothing. We know that Rickey brought Jackie Robinson into the big leagues. Rickey also signed the first Hispanic hero, Roberto Clemente. He created the minor league farm system and designed the batting helmet.

And it was Rickey who conceived the idea of a third major league to join the American and National.

Rickey’s idea reached fruition on July 27, 1959, when the birth of the Continental League was announced at the Biltmore Hotel in New York City.

The events leading to that announcement began two years earlier, when the Dodgers and Giants abandoned New York for sunny California.

The thought of the Big Apple without a National League team was inconceivable, abhorrent, even. Immediately, the mayor of New York, Robert F. Wagner, Jr., appointed a committee to bring a National League team to New York.

The city hoped to lure one of the other six National League teams to Gotham, or encourage the league to expand. New York sweetened the pot with a promise to build a brand-new stadium in Flushing Meadows, Queens.

The committee chairman was a politically well-connected corporate attorney named William Shea. For almost two years Shea tried in vain to obtain a franchise for the city.

Running out of options, Shea was advised to meet with Rickey. Rickey had been in reluctant retirement since being fired as the general manager of the hapless Pirates after the 1955 season.

In 1959, the major leagues had been frozen at 16 teams for 56 years. Rickey doubted that would change without an outside impetus, such as the competition supplied by a new league.

Rickey presented Shea with another revolutionary idea: the teams would pool their television revenue so that the competition would be balanced. That would be a dramatic change from the status quo, where the Yankees were able to dominate. Some things never change.

At the time of the original announcement, Shea had five-of-eight franchises on board to begin play in 1961. Represented were New York, Houston, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Denver and Toronto. The most familiar proposed owner was Toronto’s Jack Kent Cooke, who later owned the NBA Lakers and NFL Redskins.

The announcement’s timing couldn’t have been better. Senator Estes Kefauver (D-Tenn) was holding hearings before the Senate’s Antitrust and Monopoly Subcommittee regarding the status of baseball’s exemption under existing antitrust legislation.

According to an article appearing in the August 2, 1959 edition of the New York Times, Kefauver “warned baseball executives that their attitudes toward the proposed new league would be watched closely.”

With the pressure on, Rickey, now announced as the new league’s formidable president, sought to keep it applied. According to Michael Shapiro, author of “Bottom of the Ninth” a history of the Continental league, Rickey “used all of his orotund skills to sustain the belief that the new league was, as he put it, ‘as inevitable as tomorrow morning.’”

Rickey kept the new league in the headlines throughout the spring of 1960. Leery of Congress and wary of Rickey, baseball’s owners invited the Continental league to join them at their August, 1960 meeting in Chicago.

There, the owners made a stunning offer to the upstarts: they would immediately take in four of the new league’s clubs, and eventually the other four as well, if the Continental league would disband. Disband they did, without ever playing a game.

On October 17 in Chicago, National League president Warren Giles announced that New York and Houston had been awarded franchises in the National League to begin play in 1962.     The New York team would play in Flushing Meadows in a stadium named for Shea.

Nine days later, American League president Joe Cronin made his own announcement. Calvin Griffith would be moving his Washington franchise to Minneapolis-St. Paul, where it would become the Twins.

Since the nation’s capital could not exist without a baseball team — could it — an expansion team creatively named the Washington Senators would begin play there in 1961. They would be joined by another new team, the Los Angeles Angels.

Before the decade closed, new teams would be playing in Montreal, San Diego, Kansas City (after the A’s moved to Oakland) and Seattle (soon to be Milwaukee).

That’s how Branch Rickey caused baseball’s expansion.