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The History of the American and National League, Part I

Baseball’s history is rich and complex, full of colorful characters, timeless moments and tremendous achievements. It is the story of racism and redemption, doctored balls and labor strikes, players and owners, victory and defeat. Just like the sport itself, baseball’s history has been both unpredictable and bound by cause-and-effect.

In order to appreciate where the sport of baseball is in the year 2008, we need to understand appreciate the past. In the coming weeks, I will provide a cursory overview of various aspects of baseball’s history, starting today with Expansion, Part I.

At the end of this series, I will provide some suggestions for books to read if you are interested. These posts will barely scratch the surface of what happened and why, and it behooves anyone truly interested in America’s national past time to dig into more depth.

NOTE: Part II can be found here.


The Origin of the National and American Leagues

Success breeds imitation. And throughout its history, baseball was awfully successful.

The National League was formed in 1876. Because this was successful, the American Association was created in 1881 to compete with the NL. In order to attract fans, the AA instituted several policies that the NL lacked: they played games on Sundays and they sold beer at the ballpark. They also undercut the NL, charging 25 cents for admission, rather than 50 cents. The AA also began to compete for players with the NL.

In 1884, the Union Association was formed, but only lasted one year. Then, in 1890, the Players League began, but also only lasted one year. However, the existence of the Players League had a residual effect on the longer-standing leagues: namely, the Players League contributed to the demise of the American Association in 1891. The AA had been consistently weaker than the NL during its ten-year existence, causing some of the stronger AA teams to make the jump over to the NL. The PL stole additional players from the AA and undercut its ticket prices, causing it to finally fold.

As the AA got weaker, the NL expanded. During the last three years of the AA’s existence, eight AA teams jumped to the NL. Four of those teams remain to this day: the Cardinals, Dodgers, Pirates and Reds. After the AA folded, the National League became a 12-team monopoly that lasted into the early 1900s.

By 1900, the 12-team circuit wasn’t working. Attendance was highly concentrated in only seven cities, and there were too many consistently bad teams, lessening excitement (and attendance) towards the end of the season. The owners got together and decided to reduce the league to eight teams. Thus, teams in Baltimore, Cleveland, Louisville and Washington were eliminated, leaving the following teams:

Boston Beaneaters, Brooklyn Superbas, Chicago Orphans, Cincinnati Reds, New York Giants, Philadelphia Phillies, Pittsburgh Pirates, and St Louis Perfectos.

When the NL reduced its teams, a minor league called the Western League saw an opportunity. In 1899, Bancroft Johnson, commissioner of the Western League, renamed his league the American League. In 1901 – the year after the NL contracted four teams – the American League removed itself from the National Agreement (the understanding  between the National League and the various minor league circuits) and declared itself to be a Major League, alongside the  National League. They also expanded, placing teams into three of the four cities that had lost their NL team – Baltimore, Cleveland, and Washington – as well as placing some teams into cities that already had an NL team – Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia. The original American League consisted of the following teams:

Baltimore Orioles, Boston Americans, Chicago White Stockings, Cleveland Blues, Detroit Tigers, Milwaukee Brewers, Philadelphia Athletics, and Washington Senators.

The National League was furious. They tried to push aside the upstart AL and regain their profitable monopoly. However, it soon became apparent that the AL wasn’t going anywhere, and, in true American fashion, the NL realized that if they couldn’t beat the AL, they should join them. In 1903 the two leagues signed a new version of the National Agreement, under which they agreed that they would each be a major league, and their champions would play each other in the World Series (a fantastic marketing and profit opportunity for the two leagues).

Thus, starting in 1903, the United States featured two eight-team baseball leagues: the American and National Leagues, whose winners would play each other in the World Series. And that remained intact for 50 years.

The End of Stability

Bill Veeck would change all of that.

In 1951, Veeck purchased the St Louis Browns (originally the Milwaukee Brewers, they moved to St Louis and were re-named the Browns in 1902). Veeck, the former owner of the Cleveland Indians, was known for his various stunts. Perhaps his best-known stunt involved signing Eddie Gaedel, who was three-feet, seven inches tall. Gaedel had one at bat in his career, during which he donned a uniform with the number “1/8” and wore elf-life slippers with the ends turned up. Gaedel walked on four straight pitches, and was promptly replaced by a pinch runner. Infuriated at the affront to the sanctity of the game, American League president Will Harridge immediately voided Gaedel’s contract, leaving him with a perfect 1.000 career on-base percentage (as a direct result of this incident, the commissioner of baseball must now approve all player contracts). Needless to say, Veeck was not held in high esteem by the other owners.

When he purchased the Browns, Veeck believed that the city of St. Louis was too small for two teams, and he hoped to push out the struggling Cardinals. However, the Cardinals were soon bought by August Busch Jr., the president of Anheuser-Busch, who announced that he had no intentions of moving the Cardinals. Therefore, Veeck decided that he wanted to move the Browns.

Veeck first tried to move back to the Browns’ original city, Milwaukee, but he was blocked by the other owners. He then tried to move to Baltimore, but was again blocked by the owners. Lacking leverage, he was forced to sell the team to a Baltimore-based group. With Veeck out of the picture, the other owners approved the Browns’ move to Baltimore (foreshadowing a contentious move of a football Browns team to Baltimore decades later) in 1954. The period of stability in the AL and NL was over.

Baseball Moves West

In 1950, real-estate businessman Walter O’Malley acquired a majority stake in the Brooklyn Dodgers. Before long, he began to look for an improvement over the Dodgers home, Ebbets Field, which was built in 1913 and had become old and dilapidated by the 1950s. New York City Construction Coordinator Robert Moses wanted O’Malley to use a site in Flushing Meadows, Queens, for his new ballpark. Moses envisioned a city-built, city-owned park, but O’Malley wanted nothing of the sort. When it became clear that O’Malley was not going to find any suitable land in Brooklyn, he began looking elsewhere.

World War II had been over for less than a decade when O’Malley purchased the Dodgers. The war had been the first to involve an air force, as technology had become sophisticated enough to build a fleet of fighter jets. It wasn’t long until the technology allowed commercial flights as well. Sure enough, in 1952, the first commercial jet – the de Havilland Comet – was introduced. The Boeing 707 was introduced not long after, and was the first widely successful commercial jet, signaling the beginning of air travel in the United States.

Thus, it is not a coincidence that talk of expanding baseball westward began to pick up steam after the war. Officials in Los Angeles had been actively lobbying for a major league team, and with the advent of the jet, transcontinental travel was cheaper and faster than ever before. When it became known that O’Malley was looking for land outside of Brooklyn, Los Angeles quickly offered him a plot on which to build a park.

However, it would be impractical to move only one team across the country. If Major League baseball was truly going to expand out west, they would need at least two teams. At the same time that O’Malley was offered land in Los Angeles, New York Giants owner Horace Stoneham was looking for a replacement for his stadium, the Polo Grounds (which had opened in 1890 and was extensively renovated in 1911 after a fire). Stoneham also began to consider options outside of New York – the Giants had a minor league team in Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Stoneham considered moving his Giants to Minnesota. However, O’Malley then approached Stoneham with an idea: why not move west?

The mayor of San Francisco was excited about the opportunity to have a major league team, and provided Stoneham with the necessary land for a ballpark. It was settled: O’Malley and Stoneham would move their teams to Los Angeles and San Francisco, respectively. The Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants met on opening day of 1958 in Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, signaling the beginning of a new and busy era of expansion and movement in baseball.

The Continental League

New York State Attorney William Shea was not happy about losing two of his state’s three teams to California. Shea tried to get another Major League team in New York, either via expansion or by moving an existing team. However, his efforts were to no avail. Then, in November of 1958, he had an idea: create a third Major League, the Continental League. He named Branch Rickey president (to give the league some credibility), and the Continental League was formally announced in 1959. Teams were going to be created in Denver, Houston, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Toronto, and, of course, New York City. Three additional teams were expected, thus making it an eight-team league, a la the AL and NL.

As you might imagine, Major League baseball was not happy with this idea. They had enjoyed a very prosperous monopoly for over 50 years; besides, history had shown that three major leagues didn’t work. Major League baseball came up with a compromise: it announced that for the first time since the American League had joined the National League back in 1903, it would expand. Both the AL and NL decided to add two new teams to their ranks, with priority given to cities that did not already have a team. However, the National League also extended an invitation to the owners of New York’s Continental League team to join the National League instead. When they accepted, Shea finally got his wish, and it more or less officially killed the Continental League.

The American League expanded in 1961, adding the Washington Senators (the previous Senators team had moved to Minnesota and were re-named the Minnesota Twins in 1961) and Anaheim Angels, giving baseball more of a presence out west.

The National League expanded in 1962, adding the Houston Colt .45s along with the New York Mets (incidentally, the Mets paid homage to their New York predecessors with an orange “NY” from the Giants logo on a Dodger-blue cap) .
There were also several teams that moved in the 1950s, besides the St. Louis Browns. In 1953, the Boston Braves moved to Milwaukee; and in 1955, the Philadelphia Athletics moved to Kansas City. As the country expanded west and small cities grew larger, so did major league baseball expand and grow as well.

At the beginning of the 1962 season, Major League baseball looked like this:

American League

National League

Baltimore Orioles

Chicago Cubs

Boston Red Sox

Cincinnati Reds

Chicago White Sox

Houston Colt .45s**

Cleveland Indians

Los Angeles Dodgers

Detroit Tigers

Milwaukee Braves

Kansas City Athletics

New York Mets

Los Angeles Angels*

Philadelphia Phillies

Minnesota Twins

Pittsburgh Pirates

New York Yankees

San Francisco Giants

Washington Senators

St. Louis Cardinals

*The LA Angels would be re-named the California Angels in 1965
**The Houston Colt .45s would be re-named the Houston Astros in 1965


But the country – and baseball – wasn’t done expanding. Thanks to the booming economy of the 1960s, expansion became inevitable. In 1966 the Milwaukee Braves moved to Atlanta, and the Kansas City Athletics moved to Oakland in 1968. Then, in 1969, both leagues decided to add two more teams. The AL replaced its franchise in Kansas City by adding the Royals, and made a foray into the Pacific Northwest for the first time, adding the Seattle Pilots. The NL added the San Diego Padres and Montreal Expos, a testament to the increasing popularity of baseball in all parts of North America.

After a period of stability that lasted 50 years, major league baseball underwent tremendous change in the 1950s. The movement of the Dodgers and Giants shocked the baseball world, and many New Yorkers never got over their grudge. However, expanding into California was probably the best thing the game could have done, as the emerging west provided a strong (and growing) base for baseball. The economy was booming and baseball was benefitting.

In part two: Baseball continues to expand at a break-neck pace. A young man from Milwaukee named Bud Selig searches determinedly for a major league franchise to replace the one he lost. And baseball grows into the 30-team juggernaut that exists today.