Saturday, August 29, 2009

Book Review: Bottom of the Ninth

Michael Shapiro's Bottom of the Ninth is fascinating reading for anyone who loves baseball -or football, for that matter. Although it is told as a parallel story - with a distracting and incongruous outlining of Casey Stengel's final years as manager of the New York Yankees - the real story is about Branch Rickey and his proposed Continental League, which he tried to create between 1958-1960. The CL would be a third Major League that would do for baseball what - it turned out - the American Football League would do for football. Rickey's CL idea is a little-remembered phenomenon that very nearly worked, and Shapiro's recounting of it is excellent.

At heart, Rickey envisioned a fundamental change in the nature of baseball: no longer would the Yankees and a few other teams so totally dominate the American and National Leagues that competitive races for the pennant were nearly non-existent in 80% of the cities that fielded Major League teams. Instead, Rickey envisioned a more balanced setting, with revenue-sharing, a Major League draft and competition. Rickey believed he could build the CL in a few years into a viable league that would merge with Major League Baseball. Like Ban Johnson - whose start-up American League had broken the will of the National League at the turn of the 20th century - Rickey envisioned his Continental League forcing the other Major League owners to expand.

But Rickey's was not to be expansion for the sake of novelty. Rickey was adamant that his Continental League was not a ruse simply to get the American and National League owners to finally open up Major League Baseball to other cities through expansion franchises in the existing leagues. As Shapiro deftly outlines, however, Rickey was duped. Many of the potential Continental League owners that Rickey had assembled - Craig Cullinan (Houston), Joan Whitney Payson (New York), Jack Kent Cooke (Toronto), and Edwin Johnson (Denver) among others - secretly viewed Rickey's vision to be exactly that: a sham that was merely a way to break the will of the existing Major Leagues and finally get franchises for their respective cities. While Rickey argued that such expansion was a novelty-act - creating new teams that would be unable to be competitive with existing teams - Rickey's potential CL owners wanted to get into that novelty act badly.

Like Ban Johnson - who he viewed as an icon - Branch Rickey believed in competition as the best way to generate and sustain a fan base. For Johnson and Rickey, competition was relative: it didn't matter who a team played so long as the outcome was in doubt. A new league pairing franchises of equal talent against one another - the Continental League or the American League in 1901 - would generate far more excitement and potential for revenue growth for all of the owners than would four new expansion teams in the existing Major Leagues.

Of course, there was another example besides Ban Johnson that Rickey also knew about: Charlie Weeghman. A Chicago businessman, Weeghman desperately wanted to buy either the Cubs or White Sox. When he could not do that, he simply created a third league, with a franchise in Chicago, to being play in 1912. With his Federal League launched, Weeghman even built a new stadium in Chicago - what would become Wrigley Field. But Weeghman never really intended for the Federal League to succeed. His goal was to put enough pressure on the existing owners that they would force the owners of either the Cubs or White Sox to sell to Weeghman in return for his agreement to disband the league. Which is exactly what happened: the Cubs were sold to Weeghman and the other owners Weeghman had suckered into joining him were left to bankruptcy.

The irony is that at the very same time Rickey was looking to launch the Continental League, Lamar Hunt was launching a league that would do exactly that for football. The National Football League had sworn that it would never accept franchises in - let alone merge with - any city that fielded a team in Hunt's new American Football League. Yet, the idea of revenue-sharing and broad competitive sport - which the AFL brought with balanced teams playing competitive games every Sunday - is exactly what contributed to the explosion in popularity of the AFL. It was a success that the NFL could not ignore. Indeed, despite Commissioner Pete Rozelle's claim that the two leagues would never merge, they indeed joined hands in 1970 and today the NFL is the single-biggest competitive professional sports league in the world.

On a side note, one of Shapiro's other noteworthy stories involves Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley and his revolutionary idea of pay-per-view television for broadcasting baseball. O'Malley was so convinced in the idea of what we now call cable television, that when he moved the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, he blacked out all of their games - home and away (with the exception of games against the rival Giants, now in San Francisco) because he refused to let the concept of free baseball on television take root in Los Angeles the way it had in New York.

O'Malley's decision paid off when - on July 17, 1964 - the Dodgers hosted the Cubs with the game being broadcast to 2,500 homes wired to receive it in a four-square mile section of west Los Angeles. Viewers paid $1.50 to view the game. And thus was born the idea of pay-per-view television. Ironically, cable television would have been launched twelve years earlier than it was [in 1976] if not for the Hollywood motion picture industry. So frightened by O'Malley's experiment in 1964, the film industry successfully lobbied politicos to put a referendum on the November 1964 California ballot banning pay television. The referendum passed. Although it only effected California, it so scared off other entrepreneurs that it took a billionaire who didn't care - Ted Turner - to finally launch the concept in 1976.

Shapiro's book is really a testimony to the brilliance of Branch Rickey. In addition to a new league to foster competition, another Rickey innovation that Lamar Hunt's AFL [and very soon thereafter Pete Rozelle's NFL] adapted was the concept of national television contracts versus local television contracts. In addition to revenue-sharing, a pooled television contract would benefit all of the owners in the Continental League. That's exactly what happened in football and it lead to the sport becoming the most watched professional sports entertainment on television.

While baseball did see changes: the abolishment - necessitated by federal court - of the hated reserve clause in 1974 and - finally - revenue sharing in 2005, the sport in 2007 was tied with basketball - well behind football - in popularity. And the financial value of NFL franchises are far, far greater than baseball. On average, NFL teams are valued at $957,000,000 -far greater than baseball, which is roughly $450,000,000.

More important, though, is the discrepancy between teams' values: in football, the richest team, the Dallas Cowboys, is worth $1,200,000,000 while the poorest team, the Minnesota Vikings, is worth $782,000,000. The richest is thus twice as valuable as the poorest. In baseball, however, the richest team, my beloved Yankees, are worth $1,200,000,000 while the poorest team, the Florida Marlins, aer worth $256,000,000. The richest team is thus five times as valuable as the poorest in baseball.

Rickey's plan for a league fell apart when the owners of Major League Baseball were able to peel away some of Rickey's owners by agreeing to expansion. The American League expanded in 1961, and the National League in 1962. Shapiro's book is a fascinating look at the divergent paths that baseball and football took, and the billions of dollars that were earned as a result.

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