I just read a book with the unfortunately long title of “Bottom of the Ninth: Branch Rickey, Casey Stengel, and the Daring Scheme to Save Baseball From Itself” by Michael Shaprio that is a must-read for Mets fans. While the book does not talk about the team hardly at all, it does tell the story of what led to the creation of the New York Mets.
The basic story is a familiar one that every self-respecting Mets fan should know: After the Dodgers and Giants left town for greener pastures out West, New York went to work finding another National League team. Some lawyer named Bill Shea was tasked with the job. When he failed to lure an exisiting team to town, Shea dreamed up the idea of a new league — the Continental League — to compete with the NL and AL, which of course would have its flagship franchise in New York, in a new stadium in Flushing Meadows. The leagues got scared, and agreed to expand — two new teams each, with of course one of the NL teams in New York.
End of story, although that’s what I always thought. I thought the Continental League was just an idle threat. Turns out it was much more than that, and that’s what this fine book is all about. The planning for the league went on for years, with former Dodgers GM Branch Rickey joining Shea to spearhead the work. An old, “reluctant” Rickey was even set to become league president.
The one hitch in the plan was that Rickey didn’t want to go it alone. He didn’t want to be a “renegade” league that would challenge the established leagues. He knew that would be a suicide mission. Instead, Rickey wanted the NL and AL to cooperate, and for the Continental League to be a third major league. There were even vague plans for a three-way round robin World Series.
The leagues strung Rickey and Shea (left, in his namesake stadium) along, but it appears they never had any intention of going along with the plan. But the planners trudged onward, lining up owners in eight cities — New York, Houston, Minnesota, Buffalo, Denver, Toronto, Atlanta and Dallas.
Finally, when push came to shove, the NL and AL agreed to expand to make the threat of the Continental League go away. One problem was that while the leagues said they would try to accomodate half of the prospective Continental owners and cities, it was not written in stone. The NL did the right thing, admitting New York and Houston. But the AL, which was far more adamant against the new league all along, screwed them over. Yes, Minnesota was given a team, but that was a transfer from Washington. The new Washington Senators had an owner picked by the AL. The second expansion team was the Los Angeles Angels, which was never part of the Continental League planning.
The one issue I have with the book is the Casey Stengel part of the title. Mixed in with chapters about the Continental League is the story of Stengel’s final years with the Yankees. It had absolutely nothing to do with the formation of the new league, and just felt out of place. The story of the Continental League is good enough to merit its own book.
But all in all, an excellent read — a story all Mets fan should know.