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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, all but one 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. Buffalo, although it made efforts to lure an MLB team to then-new Pilot Field in the early 1990s, never succeeded in bringing Major League Baseball back.
- "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.