The History of the American and National League, Part II

In Part I on Tuesday, we looked at the early days of the AL and NL, as well as baseball's expansion into California. Today, we pick up where we left off, with the story of a man named Bud.

 

Bud Selig and the Seattle Pilots

The Seattle Pilots struggled in their first year, and perhaps are best known for the book written by Jim Bouton, a former Pilots pitcher, entitled “Ball Four.” The Pilots struggles were news to the ears of Milwaukee businessman Bud Selig.

Selig was a minority owner of the Milwaukee Braves, who were very successful in the late 1950s, having won the World Series in 1957 and gotten back to it (and lost) in 1958. Selig was very aware of the fact that Milwaukee was a small market – a fact that became increasingly important as television expanded. Therefore, Selig created “Teams Inc.,” a company designed to promote local control of the Braves franchise. He successfully staved off a move in 1964, but eventually lost the Braves to Atlanta in 1965. From the moment the Braves moved south, Selig began a quest to bring another team to Milwaukee.

Selig renamed Teams Inc. “Milwaukee Brewers Baseball Club Inc.,” an homage to the original Milwaukee Brewers team of 1901. In 1968, Selig’s group enticed the Chicago White Sox to agree to play nine “home” games in Milwaukee in order to demonstrate that Milwaukee was still a viable market for baseball. The games were a rousing success: those nine games drew 264,297 fans, while the other 58 White Sox home games drew 539,478 – just over twice the amount of people that saw only nine games in Milwaukee.

Selig hoped that these staggering numbers would prompt the owners to give Milwaukee an expansion team to replace the Braves in 1969; however, the owners decided to further expand baseball’s market, awarding teams to Canada, the Pacific Northwest, Southern California, and Kansas City. After failing to secure an expansion team, Selig turned his efforts once again towards relocating an existing franchise. After a failed attempt to move the Chicago White Sox north, he set his sights on the Seattle Pilots, who drew tiny crowds throughout the 1969 season.

The Pilots originally weren’t supposed to begin playing until 1971, but that date was moved up to 1969 thanks to Senator Stuart Symington of Missouri, who wanted the expansion team in Kansas City to begin in 1969 as well. The Pilots also had to pay the Pacific Coast League – a minor league circuit - $1 million as compensation for the loss of one of its most successful franchises, which had been located in Seattle.

The Pilots, unsurprisingly, were not a good team in their inaugural season, but their stadium was even worse. Although it was originally one of the best minor league stadiums, Sick’s Stadium – home of the Seattle Pilots – had become old by 1969, and renovations weren’t made in time for the beginning of the season. Only 17000 seats were usable at the beginning, and when additional seats were added, many had obstructed views. Attendance was so poor that by the end of the 1969 season, the Pilots were nearly broke.

Pilots owner Dewey Soriano met in secret with Bud Selig for over a month at the end of the season. During game one of the World Series, Soriano agreed to sell the franchise to Selig, who planned on moving it to Milwaukee and re-naming it the Brewers. However, when the deal was made public it was met with resistance from Washington’s senators, who wanted Soriano to find a local buyer for the franchise. In January of 1970, Westin Hotels owner Eddie Carlson put together a non-profit group to buy the franchise; however, the other owners shot this idea down, in fear that it would devalue other franchises.

The Pilots reported to spring training in 1970 unsure of where they would be playing during the season. Baseball’s owners had agreed to let Selig buy the team and move it to Milwaukee, but the state of Washington received a court order on March 17 to stop the sale. Soriano filed for bankruptcy, claiming that he was not able to pay the players and staff. Had the team been 10 days late with payment, all of the players would have been declared free agents. Rather than let this happen, Federal Bankruptcy Referee Sidney Volinn declared the Pilots bankrupt on April 1 – a mere six days before opening day. The Pilots equipment truck had left their spring training site in Arizona days earlier, unsure of what city to drive to. It stopped in Provo, Utah, and awaited word of what city it should take the equipment to. On April 1, the truck headed northeast to Milwaukee. Bud Selig had his new team.

Further Expansion

The Pilots had failed mainly for reasons outside of their control: yes, the team on the field was poor, but that was to be expected in any expansion team. Rather, the Pilots had been hampered by starting play in 1969 rather than 1971, when their stadium was in disrepair, and they had been reeling from the settlement paid to the PCL. Thus, in 1977, when Major League baseball expanded once again, Seattle was once again awarded a franchise: the Seattle Mariners. The other team added was the Toronto Blue Jays, 20 years after they were set to join the proposed Continental League.

Baseball expanded again in 1993, awarding franchises in Denver and Miami to the National League. This infuriated Vincent J. Naimoli, who was attempting to lure a team to the Tampa/St. Petersburg area. He threatened to sue baseball and challenge its antitrust exemption (more on this next week), until he was placated with an assurance that he would receive a team when baseball next expanded. In 1998, baseball kept its word, adding teams in Phoenix and St. Petersburg.

However, this left both leagues with 15 teams apiece – an unattractive proposition, as it would have called for either two teams having an off day every single day, or at least one interleague game every day. Rather than either of those options, the Milwaukee Brewers (owned by commissioner Bud Selig) switched from the American to the National League – the first time since the leagues joined together in 1903 that a team had switched from one league to the other.

 

The Future

The story of major league baseball’s expansion mirrors the story of the expansion of the United States. Originally clustered along the east coast and near the Great Lakes, as the country grew more prosperous, people headed out west. Baseball soon followed, thanks in large part to the advent of the commercial jet. The economy flourished in the 1960s, prompting baseball to expand at a pace far exceeding anything of the past. The desire for increased revenues caused many teams to relocate, and the ever-growing populations of previously small cities gave baseball many more outlets in which to place teams. Furthermore, the passion and undying persistence of men such as Bud Selig, Vince Naimoli, and many others is the direct reason why some cities currently have baseball teams.

After nearly contracting a team or two back in 2002, major league baseball is as profitable as ever: attendance has been higher than ever before, players receive higher salaries every year, and new outlets such as MLBAM have brought unprecedented revenue into the sport. Still, problems remain: the Florida Marlins had baseball’s lowest payroll and yet have drastically cut costs their offseason. Other teams are starting to show signs of financial woes, which may or may not be caused by the worsening condition of the economy. As the economy goes, so goes baseball, which, as a form of entertainment, depends more on consumers being awash with cash than many other businesses.

If there’s one thing we can learn from baseball’s history, it’s that baseball – both on and off the field – is unpredictable. As Kurt Vonnegut said,“History is merely a list of surprises. It can only prepare us to be surprised yet again.”

NEXT WEEK: Ever wonder how baseball’s salary structure was put in place? Next we will examine the history of baseball’s Reserve Clause, and the fascinating story of Marvin Miller, who united the Players Union and eventually won the right for players to become free agents.

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