Review: Bottom of the Ninth by Michael Shapiro

BOTTOM OF THE NINTH by Michael Shapiro

The 1950s is often called the ‘Golden Decade’ of baseball. Of course, that is if you lived in the five boroughs of New York City. Best described as the New York Era, it showed the post-war rise of dominance by three New York teams – The Giants, the Yankees and the Dodgers – and like a morality play about hubris, ended with the abandonment of the city by all but one of those mighty teams for the sunshine and untapped financial benefits of the West Coast. In its wake, the city began a campaign to bring a new professional baseball team back its new Flushing Meadows development.

That campaign would see a titanic battle between the Webb-Topping ownership of the Yankees and the powerful civic machinery of Robert Moses. A creaking Yankee dynasty would play to the last gambits of Casey Stengel, the most successful manager in their history to maintain dominance. In the middle of it all, it would see the unlikely re-emergence of Branch Rickey and his most ambitious dream every – a third professional baseball league.

"The invitation wasn't any indication that a franchise was available to New York. But there isn't any club in the National League that plans to relocate to New York. I don't see any chance of any of our present clubs moving to New York." - Warren Giles, National League President

Michael Shapiro’s crisply crafted work ambitiously pulls together a dozen threads, starting in the mid-1950s with events that would eventually lead to the expansion of the National League and the introduction of the New York Mets franchise. In order to follow the convoluted sausage making of internal league politics, civic demands and investment money, Shapiro establishes four main story lines, each used to pull together events as they slowly wind towards expansion. Starting with the 1958 World Series, Shapiro dives into the game by game management of Casey Stengel and his beat up Yankees facing a tremendous Pittsburgh Pirates team. With his starting pitching shaky, injured, or just plain gassed, Stengel relied on guile, his own gut, and more than a bit of timely luck to patch together each game, culminating with a win, Manager of the Year award, and a two year contract extension. But the extension had an ominous quality to it, given not to the manager the Yankees Front Office wanted, but instead to the manager they felt they couldn't remove.

Across town, the former site of Ebbet’s field was rubble strewn, as the Los Angeles Dodgers finish their first disappointing season in their new home in Los Angeles. City Planner Robert Moses, publicly spurned by Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley, moved forward with the plans for a new stadium in the massive public works in Brooklyn and Queens. Bill Shea, a respected public lawyer, was tasked to find a team to fill it, as soon as possible. Shea started by working on existing teams, but the owners of the Yankees, Dan Webb and Del Topping, moved quickly to kill any ambitions of their fellow owners to shift a team to New York. For all intents and purposes, they claimed all New York as Yankee territory. But Topping and Webb’s battle would have far ranging consequences. First, it forced Shea to seek out Branch Rickey and put the idea of a new league into the public mind. Second, it would array powerful potential investors against baseball’s established order and with them, the political might to challenge their monopoly through political allies in Washington.

"If the American League history for the next decade approximates that of the last, and every sign indicates it will, then the league will die. The cause of the debacle will be strangulation of competition and interest by the overlong dominance of the New York Yankees." - Paul Richards and Tim Cohane, Look Magazine

The seemingly quixotic quest for a replacement team for New York drives the book, and Shapiro deftly paints the evolving situation into context by skipping between threads of Shea, Rickey, the owners, and oddly enough, Stengel. More than any one figure, Shapiro dwells on Branch Rickey, skipping nimbly through his history in baseball with the creation of Spring Training and the farm system, his resume as an owner and general manager, until finally to his state at the time of a frustrated visionary.

Shea’s early moves were to gauge the league’s willingness to expand, which had been under discussion since the late Forties. But Topping and Webb were not about to sign off on competition to the Yankees, not when they had total control of the New York City market and a seeming lock on the World Series. One of the more shameful periods of baseball included the league’s willingness to fold to Webb and Topping’s insistences that the Philadelphia Athletics be purchased by Arnold Johnson. Invoking the spectre of Bill Veeck’s interest in purchasing the team with other owners, the Mack family agreed to the sale, only to see the team moved to Kansas City for the 1955 season. Johnson, who owned Yankee Stadium, proceeded to supply the Yankees with top young players from the A’s system in exchange for aging veterans and cash. The arrangement bolstered the Yankees then weak farm system, allowing them to continue their dominance of the league and the championships. By the end of 1958, a malaise had settled into baseball. The decade might have been the greatest years for New York, but smaller market teams were flagging, and the dominance of New York was driving interest away from baseball.

"Baseball is a business. If we don't get enough fans we're going to have to find a way to carry on. We can't leave the franchise to stay here and rot." - Calvin Griffith, Owner of the Washington Senators

When the owners made it clear that expansion into New York was unlikely, Shea was recommended to drop in on Branch Rickey. It is with Rickey that Shapiro’s work truly shines, sketching the old man halfway between caricature and legend; a man who had done as much to build the modern game as Ban Johnson or Albert Spaulding. Through his narrative, Rickey becomes the lion in his twilight; there but for one last hunt before the end takes him. Shea originally hoped that Rickey’s intimate knowledge of the game and relationships with the owners might make them reconsider expansion. Instead, he found Rickey had another idea in mind – the Continental League.

Rickey had watched baseball's slide into stagnation closely. Congress was calling hearings on baseball’s monopoly under the eye of the powerful Congressman Estes Kefauver. Small market teams were floundering in their traditional markets, and the boom of the post-war West suggested that the future of the game lay outside of the major Eastern cities and in the Sun Belt instead. Rickey saw an opportunity to rebalance the game in fundamental ways through a third league. He foresaw the rise of television profits, and his idea included a pooled agreement on all non-radio media profits, in order to support competitive teams in smaller markets. That process, he envisioned, would prevent teams like the Yankees from dominating so wholly, and the increased competition would drive attendance. Shea could see the potential, but the idea required committed investors and the support of the rival leagues to work. Here, Shea’s experience in New York politics shaped his plan; if they needed the owners support, they’d make sure saying yes hurt a lot less than saying no.

"We are the only Major League club directly affected by the Continental League. They come to New York without paying a quarter for territorial rights. Frick declared New York is open territory and he is the only one to declare it. They say this is open territory. This is our territory." - George Weiss, General Manager of the New York Yankees

One of the earliest supporters of Rickey’s plan was Jack Kent Cooke; a Canadian media magnate and owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Cooke was a noted promoter, similar to Bill Veeck in his approach to making games a total experience. He made several shrewd moves, including acquiring future Hall of Famer Sparky Anderson as a player-manager, and built a solid following for the team in Toronto. Cooke had been rebuffed three times trying to acquire a major league team and move it to Toronto, which is what brought him onboard with Rickey’s plan.

The other key backer was Bob Howsam, a politically connected Minor League owner whose father-in-law, Edwin Johnson, was a former governor and US Senator. It was Johnson that carried the Continental League’s threat against the existing order for major league baseball into Congress and to Kefauver’s committee. By hindering the Continental League’s expansion into different markets, the MLB was operating a defacto monopoly on professional baseball, and as such, Congress had the authority to evoke anti-trust legislation. It was a powerful threat; one that baseball had faced several times and avoided only by slim margins and timely luck.

The Continental League was designed to work in concert with the existing leagues, not dissimilar to an expansion draft. The other teams would designate protected players through their major and minor league systems, and the rest would be available to be drafted by the new league. Rickey himself admitted that the first five years of play would be amateurish compared to the existing leagues, but was confident that scouting and the draft would accelerate the new league to respectability on the field before the novelty wore off. Starting in 1960, the league would start by playing an isolated championship, and then join the rest of the MLB in a round robin World Series. Rickey envisioned teams playing in Denver, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Atlanta, Minneapolis-St. Paul, New York, Toronto and Buffalo. For a time, it seemed like the new league was inevitable. The current Commissioner of Baseball Ford C Frick made encouraging noises about how to manage the new additions, owners spoke to Rickey about future opportunities, and public support was growing.

But Del Webb and Dan Topping truly controlled the final decision. As the 1960 off-season drew to a close, they struck to cripple the new league.

"I believe in the good faith of the Major Leagues and that they will not go back on commitments they have already made." - Branch Rickey

Topping and Webb brought a new proposal to the owners that spring, regarding expansion and existing issues. Calvin Griffin, the owner of the struggling Washington Senators had been trying to move his club for years, but had been blocked to avoid potential repercussions with Congress by removing their team. They decided that Griffin would be allowed to move to Minneapolis-St.Paul, co-opting the Continental investor Wheelock Whitney, Jr. They’d be replaced with a new American League franchise in Washington DC and Los Angeles, as well as National League clubs in Houston and New York. By co-opting the investors of the Continental League with the chance to be franchise owners, the MLB was able to quell the appearance of being a monopoly without giving up any power. As the investors melted away, Rickey folded the league. The sharpest blow of all was struck by Shea, who had only one mission – to secure a new professional baseball team for Moses’ new stadium in Flushing Meadows. When he pulled New York’s support, the league was finished before even playing a game.

Webb and Topping, having given up exclusive rights to New York, still maintained absolute power in the MLB. At the end of the 1960 season, following the dramatic game seven loss to the Pirates with Bill Mazeroski’s game winning home run, Casey Stengel and General Manager George Weiss were fired. Despite winning 97 games that year, Webb and Topping had decided that it was a new era and the Yankees needed changes to rule it as thoroughly as they had in the Fifties.

The expansion New York team, the Mets, hired both Stengel and Weiss to shepherd the new club. Despite posting historically bad records in the first years, the Mets became a huge draw, breaking the attendance record held by the Yankees and outdrawing them for the next 37 years. The Yankees, despite having the most powerful one-two in baseball with Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris (sold to them for peanuts by the Kansas City A’s) couldn’t outdraw their rivals. In 1964, the Yankees were sold to CBS and entered a steep decline for the next decade, while the Mets would go on to an improbable win in 1969 and be dubbed ‘the Miracle Mets’.

While the third league never materialized, several of the investors who joined Rickey took his idea of pooled television revenue with them as they established the American Football League. It continued following the merger with the NFL, and as a result, the revenues allowed football to dominate television and displace baseball as the most watched sport in the United States for the first time. The immensely lucrative deal proved effective in allowing smaller markets to compete effectively, in turn keeping those markets engaged as ticket holders and viewers.

"I wasn't fired. I was paid in full. Write anything you want. Quit, fired, whatever you please." - Casey Stengel

The only time Shapiro lets his cards slip and reveals himself beyond the historical narrative is as the book draws to a close. There is a wistful quality to the post-script; a sense of what might have been if baseball had gone down a different route. Rickey would continue to work in baseball up almost until his death, but fall short of assuming the role of his idol Ban Johnson as the President of a new, innovative league. Shapiro casts it as an opportunity lost for the sport as well as the man. He points out that all of the cities that Rickey targeted, with the exception of Buffalo (a last minute addition), would go on to support successful franchises.

More than anything, it is a story about the business of baseball; how closely it is tied to the play on the field in some ways, and how coldly divorced in others. It manages to avoid both cynicism and sentimentality, hewing a fine line between what could have been and what should have been in order to follow the sequence of events. Ultimately, it ties together well travelled archetypes; the unscrupulous owner, the idealistic investor, the well intentioned statesman, the erratic genius manager, the hard hearted general manager, the innovative guru and the flunky lawyer – and uses them to map out the unlikely connecting lines that still run and intersect to the modern day.

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