Major League Baseball relocation of 1950s–60s
The Major League Baseball relocation of 1950s–1960s is the move of several Major League Baseball franchises to the Western and Southern United States. This was in stark contrast to the early years of modern baseball, when the American League intentionally put teams in National League cities to compete directly with those teams. Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and St. Louis were two-team towns, while New York City had three. This effectively had baseball confined to the Northeast and Midwestern United States, with no teams west of St. Louis and no teams south of Washington, D.C.
The moves, though controversial in some circles, brought new prosperity to the game of baseball. As of 2014 Chicago remains as the only market with two pre-expansion era teams, the Chicago Cubs and the Chicago White Sox, though the White Sox have come close to relocating on several occasions.
The expansion of Major League Baseball out west mirrors the story of the expansion of the population in the United States. As the economy in the country grew, Americans headed out west. Baseball soon followed, likely because of the ease of travel by commercial jet. The American economy flourished in the 1960s, and baseball was able to expand and evolve at an unprecedented rate. Economic push and pull factors caused many teams to relocate, and the emergence of cities in the new frontier allowed baseball teams to pop up across the continent. The moves of the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants to California in 1958 broke the ice and opened the West Coast to the market of baseball. Starting in the 1960s, both the National and American Leagues expanded to add teams in new and existing cities, adding 14 teams as of 2014.
During the early years of the American League as a major league, the league placed franchises in cities that were either in direct competition with National League teams (New York City, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and St. Louis) or in markets abandoned by the Senior Circuit after the 1899 contraction (Cleveland, Washington, D. C., and briefly Baltimore). Only Detroit, home of the Detroit Tigers, was a true "new" baseball market for the American League, although the National League had previously hosted the Detroit Wolverines between 1881 and 1888.
In these early years, only two National League markets did not have an American League counterpart: Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. It is unknown why a second team was not placed in Cincinnati to compete with the Cincinnati Reds, though there was a reasoning behind Pittsburgh not getting an American League team. The Pittsburgh Pirates were one of baseball's dominant teams early in the 20th century, and as part of the National Agreement in 1903, the Junior Circuit agreed not to place a team in Pittsburgh.
After the relocation of the original Baltimore Orioles to New York in 1903 where they ultimately became the New York Yankees, no major league team would relocate for 50 years. The set-up was also reflective of the population at the time, as most of the major population areas were in the Northeast and Midwestern United States in the aftermath of Reconstruction and later the Great Migration. Baseball was tied to the history and culture of New York City up until the 1950s. Three of the best teams in the league were located in New York City: The Yankees, The Giants and The Dodgers.
Beginning of the moves
Over the years, though, it became apparent that one team would be more popular than the other in a given market. In Boston, despite the Boston Braves having been established much longer in the city and arguably being the oldest continuing professional sports franchise in North America, the Boston Red Sox were by far the more popular team at the gate and with fans. In addition, the Red Sox were largely successful on the field (except in the immediate years after selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees) while the Braves were an also-ran and often in the second division of the National League. In stark contrast, the National League was able to hang on to St. Louis, where the St. Louis Cardinals were more successful than the St. Louis Browns.
One oddity would be Philadelphia, where the American League's Philadelphia Athletics were by far the more popular team in the city, led by longtime manager Connie Mack, as the Philadelphia Phillies were mostly losing during this period. However, with the Phillies enjoying rare success in 1950 at the hands of the Whiz Kids, the tables instantly turned on the Athletics. Additionally, a "spite" fence built at Shibe Park in 1935 (to keep spectators outside of the ballpark from watching the game for free), had the unintended result of the Athletics alienating their fan base in Philadelphia. Still, the Phillies would not win a World Series until 1980, the last of the "original 16" teams to win a series and 25 years after the A's left town, during which it would win three more World Series championships before the Phillies broke through.
Chicago would see the Cubs as the more popular team over the White Sox despite the constant losing season by both (though the White Sox finally won the World Series in 2005) and the Curse of the Billy Goat allegedly affecting the Cubs from making the Fall Classic since 1945. This can likely be attributed to the after effects of the Black Sox Scandal of 1919 still apparent on the White Sox, which on several occasions nearly moved out of the Windy City.
The first moves were initially lateral moves. Tied down to slow railroad timetables, the first teams that moved stayed within Major League Baseball historical geographical core: the Northeast and upper Midwest.
The first move was the Boston Braves, who relocated (for 1953) to Milwaukee, home of their top farm team, the Milwaukee Brewers. The City of Milwaukee fell in love with the Braves, with fan support of the team high making the move highly profitable. The Milwaukee Braves would remain popular until the team relocated to Atlanta in 1966.
Other owners took notice and began their relocation threats as well. The St. Louis Browns moved to Baltimore for 1954, becoming the Baltimore Orioles. The Philadelphia Athletics moved to Kansas City for 1955, briefly displacing the Cardinals as the westernmost town in the majors. Save for some controversy with the Athletics, these moves were not controversial, as these were three of the least successful teams in the majors, although the Browns and Braves had both won league championships in the 1940s.
The exit of the National League from New York City
Baseball experts consider Walter O'Malley to be "perhaps the most influential owner of baseball's early expansion era." Following the 1957 Major League Baseball season, he moved the Dodgers to Los Angeles. For years O'Malley had tried to secure a site for a new stadium for the Dodgers in Brooklyn to no avail. The Dodgers home at the time, Ebbets Field, was old and obsolete. Despite the Dodgers dominating the league, attendance at Ebbets Field dwindled, likely because of its age and the difficulty of accessing the stadium by car. Another explanation for the decline in attendance is the migration to the suburbs. People living in the suburbs didn’t want to attend games at night in the inner city. Frustrated, he began to look elsewhere.
With the post-World War II population shifts south and west and the rise in transcontinental airplane service, many west coast cities were actively pursuing Major League Baseball to relocate there; among them Los Angeles and San Francisco. Rosalind Wynman, the then head of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, was one of those championing a major league team in Los Angeles. Beginning in 1955, with the city's blessing, she began to solicit several major league teams, including the Dodgers, with the idea that they move to Los Angeles. Wynman and city officials attended the 1956 World Series between the Dodgers and the Yankees, at Ebbets Field initially to meet with Washington Senators owner Calvin Griffith who was attending the game, to convince Griifith to move his ailing Senators to Los Angeles. O'Malley, upon hearing of the planned meeting, immediately summoned Wynman for a meeting and earnestly began negotiations with her expressing his intent to have a new modern stadium built for the team a request Wynman and city officials assured O'Malley would be no problem. Initially O'Malley planned to use his negotiations with Los Angeles as a ploy with New York builder Robert Moses, who was preventing O'Malley from obtaining the site he was looking for in Brooklyn for his new stadium. (That site would be used decades later to build the Barclays Center for the Brooklyn Nets of the NBA.) However, as negotiation with Moses deteriorated—Moses wanted the Dodgers to move to a new stadium site in Flushing Meadows–Corona Park in Queens, which eventually became Shea Stadium—O'Malley realized that a deal with Los Angeles began to seem more of a reality. In addition, in Los Angeles, the Dodgers would be given land at Chavez Ravine free of charge to build a stadium, which would eventually become Dodger Stadium.
At the same time New York Giants owner Horace Stoneham was considering a move for the Giants. The Giants aging home, the Polo Grounds, was becoming dilapidated by the mid-fifties, leading to a drop off in attendance for the team. Stoneham, like O'Malley, was also unable to secure a new stadium site for the team and initially was looking to move the Giants to Minneapolis, home to the Giants' top farm team, the Minneapolis Millers. O'Malley invited San Francisco Mayor George Christopher to New York to meet with Stoneham and convinced him to join O'Malley on the West Coast at the end of the 1957 season thus bringing the two teams New York rivalry out to California. O'Malley needed another team to go west with him, for had he moved out west alone, the St. Louis Cardinals—1,600 mi (2,575 km) away— would have been the closest National League team. The joint move would make West Coast road trips economical for visiting teams. Since the meetings occurred during the 1957 season and against the wishes of Commissioner of Baseball Ford Frick, there was media gamesmanship. When O'Malley moved the Dodgers from Brooklyn, the story transcended the world of sport and he found himself on the cover of Time magazine. The cover art for the issue was created by sports cartoonist Willard Mullin, long noted for his caricature of the "Brooklyn Bum" that personified the team. The dual moves broke the hearts of New York's National League fans but ultimately were successful for both franchises—and for Major League Baseball. The move was an immediate success as well, because the Dodgers set a major-league, single-game attendance record in their first home appearance with 78,672 fans.
The moves received considerable controversy: the loss of the Dodgers was especially painful because the team was one of the last vestiges of Brooklyn's status as a city in its own right prior to 1898. Though New York still had the Yankees in the American League, the loss of a National League team in the nation's largest market drew the ire of National League fans to the point that the New York Mets were eventually added as an expansion team, beginning play in 1962. Ironically, the Yankees' attendance actually declined slightly in the years immediately following the Dodgers' and Giants' departure.
Both the Braves and Athletics did not stay in their locations for very long. The Braves, despite success in Milwaukee, moved to Atlanta in 1966 while the Athletics set up shop in Oakland for 1968. Both markets would eventually get replacement teams in the Milwaukee Brewers and Kansas City Royals, respectively. The Braves would not have consistent success in Atlanta until the 1990s, while the A's were successful during several periods thereafter.
Aside from the Seattle Pilots moving to Milwaukee after one year (to become the Brewers), the other relocations since have involved Washington, D. C. The original Washington Senators moved to the Twin Cities region to become the Minnesota Twins (beginning play as such in 1961), and the expansion Senators that replaced them moved to Arlington, Texas (in the Dallas-Fort Worth region) to become the Texas Rangers (beginning play as such in 1972). Several relocation threats would be made by the Giants, White Sox, and Pirates (in the latter's case, as a result of the Pittsburgh drug trials); however, none would happen, and all three markets to which these teams threatened to move (Toronto, Denver, and the Tampa Bay Area) would later receive expansion teams of their own.
Montreal is the only city which has lost a major league franchise since 1901 without eventually getting another team. This is not counting the short-lived Federal League of 1914 and 1915; however, all Federal League markets save two — Buffalo and Indianapolis — either had a franchise in one of the two established leagues at the time or got one later.
Most relocations during this time period did not involve a change in ownership. This means that the main economic incentive for the MLB to expand was not large offers from prospective buyers in western cities. Because the owners mainly retained control over their teams after relocation, there must be another economic benefit. The expansion occurred because franchise owners saw higher profit potential in the other location.
Protection against rival leagues
Expansion of the MLB to all cities capable of supporting a franchise in the sport is economically beneficial for the league as a whole. This reduces the possibility of the formation of a rival league, a problem that baseball dealt with in its early history. Monopoly control of the sport is essential to many aspects of player contracts, drafts and other parts of the game. Baseball's anti-trust exemption was important in the development and expansion of the league.
In MLB, all local TV revenue is assigned to the home team. The league has complex revenue sharing rules, but data shows that media revenue was an economic pull factor for the franchise relocations. The yearly gains in media revenue associated with the relocations are as follows: Boston to Milwaukee ($-175,000), St. Louis to Baltimore (+$257,000), Philadelphia to Kansas City (-$90,000), Washington to Minnesota (+$400,000), Milwaukee to Atlanta (+$800,000), Kansas City to Oakland (+$800,000), Seattle to Milwaukee (-$150,000), Washington to Texas (no change). Data is unavailable for the relocation of the Dodgers and the Giants. Based on this data, TV revenues influenced the franchise move of Washington, Milwaukee, and Kansas City and perhaps St. Louis. TV revenues have played an important role in roughly half of the moves that have taken place. James Quirk argues that under a TV sharing arrangement similar to the National Football League, or even under a split with visiting teams, the TV lure would be much less of an incentive for moves.
The protection of the league from competition and economic benefits of media revenues are direct economic pull factors. Other advancements in the U.S. during this time also had an effect on the ability and desire of teams to relocate and the league to expand. The expansion of MLB coincided with an increase in the ease of travel by commercial jets, making it easier for players to fly across the continent. This is important given that when Water O'Malley moved his Dodgers to Los Angeles, the closest team was in St. Louis.
The expansion of baseball is also accompanied by the increase in popularity of television. Baseball expanded, in large part, because interest in the sport grew leading up to and during the 1950s and '60s. In home televisions allowed for this increase in popularity and helped make New York's pastime, America's pastime.
- American League
- National League
- History of baseball in the United States#1972–1998
- Major League Baseball#Expanding west, south and north
- Relocation of professional sports teams
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