Smart Growth and MLB:  A Virtual History

In 1952, there were 16 major league teams, covering the following markets:

- 3 teams in New York City
- 2 teams in Chicago
- 2 teams in Boston
- 2 teams in Philadelphia
- 2 teams in St. Louis
- 1 team in each of Washington, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Detroit

Things had been that way (except for the brief intrusion of the Federal League in 1914-15) for half a century.

Here’s the lineup a half-century later:

- 2 teams in New York City
- 2 teams in Chicago
- 2 teams in the Los Angeles area
- 2 teams in the San Francisco Bay Area
- 1 team in each of Miami, Tampa-St. Petersburg, Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Montreal, Toronto, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, Minneapolis-St. Paul, St. Louis, Kansas City, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Houston, Denver, Phoenix, San Diego, and Seattle

Clearly things have changed quite a bit. It’s quite fair to say that it was inevitable that things would change quite a bit since 1952. But there’s no reason to believe it was inevitable that things would turn out exactly as they did, and especially, that it was inevitable that every franchise movement and expansion entry since 1952 would occur as it did. Just because things happened doesn’t mean things had to be that way.

As we all know, the way things have occurred, while succeeding in bringing Major League Baseball to many very deserving and grateful markets, also delivered huge frustration and bitterness to many communities, including Brooklyn, Washington DC, Milwaukee, Kansas City, Seattle, and of course, Montreal. Moreover, nearly every current major league city has gone through the agitation of being threatened with abandonment, and all that ensues from that.

There were many different scenarios under which Major League Baseball might have grown and captured all its new markets over the past 50 years. I suggest that without the application of franchise relocation, in any but the most dire circumstances, the past half-century of MLB would have been an entirely more acceptable and enjoyable enterprise for everyone involved (except for the few greedy soulless millionaires who actually profited, hugely, from what actually transpired — and, most assuredly, none of us should care a whit about their selfish concerns).

I’d like to present a scenario which, while admittedly is best-case and in many ways fanciful, offers an alternative in which:

- All existing MLB markets (and then some) are served
- There was only one franchise relocation

Let’s give this virtual history a whirl …

In the early 1950s, the Boston Braves franchise was suggested as one that would no longer be viable, and should be moved. However, reasonable voices prevailed, offering the obvious truths that the Boston market was a huge and affluent baseball town, then and looking forward, and could and should support two properly managed major league franchises.

But by the 1953 season, it had become evident that St. Louis was a market that couldn’t sustain two major league franchises. Following that season, it was agreed by all other major league teams that the extraordinary measure of a franchise relocation should be enacted. Kansas City was the logical and reasonable site for the relocation: a growing market, within the same general geography as St. Louis, thus retaining as much of the existing fan base as possible, and therefore retaining that part of the viable market for the American League. Thus the first geographic franchise shift since 1903 took place prior to the 1954 season: the St. Louis Browns became the Kansas City Blues.

There was some suggestion in the early 1950s that the Philadelphia Athletics franchise should be moved, but the greater wisdom was understood that Philadelphia, like Boston, was a large and great baseball market that should be catered to, not retreated from. All further suggestions that either Philadelphia team might be moved were greeted with deserving dismissal; the proper thing to do if a franchise was struggling would be to focus on improving its management.

By the late 1950s, all Major League Baseball owners had agreed that it was time for the beginning of expansion of the venerable 16-team structure, as well as extension to the West Coast. Everyone understood that, as this process unfolded, decreasing any presence in strong traditional markets (such as New York) would be idiotic; the focus would always be on growth, not retreat or abandonment.

So, effective for the 1958 season, two new franchises were added to each league. Both leagues adopted a new 162-game schedule, under which each team played each of its rivals 18 times (9 home and 9 away), 9 x 18 = 162.

The new major league roster looked like this (new expansion teams in italics):

American League, 1958-64:     National League, 1958-64:

Boston Red Sox                Baltimore Orioles
Chicago White Sox             Boston Braves
Cleveland Indians             Brooklyn Dodgers
Detroit Tigers                Chicago Cubs
Kansas City Blues             Cincinnati Reds
Los Angeles Angels            Milwaukee Brewers
New York Yankees              New York Giants
Philadelphia Athletics        Philadelphia Phillies
San Francisco Seals           Pittsburgh Pirates
Washington Senators           St. Louis Cardinals

This new arrangement proved to be a great success. Indeed the installation of the vibrant new West Coast franchises in the American League appeared to give new life and competitiveness to the circuit that had appeared to be becoming rather languid under chronic domination by the New York Yankees.

As the 1960s unfolded, it was agreed by everyone that further expansion into new and viable markets was appropriate, including further development of the booming Los Angeles market. Effective 1965, each league split into two divisions, adding a best-of-7 League Championship Series to the postseason. The new alignment was as follows, with each team playing each division rival 18 times, and each other-division rival 12 times (18 x 5 = 90) + (12 x 6 = 72) = 162:

American League, 1965-71:

East Division                 West Division

Boston Red Sox                Atlanta Peaches
Cleveland Indians             Chicago White Sox
Detroit Tigers                Kansas City Blues
New York Yankees              Los Angeles Angels
Philadelphia Athletics        Minnesota Twins
Washington Senators           San Francisco Seals

National League, 1965-71:

East Division                 West Division

Baltimore Orioles             Chicago Cubs
Boston Braves                 Cincinnati Reds
Brooklyn Dodgers              Houston Astros
New York Giants               Los Angeles Stars
Philadelphia Phillies         Milwaukee Brewers
Pittsburgh Pirates            St. Louis Cardinals

After seven seasons in this arrangement, it was agreed that the sport was ready for another expansion. Two additional West Coast franchises were added, and MLB incorporated a Canadian market for the first time as well. The AL’s Atlanta franchise was moved into the league’s East Division, making more time zone sense. To accommodate the 7-team divisions, a 166-game schedule was adopted (16 x 6 = 96) + (10 x 7 = 70) = 166.

There was some discussion that the slightly longer schedule would taint the legitimacy of statistical records. However, the prevailing understanding was that a few games worth of difference in the schedule was a small price to pay to preserve the more important principle of each team in a division playing its rivals the same number of games, as well as preserving an even number of games home and away against each competitor.

Many ballparks in the 1960s and 1970s introduced artificial turf into the game. Initially it was an exciting novelty, but after the first few years, it began to be obvious that the phony turf, on balance, negatively impacted the quality and character of play. Therefore in 1975 it was agreed that artificial turf would be phased out of the game as quickly as reasonably possible. The domed stadium in Houston was agreed to be replaced with a retractable-roof ballpark within 15 years, and no new non-retractable domes would be allowed. Baseball on real grass was recognized to be the way the game ought to be played.

There was also discussion during this period that perhaps a Designated Hitter rule might be invoked. But the logic prevailed that undermining the fundamental 9-player structure of the game, as well as diminishing the tactical challenges faced by managers, would not be a worthwhile tradeoff to gain additional offense. Adjusting ballpark conditions, and perhaps modifying the strike zone, were understood to be much more appropriate approaches to infusing more run-scoring into the game as desired.

American League, 1972-79:

East Division                 West Division

Atlanta Peaches               Chicago White Sox
Boston Red Sox                Dallas Spurs
Cleveland Indians             Kansas City Blues
Detroit Tigers                Los Angeles Angels
New York Yankees              Minnesota Twins
Philadelphia Athletics        San Francisco Seals
Washington Senators           San Diego Padres

National League, 1972-79:

East Division                 West Division

Baltimore Orioles             Chicago Cubs
Boston Braves                 Cincinnati Reds
Brooklyn Dodgers              Houston Astros
Montreal Nordiques            Los Angeles Stars
New York Giants               Milwaukee Brewers
Philadelphia Phillies         Oakland Oaks
Pittsburgh Pirates            St. Louis Cardinals

After another eight years, it was time to grow again. The American League was ready to go north of the border, and a third MLB entry was added in each of the enormous Chicago and Los Angeles-area markets. It was understood that the sport’s largest markets could and should support multiple franchises, and inhibiting any one or two franchises from gaining too much access to the financial power of the largest markets was understood to be a way to avoid any potential competitive balance issues before they developed.

There was discussion during this period (as there always has been) that baseball was expanding too fast or too far, that the availability of talent couldn’t keep up with the number of MLB teams, and so the quality of play (particularly it was often said, for some reason, pitching) was being “watered down.”

However, it was more generally understood that both the US population, as well as the extra-US populations (especially Latin America) from which professional baseball recruits talent, had been and would likely continue to grow at rates very ample to provide outstanding athletes to MLB. Indeed, as the amount of money in the game continued to increase, and as training, conditioning, and sports medicine capabilities continued to progress, most observers recognized that the quality of play in MLB was continually improving.

With each league featuring 8-team divisions, the schedule returned to its previous 162-game length: (14 x 7 = 98) + (8 x 8 = 64) = 162.

American League, 1980-91:

East Division                West Division

Atlanta Peaches               Chicago Lakers
Boston Red Sox                Chicago White Sox
Cleveland Indians             Dallas Spurs
Detroit Tigers                Kansas City Blues
New York Yankees              Los Angeles Angels
Philadelphia Athletics        Minnesota Twins
Toronto Blue Jays             San Francisco Seals
Washington Senators           San Diego Padres

National League, 1980-91:

East Division                 West Division

Baltimore Orioles             Anaheim Oranges
Boston Braves                 Chicago Cubs
Brooklyn Dodgers              Houston Astros
Cincinnati Reds               Los Angeles Stars
Montreal Nordiques            Milwaukee Brewers
New York Giants               Oakland Oaks
Philadelphia Phillies         St. Louis Cardinals
Pittsburgh Pirates            Seattle Mariners

By 1992, MLB was ready to add a fourth franchise to its most lucrative market, the New York City area, as well as three fast-growing Southern and Western cities. Moving to 9-team divisions led to the adoption of a 168-game regular-season schedule: (12 x 8 = 96) + (8 x 9 = 72) = 168.

There was discussion at this point that perhaps the leagues should be split into three divisions, but the consensus decided that the necessity of incorporating a Wild Card team, and a third tier of postseason play, would lessen the urgency of division pennant races, as well as watering down the prestige and excitement of the hugely successful League Championship Series and, of course, World Series. Some even raised the possibility that Interleague Play might be incorporated, but that silly idea was roundly dismissed as a gimmick that this marvelous sport most definitely didn’t need.

American League, 1992-present:

East Division                 West Division

Atlanta Peaches               Chicago Lakers
Boston Red Sox                Chicago White Sox
Cleveland Indians             Colorado Rockies
Detroit Tigers                Dallas Spurs
Newark Bears                  Kansas City Blues
New York Yankees              Los Angeles Angels
Philadelphia Athletics        Minnesota Twins
Toronto Blue Jays             San Francisco Seals
Washington Senators           San Diego Padres

National League, 1992-present:

East Division                 West Division

Baltimore Orioles             Anaheim Oranges
Boston Braves                 Arizona Diamondbacks
Brooklyn Dodgers              Chicago Cubs
Cincinnati Reds               Houston Astros
Miami Marlins                 Los Angeles Stars
Montreal Nordiques            Milwaukee Brewers
New York Giants               Oakland Oaks
Philadelphia Phillies         St. Louis Cardinals
Pittsburgh Pirates            Seattle Mariners

Current plans call for another round of expansion to occur probably within the next five years. Tampa Bay and Portland are expected to join the American League, while Raleigh-Durham and Sacramento will likely enter the National. 10-team divisions will probably retain the 168-game schedule: (12 x 9 = 108) + (6 x 10 = 60) = 168.

Thus, by 2010, MLB will feature the following market coverage:

- 4 teams in the New York City area (2 in each league)
- 3 teams in Chicago (2 in the AL, 1 in the NL)
- 3 teams in the Los Angeles area (2 in the NL, 1 in the AL)
- 2 teams in Boston (1 in each league)
- 2 teams in Philadelphia (1 in each league)
- 2 teams in the San Francisco Bay Area (1 in each league)
- 2 teams in the Baltimore-Washington area (1 in each league)
- 1 team in each of Miami, Tampa-St. Petersburg, Atlanta, Raleigh-Durham, Montreal, Toronto, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, Minneapolis-St. Paul, St. Louis, Kansas City, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Houston, Denver, Phoenix, San Diego, Sacramento, Portland, and Seattle

There are no plans to invoke any such nonsense as the DH, the Wild Card, or Interleague Play. The game has been free of artificial turf for years, and will always remain so.

The careful, steady growth plan that MLB has followed over the past 50 years, adding new markets, adding additional teams to its most robust existing markets, not abandoning any market, has been credited as one of the explanations for the sport’s burgeoning financial vitality and loyal, ever-growing fan base. There is every reason to expect that baseball will continue to follow a path of prudent yet confident development as the 21st century unfolds.

**********

Okay, it’s a fantasy, all right? And it’s my fantasy, so I can have it go any way I want.

But I sincerely believe that baseball certainly could have and should have managed its growth and expansion into emerging new markets in the second half of the 20th century far more intelligently and decently than it did. Relocation of a franchise should have been a last resort, to be avoided if at all possible, yet instead between 1953 and 1972 MLB allowed 10 teams to move, and over the years has threatened to move countless more. I believe it’s very fair to say that of all the teams did move, only the St. Louis Browns were a franchise that was truly not viable in the long term.

I love baseball as it is. But the way it is isn’t the only way it could have possibly turned out to be. I would love Major League Baseball even more if it had followed a more enlightened growth path.

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