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Baseball Judgments

Baseball Judgments | SportsLibrary.net
Baseball's leagues

Major, minor, independent leagues, organized structure have cemented sport as America's pastime, and big business

 

By Roger Weber

 

Today Major League Baseball is made up of the American and National Leagues. Despite minor differences in style – the American League is known as more of a power league and has had the designated hitter since 1973 – the two leagues are quite similar in talent and play. With the inception of interleague play in 1997, the leagues are now almost one entity. Each has three divisions, two playoff series' and trades between them are common. They are governed by the Office of the Commissioner of Baseball and the champions of the two meet each year in the World Series. And although women are still prohibited from playing, all able players can play regardless of any demographic characteristic. Baseball has taken on a global role.

 

But when baseball was new there was not such an organization to the top of the talent pyramid. Teams popped up all over the eastern United States. And aiming to capitalize on the popularity of many of these teams, groups and owners got together and began forming leagues. In 1857 the National Association of Baseball Clubs was formed. Later, in 1871, the first professional league formed in the National Association. Cities with teams in this league were normally smaller towns, even in Midwestern cities like Fort Wayne. Five years later, the National League was formed with eight teams in Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Hartford, Louisville, New York and St. Louis. On April 22, the first game of the league was played as Cincinnati beat Philadelphia 6-5. Chicago finished first in the standings that season, with a 52-14 record.

 

Although many organizations with the same names as the ones in the original National League have played – like the St. Louis Browns, Cincinnati Reds and Philadelphia Athletics – only the Atlanta Braves, who played in Boston in 1876 and Chicago Cubs are still in existence from the first version of the National League. The Cincinnati Red Stockings, known as the first professional team, did not join the National League until 1890. According to www.baseball-reference.com, the Cincinnati team that was in the N.L. in 1876 won just nine games its first year and folded after just five.

 

Although the most well known league that still exists, the National League certainly wasn't the only one founded before 1900. The Southern League was established in 1885 and although it technically folded in 1899, a new league almost exactly the same began play in 1901. Today the Southern League is a double-A league with teams in cities like Chattanooga, Jacksonville and Huntsville. The original version of the league included a New Orleans team managed by famous Abner Powell, who invented the first rain checks.

 

In 1877, the International Association formed under President Candy Cummings, the supposed first thrower of a curve ball, and was for a brief period at the start of its two years of existence a major competitor with the National League. It quickly fell in stature but was the precursor to the modern triple-A league, the International League.

 

Other leagues, like the Players League and the Union Association, also only lasted short times. But the National League survived. So that brings up the question of what made the National League exist so much longer and in the long run field a higher level of baseball than these other leagues. Many of the leagues became victims to poor organization. But the talent wasn't always much worse. The International League was notorious for fielding very competitive squads. And of the six current major league teams that began play in the 1800s, only two originated in the National League. The other four - Cincinnati Reds, Pittsburgh Pirates, St. Louis Cardinals, Los Angeles Dodgers – came from the American Association, a league that lasted just 10 years.

 

There were many competing teams in the nineteenth century. Twenty-five teams played in the National Association, 25 in the American Association, 12 in the Union Association and numerous others in other leagues. And most have been forgotten. Most fans don't even know that teams like the Columbus Buckeyes, New York Mutuals, Indianapolis Hoosiers, Louisville Colonels, Columbus Solons, Cleveland Infants, St. Paul Apostles Cincinnati Kelly's Killers and Toledo Blue Stockings, ever even existed. Some extinct teams, though, like the Cleveland Spiders, are remembered, even if only for being the worst team of all time in 1899.

 

With so many teams, good organization, good competition, strong talent and a great fan base were necessary to support a team. The Federal League of 1914-15 never got the support it needed from the public or its owners to become a serious long term competitor to the major leagues so it folded after just two years.

 

The National League ultimately had the most fan support. To sustain a professional baseball team, owners needed big crowds to pump in revenue, especially because concessions sales weren't like they are today. The National League, because it was older than most other leagues, was appealing to many players over the numerous competitors in big cities.

 

Attendance domination was important. In the twenty-first century teams, both minor and major league, have radii around their stadia and home cities on which new teams can't build. Radii for major league teams, obviously, are larger than they are for minor league teams. But this ensures that new teams don't move in to capitalize from a profitable market and make a dent into the existing team's earnings. With growing population, the radii are getting smaller in some cities which allows for low minor league teams to be built on the outskirts of cities like New York, Chicago and Cleveland. Also complicating the situation are independent league teams, not affiliated with Major or Minor League Baseball. These teams, in cities like Camden, Newark and Chillicothe, Ohio typically draw fairly small crowds and many independent leagues have financial problems without the organization and regulation that the majors and minors now have.

 

But back near the turn of the century there weren't any major leagues. There were just leagues. In 1901 the American League began play. Similar in makeup to the National League, the A.L. was the brainchild of Ben Johnson and Charlie Comiskey. In 1903 the two leagues, American and National, agreed to a season ending series matching each league's best team.

 

The two leagues have grown similarly over the years. Each started with eight teams and has grown, always by two teams, occasionally over the years. Here is a chart of the number of teams in each league:

                                   

 

N.L.

A.L.

1876-1900

8

--

1901-1960

8

8

1961

8

10

1962-1968

10

10

1969-1976

12

12

1977-1992

12

14

1993-1997

14

14

1998-pres.

16

14

 

Reasons for expansion have varied but most new markets baseball has moved to have had the ability to support a team. It takes much more public support for a city to support a major league baseball team than to support professional teams in any other sport. This is due to MLB's long season, often high ticket prices and daily time on television and radio. It centers around money.

 

Baseball is both a game and a business. Money has long been a major issue with players, owners and fans. Fans like to talk about nostalgia and tradition, cool summer evenings and expanses of grass. While baseball has a beauty that few other sports can match, the reality is that without finances, big time baseball cannot exist.

 

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