Continental League

By David Nevard

The Continental League was a proposed 8-team baseball league which never got off the ground but still had significant impact on baseball. It is generally accepted that Major League Baseball's expansion in 1961-1962 was in direct response to pressure from the Continental League.

The Continental was not an "outlaw" league, like its contemporaries the American Football League and American Basketball League, or later leagues like the ABA, WHL, WFL, etc.. The Continental plan was always to join Organized Baseball, not fight it.

There were several forces driving baseball toward expansion:

But Baseball was resisting. As Bill Veeck said, "If the baseball owners were running the United States, Kansas and Nebraska would still being trying to get into the Union."

The first attempt at expansion was by the 8-team Pacific Coast League, which in the mid-fifties was reclassified from AAA to Open. The PCL hoped to work its way up to major status, and in fact the majority of its cities did become major league eventually (Los Angeles + Hollywood, San Francisco, Oakland, San Diego, and Seattle). The Pacific Coast dream died when the Giants and Dodgers moved west, taking the PCL's two best markets.

But the removal of New York's two NL teams in 1958 led to a reaction on the East Coast. A committee was formed to get National League ball back in NYC; it was run by a lawyer named William Shea (as in Shea Stadium). Under pressure from Congress, Commissioner Ford Frick had made public the criteria for the admission of expansion cities to the majors, such as population, stadium capacity, etc. The wording of Frick's announcement made it clear he was thinking of baseball adding another league, not just individual teams. William Shea got together with community leaders in other baseball-hungry towns and formed the Continental League. It was formally announced on July 27, 1959 at a press conference in New York. Five cities were represented, with another dozen seen as potential candidates.

The league needed a respected public figure to lead it, and they chose Branch Rickey. With the Cardinals, Rickey had invented baseball's farm system. With the Dodgers, he had broken baseball's color line. From there he went to the Pirates, laying the foundations for the team that would soon be World Champions. In his 70's, Rickey was still dynamic and full of ideas. Rickey told the press that the Continentals would be ready in a few years to compete with the AL & NL in a round-robin World Series.

The main problem turned out to be players. There were plenty of baseball players in the country, but they all belonged to somebody. There was no free agency as we know it -- baseball's Reserve Clause meant that a player's contract was automatically renewed every year, forever -- unless the club chose to release him from it. In March 1960, Rickey's attempt to form a working agreement with the Class D Western Carolina League was blocked by MLB. The only players available would be amateurs or players already rejected by the system. Expansion advocates sought to get a bill through Congress that would limit the number of players a team could control to 80 (some teams controlled 400). The bill got amended and revised, and in June 1960 it was sent back to committee, never to be seen again.

After failing to reach indemnity agreements with the minor leagues whose cities it would be invading, the Continental League officially folded at a meeting in Chicago on August 2, 1960.

Baseball, still under threat from Congress, expanded with the four teams, two for each league. Players were furnished through an expansion draft. By 1969 the sport had reached the 24 teams that the Continentals would have given it, with most of the same cities.

But perhaps something was lost. In Past Time, Jules Tygiel points out that the expansion teams generally fared worse at the gate than established teams which moved to a new city. For instance, of the first eight expansion teams -- NY Mets, Houston, LA Angels, Washington, KC Royals, San Diego, Montreal, and Seattle Pilots -- only one drew a million fans in its inaugural year. (You can win some bets with this trivia question: the answer is Montreal!)

These expansion clubs were saddled with the dregs of the established teams' rosters, with no free agency to supplement their talent. The fans could smell a loser, and stayed away in droves. Washington and Seattle left town in a cloud of failure. Kansas City and San Diego each drew about 500,000 fans in 1969. The so-called lovable loser Mets didn't actually draw well until they started winning. In some cities, the nightmare went on for years. Of the eight original expansionists, thirty years later, only four (4) have ever played in a World Series.

Perhaps expanding with a whole new 8-team league would have been better for baseball in the long run. If the Pacific Coast League had been allowed to become major, it would have started with an established fan base and some established minor league stars. The Continental League would have given some expansion cities the thrill of a pennant race, and the anticipation of getting closer to major league status each year. (Can we really consider the 1962 Mets a major league baseball team?).

Branch Rickey said, "It may seem illogical that you can't get manpower for four extra clubs but you can for eight. But eight teams can compete equally while recognized as a third major league. Our new league would not pretend to be major the first year. But by the end of the third year that would not be unthinkable."

Perhaps the reason that Baseball didn't want to expand with a third league was that another league meant another culture, another power base. The country was used to a two-party system in politics and a two-league system in baseball, and the owners did not want to change the product. By expanding piecemeal, the owners were able to maintain control over the expansion clubs -- creating a strong Houston club was not in the interest of the Cardinals or the Cubs.

Expanding to a third league would have also meant throwing open the minor league system, which by 1960 had reached the weakest point in its history. This weakness, again, meant that the MLB owners could control it completely.

Today, with free agency and independent outfits like the Northern League springing up, a Continental League might have a much easier time signing talent. Free agency and a more equitable expansion draft have also meant that an new team like the Diamondbacks can rise up quickly in the standings, if the owner is willing to spend. (And fall back just as quickly, as the Marlins proved.)

But in 1960 the owners of the original 16 teams were holding all the cards, and they were not going to endanger their franchises. The first overall pick in the AL expansion draft, December 1960, was Eli Grba, a young Yankee pitcher with control problems. The Red Sox gave up Jim Fregosi, an 18-year-old minor leaguer who would turn out to be a fine shortstop, along with Jerry Casale, Fred Newman, Ed Sadowski, Tom Sturdivant, Heywood Sullivan, Jim Mahoney, and Willie Tasby.

The Continental League, as constituted January, 1960:

City Leader Admission to Majors
New York William Shea 1962 (Mets)
Houston   1962 (Colt 45s)
Toronto Jack Kent Cooke 1977 (Blue Jays)
Denver Robert Howsam 1993 (Rockies)
Minneapolis- St. Paul   1961 (Twins)
Dallas-Fort Worth   1971 (Rangers)
Atlanta   1966 (Braves)
Buffalo   still AAA

Sources: Past Time by Jules Tygiel and 1960: The Last Pure Season by Kerry Keene

(c) 2000 BHS

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