Bloated baseball could use a trim

November 18, 2001|By Raymond Daniel Burke

JUST DAYS after an electrifying World Series reminded us of baseball's captivating beauty and magical capacity to serve as a generational adhesive, the Major League Baseball owners voted to disband two unnamed franchises prior to next season.

Whether this is a serious effort to confront economic chaos or a strategy to extract concessions from the players' union in coming negotiations, it is confirmation that the game has become bloated beyond reason by its undisciplined economics.

The concept of franchise contraction is not unprecedented. Just over 100 years ago, Major League Baseball was played in 12 cities, with the teams competing in a single National League. This unwieldy number made for long seasons of low attendance for the teams that fell behind by summer. By the 1899 season, the owners had reached a consensus to reduce the league to eight teams. Cleveland, Louisville, Ky., and Washington were in sorry shape and were easy choices. So was Brooklyn, but the loss of a New York team was not acceptable.

A deal was struck with the Baltimore Orioles' president and manager, Ned Hanlon, whereby he became manager of Brooklyn and took with him key Oriole players, including three future Hall of Famers. A year later, the decimated Orioles, winners of three straight pennants from 1894 to 1896, were relegated to the dustbin of baseball history. That left an eight-team National League in 1900 that remained intact for more than 50 years.

But the contraction spawned a rival league. In 1901, the new eight-team American League began play, with Baltimore, Cleveland and Washington regaining franchises. During the following season, New York duplicity again doomed Baltimore.

Orioles' Manager John McGraw secretly signed to manage the National League New York Giants and sold his stock in the Orioles to New York interests, setting in motion an orchestrated series of maneuvers aimed at placing an American League team in the nation's largest city. Methodically, the Orioles' stock and best players were sold, and, in 1900, the franchise moved to New York, where it eventually became the Yankees.

This configuration provided the American League with its own 50 years of stability. The creation of two eight-team leagues with a World Series between league champions ushered in baseball's golden age of legendary ballparks and heroic figures. It culminated in the remarkable prospect of baseball taking the lead in the march to end legal segregation when Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.

That status quo would be drastically altered in post-war America. First came three franchise shifts. In 1953, the Braves left Boston for Milwaukee. A year later, the St. Louis Browns moved to Baltimore and resurrected the name Orioles. The next year, the Athletics moved west, leaving Philadelphia for Kansas City. The implications of these moves were clear. The three abandoned towns had been home to a team in each league, a circumstance that had arisen from the demographics of another time.

Soon, the reality of a new landscape became stunningly obvious. After the 1957 season, both of the New York National League franchises abandoned their longtime homes and headed for the promise of the West Coast. When the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles and the Giants to San Francisco, it said more about the changing face of America than the economics of the sport.

In an effort to keep pace with a spreading population and to quell franchise movement, the leagues adopted a program of expansion. In 1961, the American League added two teams; the National League did the same a year later. Both leagues added two teams and split into two divisions in 1969. When the American League again added two teams in 1977, Major League Baseball was played in 26 venues, including two in Canada.

The expansion strategy quieted relocation. While four franchises have moved since expansion began, none has since 1972. But the mid-1970s also witnessed the birth of free agency and commenced an uninterrupted period of rapidly escalating salaries and prices.

Over the next 20 years, the game became a financial behemoth. By the 1990s, owners clamored for new cash-generating ballparks, and small-market teams suffered from inferior broadcast revenues. The additions of two teams in both 1993 and 1998 were as much about earning expansion fees as they were about expanding the game. It speaks volumes that two of the teams mentioned as possible candidates for deletion, Florida and Tampa Bay, were two of the four additions of the '90s.

The 2001 World Series demonstrated the continued vitality of the game on the field. It is for the owners and players to now exercise their stewardship of it in a way that best serves its loyal fans and preserves its integrity for future generations.

Raymond Daniel Burke, a Baltimore native, is a partner in a Baltimore law firm.

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