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An Unnoticed Golden Anniversary

Entry of May 21st

50 years ago today, on May 21, 1959 Major League Baseball owners held a rare spring meeting in the privacy of Pittsburgh Pirates owner John Galbreath’s Darby Dan racehorse farm outside of Columbus, Ohio. Baseball usually resisted change – two major leagues with eight teams each had ruled the roost since 1903 - but after the great commercial success in 1958 of the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Francisco Giants in their first year on the West Coast, other cities were clamoring for a place in the majors and New York certainly wanted back into the National League.

Branch Rickey had yet to formally announce his participation in a proposed third league (the name Continental League would be coined a few weeks later) but the baseball moguls knew that he was itching to get back into the action. Galbreath had removed Rickey from daily operation of the Pirates at the end of the 1955 season after five consecutive finishes deep in the second-division. The baseball owners knew that once the Ferocious Gentleman’s work ethic got into gear he would be a formidable adversary.

At a press conference after the end of the May 21, 1959 meeting, Yankees co-owner Dan Topping, a copper and steel heir who had once been married to ice skater and movie star Sonja Henie, spelled out three major conditions for new cities to join the baseball monopoly: A population size at least as large as the smallest city already in the majors (Kansas City at 500,000 had obtained the Philadelphia Athletics in 1955); a new stadium in place to seat at least 35,000; and an ability to indemnify in an unspecified amount the minor league city that would be forced to relocate.

The Darby Dan meeting was the first public statement, however vague, that the baseball owners realized that their map was going to change beyond the epochal switch of the Dodgers and Giants from New York to California. Branch Rickey’s Continental League never truly got off the ground and his third baseball revolution (after the farm system and racial integration) disbanded during the summer of 1960. Yet it certainly hastened the process of expansion.

Rickey always lamented that the majors went to two ten-team leagues instead of accepting a third league. “I shudder, really, when I think of what surely is in front of the ninth and tenth clubs in either major league, because and chiefly because of player weakness on the field,” he wrote eloquently as usual. But I was pleased to be able to pay serious homage to his effort in my biography Baseball’s Ferocious Gentleman. I am glad to report that Rickey’s role is also honored in Michael Shapiro’s new book about the Continental League, Bottom of the Ninth.

**I didn’t want to be Nostradamus, I really didn’t. But before I entered Yankee Stadium last night my hopes were minimal because Jeremy Guthrie, Baltimore’s alleged ace starter, is becoming one of those pitchers who only pitches well when he faces no pressure from a tie game or a lead. He quickly fell behind 5-0 after three innings with three left-handed hitters of the red-hot Yankees – Nick Swisher, Robinson Cano and Melky Cabrera - socking back-to-back-to-back homers in the bottom of the second. The Orioles fought back to make it 5-3 on homers by Ty Wigginton and Adam Jones, who is on the verge of being a five-tool star worth paying to see, but otherwise the Orioles couldn’t get the big hit. Watch the teams that manufacture runs and you’ll be watching a winning team. For the second night in a row the Yankees erupted for a big late inning to eliminate any chance for end-of-game drama.

**The expensive Yankee Stadium seats seemed to be more filled last night and at least twice the scoreboard announced lucky winners of a seat upgrade promotion that moved fans from the upper deck to more choice downstairs locations. It was another sign of management’s awareness of the economic downturn and its willingness to respond to it.

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