- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 13, 2009

BOTTOM OF THE NINTH: BRANCH RICKEY, CASEY STENGEL, AND THE DARING SCHEME TO SAVE BASEBALL FROM ITSELF
By Michael Shapiro
Times Books, $26, 320 pages
REVIEWED BY PAUL DICKSON

It is a question bound to stump even the best baseball trivia expert:

Q. Name the cities that were to be part of the Continental League when it was scheduled to begin play in 1961?

A. Atlanta, Buffalo, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Denver, Houston, Minneapolis-St. Paul, New York City and Toronto.

The shadowy Continental League is the subject of a new book by Michael Shapiro and it is the fascinating story of a “third major league” that was proposed by New York lawyer William Shea on paper in November 1958 in response to the New York Giants’ and Brooklyn Dodgers’ announced plans to move to California and leave New York without a National League team.

The new league was formally announced in July 1959 with septuagenarian baseball visionary and former Dodgers president Branch Rickey at the helm. It was composed of a motley collection of investors interested in cracking the 16-team National and American League structure and gaining profitable franchises. Teams were to be placed in commercially viable cities that did not have a major league team, with the notable exception of New York, which was at the head of the list.

The CL dissolved without playing a single game in August of 1960 after both the National and American Leagues announced plans to expand into new cities. Shea got his team — and, ultimately, his name on the New York Mets’ new stadium — when the NL added the Mets to its list of franchises along with the Houston Astros. The AL reneged on its part of the agreement, adding one team in an existing NL city in Los Angeles (the Angels) and another in an existing AL city — Washington, D.C.

The new Washington Senators were created to replace the old team of that name that moved to Minnesota to become the Twins. This second Washington franchise moved to Dallas-Fort Worth in 1972, filling another slot in the list of CL cities.

Eventually, all the CL teams with the exception of Buffalo were awarded major league franchises. It is one of the great might-have-beens of American sports history, which — if remembered at all — is recalled as a bluff, a dummy hand created to force organized baseball into expansion and get the NL to return to New York.

In “Bottom of the Ninth,” Michael Shapiro contends that the CL was not a bluff but a bona fide attempt to save baseball from itself. Mr. Shapiro has written a narrative history of this pipe dream that is as much a business history as a baseball story. The new league would have been different in several respects, but the one that was most important is that it was based on the sharing of television revenues to ensure parity between large- and small-market franchises.

It is a story of meetings, memos and conference calls, a tough assignment that Mr. Shapiro handles with style and dexterity. He also has a great intertwined story in Lamar Hunt and the American Football League, which came into being just as the CL was disappearing in a puff of smoke. The AFL succeeded, and with that success and its eventual merger with the NFL was the genesis of modern professional football.

But there is more to this book — another story that amounts to a second narrative under one cover. It is the story of Casey Stengel’s final two seasons as manager of the New York Yankees and his struggle to maintain traditional dominance of the game itself.

After winning the 1958 World Series, the Yanks slipped to third in ‘59, even spending time in the cellar at one point. Rebounding to win the 1960 AL pennant, the Yanks were upset by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series, and Stengel, then 70, was not-so-gently shoved out the door. The book actually begins and ends with the 1960 World Series, which is won when Bill Mazeroski of the Pittsburgh Pirates delivers the first walk-off home run in the history of the World Series. The Yankees are beaten by a team they had outscored, outhit and outplayed.

Mr. Shapiro’s book argues that the failure of the Continental League to take shape — and the parallel success of the American Football League — was the turning point that led to baseball’s loss of status as America’s favorite sport. It is the decline of baseball that is the arc of Mr. Shapiros story, and he contends the eclipse began in the ninth inning of the seventh game of the 1960 World Series with the Mazeroski home run.

This thesis presents a few problems for this reviewer, beginning with the New York-centric belief that a spectacular World Series victory by a “small market” team over a New York powerhouse was emblematic of the decline of baseball. To many, it was no more than proof that the underdog was alive and well and living in Pittsburgh. Then there is Mr. Shapiro’s contention that opinion polls showing more Americans prefer football to baseball can be traced to the failure of a third major league. This is akin to a thesis holding that more Americans like opera than ballet because of the failure to launch a new ballet school.

I also believe there is a false construct embedded here, which is that there is a winner and a loser in this and that our major sports are locked in competition. Baseball’s wounds are mostly self-inflicted, as Bill Veeck used to put it, and its failings are a function of its own leadership and not the merger of the NFL and the AFL or the hype of the Super Bowl. These are two different crops — one comes up in the spring the other in the fall.

One failing of the book that may not be the author’s fault but the publishers is its lack of footnotes. If this is part of a new trend in publishing by which the reader is denied common courtesies like footnotes and, worse, indexes, I believe it should be reversed. (Bruce Weber’s instant classic, “As They See ‘Em: A Fan’s Travels in the Land of Umpires,” published earlier this year, satisfies at every level save one — it lacks an index).

But a thesis is just that and whether I disagree or not does not take away from the point that Mr. Shapiro has given readers a compelling and thoroughly enjoyable trip back in time to a turning point that never turned and a moment when Rickey and Stengel appeared to be playing their last big innings. Stengel, of course, came back with the Mets which, ironically, might never have come about at all — or at least as quickly as it did — without the pressure exerted by the Continental League.

Paul Dickson is working on a biography of Bill Veeck. He can be reached through his Web site: Pauldicksonbooks.com.

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