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The Continental League of Professional Baseball Clubs (known as the Continental League or CL) was a proposed third major league for baseball in the United States and Canada, announced in 1959 and scheduled to begin play in the 1961 season. Unlike predecessor competitors such as the Players League and the Federal League, it sought membership within organized baseball's existing organization and acceptance within Major League Baseball. The league disbanded in August 1960 without playing a single game, but it helped to accelerate the expansion of Major League Baseball.
The Continental League was the last serious attempt to create a third major league consisting of new clubs.
The New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers had moved to California (San Francisco and Los Angeles respectively); New York City mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr. appointed a four-man committee to bring the National League back to the city.
New league announced
The Continental League was the idea of New York City attorney William Shea, proposed in November 1958. On July 27, 1959, the new league was formally announced, with teams in Denver, Houston, Minneapolis-St. Paul, New York City, and Toronto. The name of the league was said to have been the suggestion of Colorado senator Edwin C. Johnson.
Representing the team owners at the announcement were Bob Howsam (Denver), Craig F. Cullinan, Jr. (Houston), Wheelock Whitney Jr. (Minneapolis-St. Paul), Dwight F. Davis, Jr., who was representing the group headed by Joan Whitney Payson (New York), and Jack Kent Cooke (Toronto). Owners in each city had agreed to pay $50,000 to the league and committed to a capital investment of $2.5 million, not including stadium costs. A minimum seating capacity of 35,000 was established by the league for the venues in which its teams would play.
At least three other teams were expected to be in place before play began in 1961, and the league said it had received applications from 10 cities. The three that were later selected were Atlanta, Buffalo (backed by Robert O. Swados), and Dallas/Ft. Worth. Former Dodgers president Branch Rickey was named league president. Appearing in that capacity as a guest on the live network broadcast of What's My Line on Sunday, September 13, 1959, he pronounced the new league as “Inevitable as tomorrow morning.”
On February 18, 1960, Rickey and Cooke announced an opening date of April 18, 1961, and said that Denver, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and Atlanta would host the teams from Minneapolis-St. Paul, New York, Toronto and Buffalo.
Established leagues respond
The Major League Baseball commissioner's office was noncommittal on the issue. At that time, however, the American League and the National League enjoyed far more autonomy than they do today, answering more to their constituent owners (who were universally hostile to the new league) than to the Commissioner's Office. They reacted to the formation of the new league by announcing plans to expand by adding two teams in each of the existing leagues. Priority would be given, it was stated, to cities that did not have Major League Baseball. Accordingly, the NL placed one of its expansion teams in Houston (the then Houston Colt 45's), a Continental League city without an existing Major League Baseball team.
Though the AL placed one of its expansion teams (the Washington Senators) in a previously existing Major League Baseball city (Washington, D.C.), this was done to replace the original Senators team, which had relocated to Minneapolis-St. Paul and became the Minnesota Twins. Like Houston, the Twin Cities of Minneapolis/St. Paul were a Continental League city without an existing Major League Baseball team.
The NL then placed another expansion team in New York, offering its tenth franchise to the owners of the Continental League New York team, who immediately accepted, effectively killing any attempt to revive the proposed league. This franchise would become the New York Mets. The AL then followed by placing a second expansion team in Los Angeles, the Angels, giving the American League its first presence on the West Coast.
The league disbands
With Shea's mission to bring a second Major League Baseball team to New York successful, he stopped championing the Continental League's formation. The promise of expansion achieved the owners' desired effect; on August 2, 1960, the Continental League formally disbanded. At the time it was reported that four Continental League cities would get major league teams—two in the American League, New York, and one other in the National League, possibly as early as the 1961 season. As it turned out, only three of those cities gained Major League Baseball franchises in the immediate aftermath of the Continental League's demise (Houston, Minneapolis-St. Paul and New York).
Although baseball historians concur that Major League Baseball expansion would inevitably have happened due to such factors as pressure from Congress and the rapid growth of professional football, the Continental League undoubtedly forced MLB to hasten expansion by several years.
Although William Shea's efforts to create a third major league are not well known today, Shea Stadium, home of the New York Mets from 1964–2008, was named in his honor for his efforts in bringing National League baseball back to New York.
Of the eight proposed Continental League cities, seven would eventually receive relocated or expansion Major League Baseball franchises - Minneapolis-St. Paul in 1961, Houston and New York in 1962, Atlanta in 1966, Dallas/Ft. Worth in 1972, Toronto in 1977, and Denver in 1993.
Although Buffalo has not received a Major League Baseball franchise, that city did succeed in receiving franchises in each of the other three major sports leagues, starting with the Buffalo Bills who began play in the inaugural 1960 American Football League season and eventually joined the National Football League in 1970 as part of the NFL-AFL merger. That same year, the Buffalo Braves joined the National Basketball Association and the Buffalo Sabres joined the National Hockey League as expansion franchises. However, the Braves struggled financially and were relocated in 1978 to San Diego and became the Clippers, and moved again in 1984 to their current home, Los Angeles. That caused a perception that Western New York cannot economically support three major sports franchises. The Bills' decision to play one home game a year in nearby Toronto in 2008 in order to expand revenue has bolstered that perception further, therefore Buffalo is thought to be unlikely to get an MLB franchise in the foreseeable future. Buffalo last hosted Major League Baseball in 1915 with the Federal League's Buffalo Blues. Currently the highest level of professional baseball in the greater Buffalo region is the Buffalo Bisons, a AAA International League franchise.
Major League Baseball introduced interleague play in 1997 and expanded to 30 teams the following year. The offices of the American League and National League were consolidated into the office of Commissioner of Baseball in 2000, giving MLB a de jure league structure after being mostly a de facto umbrella organization containing two separate leagues since the 1903 National Agreement, relegating the American and National Leagues to something more akin to conferences seen in the other major professional sports leagues as opposed to autonomous baseball "leagues".
Since the introduction of interleague play, Major League Baseball has considered numerous realignment proposals. Because Major League Baseball owners did not initially want to spread interleague play throughout the season, the 1998 expansion resulted in the 30 teams being divided into two "leagues" of unequal strength so that each league could consist of an even number of teams, a state of affairs which led to consistent criticism due to the inequality of playoff qualification odds between the American and National Leagues.
Among the more "radical" realignment solutions proposed have involved realignment into three "leagues" of ten teams each, with the "third league" often referred to as the "Continental League" and likely including Toronto (and, prior to the Expos' departure for Washington, Montreal). Such a solution would allow Major League Baseball to have playoff equality without having to spread interleague play throughout the season, in addition it would potentially allow for all Major League clubs to play each other every season. Perceived drawbacks include the requirement for at least one interleague playoff round prior to the World Series as well as the need to address how such an alignment would affect the designated hitter rule.
In 2013, Major League Baseball addressed the issue of playoff inequality while retaining the "two league" format by transferring the Houston Astros (one of the expansion teams created in the wake of the Continental League) to the American League, thereby creating two fifteen team leagues.
- "Houston Holding Up New League". Oakland Tribune. February 19, 1960. p. 48.
- Koppett, Leonard (1998). Koppett's Concise History of Major League Baseball. Temple University Press. ISBN 1-56639-638-7.
- Pietrusza, David (1991). Major Leagues: The Formation, Sometimes Absorption and Mostly Inevitable Demise of 18 Professional Baseball Organizations, 1871 to Present. Jefferson (NC): McFarland & Company. ISBN 0-89950-590-2.