A brief history of baseball’s major leagues: Part two

Bless You Boys

By the start of the 1960 season, Major League Baseball had been deeply established as a staple of American culture, with teams playing the game from coast to coast and many major cities in between. Star baseball players were icons, while sports like football, basketball, and hockey were still far behind in popularity.

In Part One of this series, we dove into the history of baseball’s early franchises and the origins of the major leagues. To summarize, there was much turbulence in the leagues’ franchises from the inception of the National League in 1876 through the turn of the century, followed by a period of stability for over 50 years starting in 1903, when the first World Series was played.

The senior circuit essentially swallowed up the American Association, expanding to a dozen franchises before cutting back to eight teams in 1900. The Western League became the American League, filling the void in cities that had been left out with eight teams starting in 1901. The two leagues operated with remarkable stability, fielding eight teams each season for the next 60 years. With some relocation in the 1950’s, the same 16 franchises that played when the first World Series was held in 1903 remained in operation through 1960.

In most cases, starting when the American League was formed, new franchises located in cities that had been left without baseball due to their former team relocating or the National League dropping them.

To keep matters interesting, if not confusing, “new” franchises often took the names of teams that has previously operated and folded in the same cities. The two oldest major league baseball franchises began play in the National league as the Boston Red Stockings and the Chicago White Stockings. But they are not the Red Sox and White Sox of today’s game, but rather the Cubs and Braves, while a couple of American league teams own the names of the former National league franchises.

RELOCATION

A prominent feature of franchise movements for the first quarter century was that franchises would fold and be replaced by new teams with new owners. As the game stabilized, franchises became valuable commodities and relocation became a thing.

There were no franchises relocating to other cities until the 1950’s, just teams folding when they ran into financial difficulty. In fact, there were no franchises folding in the period from 1903 to 1953 as the popularity of the game grew.

The city of St Louis supported a team in each league until the American League’s Browns moved eastward to Baltimore in 1954, taking the name of the Orioles. The Philadelphia Athletics were easily the more successful of the two franchises in that city, but left for Kansas City in 1955. That left six of the eight American league franchises in the same city where they were in 1903.

The National League saw three franchises move in the 50’s. Each of them left a market where they were not the only show in town. The Boston Braves moved to Milwaukee in 1953. They would move again in 1966, this time south to Atlanta, keeping the name Braves. As previously mentioned, they are one of two charter franchises from the National League since 1876. (the other being the Chicago Cubs).

The big franchise moves that shook the baseball world took place in 1958, when the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers left New York for California. The New York Giants had operated in the same city under the same team name since 1884. The Dodgers had won seven National league pennants but just one World Series title in the 1940’s and 50’s. Owner Walter O’Malley still headed west, leaving New York all to the Yankees.

The Yankees had dominated the American League, winning 24 AL pennants and 18 World Series titles from 1921 to 1958. That included nine out of ten pennants and five straight World Series through the 1958 season. California’s pastures surely looked greener than Brooklyn.

THE EXPANSION ERA

It didn’t take long for Major League Baseball to fill the void left by the franchise movements of the 1950’s. After 60 years of the two leagues having eight teams apiece, four new franchises were added, two in each league for the first time since 1901.

The Washington Senators left the nation’s capital for the Twin Cities of Minnesota in 1961, and were replaced by the new Washington Senators the same year. The new Senators would last ten seasons in Washington before moving to Dallas, Texas to become the Texas Rangers.

The American league wanted a piece of the California pie as well, adding the Los Angeles Angels for the 1961 season. The team played it’s first season in Wrigley Field while the cross town Dodgers played in the Coliseum as O’Malley was having a new stadium built in Chavez Ravine. The two teams played in Dodger stadium for three seasons until the Angels moved south to Orange County, where they have played in the same stadium since 1966.

Much has changed in that time. Dodger Stadium and Angel Stadium are now the second oldest major league ballparks in their respective leagues, with only Chicago’s Wrigley Field and Boston’s Fenway Park being older.

The National League expanded one year later in 1962, adding the New York Metropolitans (Mets), and the Houston Colt 45’s, who would become the Astros by 1965.

Each league carried ten teams, without any divisions, through the 1968 season. The schedule expanded from 154 to 162 games, and MLB experimented with two all star games for a couple of years before ditching that idea. The two teams that won the pennant in their respective leagues would meet in a best of seven World Series, with the winner being crowned champions of baseball. That format remained until 1969, when the leagues expanded again.

As the major leagues moved west and found success both financially and on the diamond, Kansas City Athletics owner Charles O. Finley moved his team to Oakland in 1968. Two years earlier the Braves left Milwaukee for Atlanta, putting a team in the vast southern region that was without a major league team. It was time for more expansion.

DIVISIONS

In 1969, the American League added the Seattle Pilots and the Kansas City Royals, while the National league added the San Diego Padres and the Montreal Expos. Major League Baseball was expanding in every direction. The Pilots struggled financially and were on the brink of collapse, so the team moved to Milwaukee, taking the name of the Brewers, the same as the charter AL franchise in that city.

A couple of things seemed a bit odd in the creation of the new divisions. In the American League, the top five teams in the 1968 standings were in the East division, while the bottom five were in the West. At least the AL was geographically aligned. In the national league, Cincinnati and Atlanta were in the West division while St Louis was in the east.

With the expansion to a dozen teams in each league, both circuits were separated into two divisions- east and west, with an extra round of playoffs added prior to the World Series. In a span of nine years, the game had seen a 50 percent increase in the number of franchises, from 16 to 24. But as television sets became a fixture in every home, and cable TV expanded viewing from three networks to dozens of specialty channels featuring everything from news and dramas to pets to gardening to cartoons to sports, baseball was not done growing.

Major League Baseball would expand three more times before the end of the 20th century.

In 1977, a second Canadian team was added with the Toronto Blue Jays joining the American League. At the same time, the Seattle Mariners were added to the AL, but the National League declined to expand, leaving 14 teams in one league and still twelve in the other.

There had been great resistance to adding major league teams in Florida where most major league teams held spring training, but the financial rewards of expansion outweighed the benefits of a secondary market, and the snow birds continued to fly south for spring training, while migrants had a chance to see their former home teams on the road.

1993– The east- west format remained for 16 seasons, until 1993 when the major leagues expanded again. This time the National league added the Colorado Rockies and the Florida Marlins. All was right with the baseball world again, as each league had 14 teams, with two divisions of seven clubs in each league.

Major league baseball couldn’t stand the equilibrium and decided to divide each league into three divisions; east, west and central for the 1994 season. The Detroit Tigers were placed in the eastern division along with the Yankees, Red Sox, Orioles, and Blue Jays. Cleveland was placed in the new central division. It wouldn’t matter much, at least for that season, as the players went on strike to prevent the owners from unilaterally imposing a salary cap, and the 1994 postseason was canceled.

1998- The last expansion of the major leagues occurred in 1998, with the addition of the Tampa Bay Rays to the American league and the Arizona Diamondbacks to the National league. So there were 15 teams in each league now, right? Not so fast. MLB commissioner Bud Selig, who owned the Milwaukee Brewers, decided that his team belonged in the National league and they were moved to the NL’s central division.

This left 16 teams in the National League, and 14 in the American League. The Nationals now had two divisions of five clubs and one with six while the American League had two divisions of five and one with four teams. Each team played an imbalanced schedule with more games against division opponents, creating some inequity in the schedules.

One of the reasons given for the imbalanced divisions was that having an odd number of teams in each league would cause scheduling problems. However, Selig also saw the introduction of inter-league play beginning in 1997.

When the Houston Astros were sold prior to the 2013 season, part of the conditions were that they had to move from the National league’s central division to the American League West. This brought equilibrium again to the two leagues with 15 teams divided into three divisions of five teams each. The schedule was arranged by having at least one inter-league series scheduled at all times.

The Expos were MLB’s first foray outside of the United States, and remained there until moving to Washington DC in 2005. At the time, it was the first franchise relocation of a major league team since the Senators moved to Texas in 1971.

Future Expansion

It seems like the natural move would be to add two more teams to each league. The hold up to further expansion, something that commissioner Rob Manfred has made no secret about being on his bucket list, is that clubs in Tampa Bay and Oakland are pressing their localities for new stadiums, with taxpayers footing a chunk the bill. They don’t want to reduce the number of markets that can be used as bargaining leverage. The NFL went without any teams in Los Angeles for 21 years mainly for the very same reason.

When expansion does come again, getting to 32 makes sense. They’d align into either four divisions of four teams each or two eight team divisions in each league. The former alignment seems more likely, as it would be easier to sort teams based on market size as well as geography that way. It just happens that the biggest markets are in the Northeast and California, while other regions have host cities with relatively equal market size.

The new alignment will see playoffs expanding again, probably to 16 teams total. MLB is already planning to expand inter-league play so that each team plays every team in the opposite league one series each season, and fewer division games. Of course, MLB will choose the alignment that makes them the most money. Playoff baseball is worth more than regular season baseball, so it stands to reason that the owners wants as much as they can get.

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