Entertainment & Arts

‘Bottom of the Ninth: Branch Rickey, Casey Stengel, and the Daring Scheme to Save Baseball From Itself’

It was Bill Veeck, a true maverick among the sport’s moguls, who once declared that "[B]aseball must be a great game, because the owners haven’t been able to kill it.” Serious fans know they’ve given it a pretty good try over the years, with a considerable late assist from the steroidal heroes who wear the uniforms. They all get away with it because we fans don’t want to know how baseball’s sausage is made. We watch the game not just for the aesthetic pleasures of a mighty clout or a well-turned double play, but because it offers a time and space apart from our headaches and aggravations.

Michael Shapiro’s “Bottom of the Ninth: Branch Rickey, Casey Stengel, and the Daring Scheme to Save Baseball From Itself” is very much a sausage story, the kind that is too often overlooked. Set in the brief span from late 1958 to the fall of 1960, it traces the aborted life of the Continental League, a would-be addition to Major League Baseball spearheaded by Rickey, the pioneer executive who brought Jackie Robinson to the Dodgers, integrating the big leagues.

The difficulty of that experience demonstrated baseball’s resistance to change, even when it stood to benefit. Though the sport was actively promoted as the national game, before the Dodgers and Giants departed for California in 1957, the league had little use for the territory beyond the Mississippi and south of the Mason-Dixon line. Only the Kansas City Athletics existed in that great expanse, and that team was practically an appendage of the New York Yankees and their imperious owner, Del Webb, the invisible hand who virtually controlled league business.

The Continental League was envisioned as a remedy to that state of affairs. Its financial backers represented a host of cities desperate for expansion, along with a contingent from New York, which had been abandoned by its two National League franchises. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine that Major League Baseball did not see its absence from half of the country as nothing short of a golden opportunity to be exploited at all costs. But, controlled behind closed doors by an elite fraternity of conservative men, it operated more often out of fear than grand vision, protected by its rather dubious standing as a legalized monopoly, granted in a 1922 Supreme Court ruling.

It was Rickey’s intention to drag baseball’s intransigent owners into modernity by adding a third league to the majors, one that would operate with a variety of far-sighted practices, including a player draft from a shared minor-league system and the equitable distribution of television revenues. Theoretically, these systems would preclude any one team from achieving the financial and competitive advantage that the Yankees had in the existing major leagues. Predictably, none of this sat well with Webb, particularly the prospect of establishing a new club in New York.

If Rickey’s ideas were radical, he was at heart a company man, a baseball lifer who earnestly believed the league would come to see the reason of his proposals. This is precisely how he had operated with Robinson, whom he had carefully groomed before raising him to the majors, leaving widespread integration to follow. That kind of patience wasn’t going to work in this case, however. If a third league was to come into existence, he would have to ram it down the throats of baseball’s owners. In the past, the only man to have gone up against baseball’s owners and won was Ban Johnson, who established the American League in 1901. And, as Shapiro writes, Johnson operated with all “the finesse of a jackhammer.”

Rickey, however, was a more lawyerly man. (In fact, he had a law degree, from the University of Michigan.) Though his Continental League backers had ample financial resources and the political clout in Congress to put an end to Major League’s antitrust exemption, Rickey balked, claiming that baseball would come to terms and see the light. Of course it did not, and instead did what it had always done: It co-opted its opponents, promising the Continental League’s most prominent backers entree into the majors, but on the Major League’s own terms. And so baseball expanded at the expense of the Continental League, and without its many innovations.

Shapiro, author of the terrific “The Last Good Season: Brooklyn, the Dodgers, and Their Final Pennant Race Together,” does an admirable job telling this complex story. His biographical sketches of Rickey and Webb are especially compelling. But a sausage story is not always the most compelling of reads, and to inoculate himself against that reality, Shapiro has larded up this one by interspersing a second narrative, the story of Stengel’s final years with the Yankees, which is of little relation to the primary action of the book. It’s less than ideal, but Rickey, always an optimist, might have put a positive spin on it: Two stories for the price of one.

Lamster is the author of “Master of Shadows,” a political biography of the painter Peter Paul Rubens, to be published in October.

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