Thursday, January 05, 2006

January 5th, 1960

Continental League Gains Congressional Support

The Continental League is something of a footnote in history, albeit one that deserves far better, even if it is something of a rather bizarre story. The league was the brainchild of New York attorney William Shea (for whom Shea Stadium is named). Shea had decided the National League had no intention of ever putting a team back into New York City and so enlisted the support of Mayor Robert Wagner. In November of 1958 Wagner and Shea made an announcement of their intention to begin a third Major League with teams in cities that the current leagues were ignoring.

There are two key points in that first announcement. The first is that Shea and Wagner weren't suggesting another League entirely, a baseball version of the AFL or ABA, but rather that Major League Baseball would--if the plan went through--now have American, National and Continental Leagues. The second point is that Wagner and Shea were actually one-hundred percent correct with regards to baseball expansion. Bill Veeck had once said that if baseball owners had run the United States, Kansas and Nebraska would still be waiting to become states. That's glib, but only a tiny bit inaccurate.

Anyway, things began to progress as Branch Rickey was appointed chairman of the league and began a study to see how they could acquire players, since the "other" two leagues appeared to be planning to fight kicking and screaming. Meanwhile cities like Buffalo, New Orleans and even Honolulu applied for franchises as owners began lining up to pay the league's ten million dollar franchise fee (about sixty-five million in today's dollars).

In July of 1960--after Rickey had been given the titular Congressional support by New York Senator Kenneth Keating--the league announced it would begin with five franchises in New York, Houston, Toronto, Denver and Minneapolis. The National League helped steal some of this thunder with their announcement a week earlier, however, that if the CL was not accepted into MLB, then the NL would itself expand with ten teams including whichever cities held CL franchises.

In the end, this conflict would never come to be, as in early August the dispute was settled. The Continental League dropped its efforts after Walter O'Malley declared expansion should happen as soon as 1961 and it was suggested that the CL territories be admitted in as orderly a fashion as possible. In the end, the National League granted franchises in New York and Houston in 1962, and Minneapolis got an AL franchise of their own in 1961 after the Washington Senators abandoned the capital. Toronto and Denver, however, were rather left out in the cold. Toronto would not see a team until 1977 (after its Canadian companion Montreal had already received one along with cities like Seattle and San Diego) and Denver not until 1993 in baseball's penultimate (to this point) round of expansion.

It would be pat to say the arrival of the Rockies closed the book on the Continental League but that's unfair. Its true legacy is a valuable one, as being the impetus baseball needed to launch expansion and make itself truly a national game.

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