What Baseball Lost by Not Expanding Sooner

The Twins’ early popularity in Minneapolis shows MLB could have brought baseball to the Gopher State sooner than it did. (via Bradley P. Johnson)

The issue of expansion has been a hotly debated since MLB first expanded in 1961 with the additions of the Los Angeles Angels and Washington Senators. The American and National Leagues had remained at eight teams each since 1901, when the number of people living in the United States was around 76.2 million. By the time baseball expanded in 1961, the population of the country had more than doubled, to 179.3 million.

The country had grown, but baseball’s development lagged.

Meanwhile, by the time baseball was finally beginning to expand, the AFL was launching, as well as the ABA. Later on, the WHA would join the fray, all while the NBA, NFL, and NHL were simultaneously expanding. For years, baseball had been the country’s dominant sport. But by the mid-’70s, the other three major sports leagues had as large if not a bigger footprint in the United States. This chart demonstrates how risk-averse baseball has been in going after new markets.

Of the cities to get a major league franchise since 1952, there’s only one market you can say baseball got to before any of the other major sports: Kansas City. When the Athletics moved there in 1955, the Chiefs were still eight years away from making their AFL debut. The NBA’s Kings wouldn’t arrive in the city until 1972, and the ill-fated Scouts of the NHL wouldn’t make their debut until 1974.

But in every other city, it often seems that baseball either waits until another league tries the market first, or comes in at roughly the same time. In Denver and Phoenix, Major League Baseball was the last of the Big Four sports leagues to break ground in the market. But what if baseball had expanded earlier? Where could they have gone in the 1920s and ’30s?

Baltimore

In 1920, the city was home to just over 700,000 people, making it the eighth largest city in the United States. Baltimore had played host to great baseball teams before. The Baltimore Orioles of the 1890s won three consecutive National League pennants. The lack of an ownership group would cause the club to disband after the 1899 season, but the newly formed American League would place a team in the city for its inaugural 1901 campaign. This team would last just two seasons before departing for greener pastures in New York.

When the Federal League launched in 1914, Baltimore was one of the cities awarded a franchise, but the league folded after 1915 and the city wouldn’t host another pro team until 1954. In that time, the International League’s Baltimore Orioles played for nearly 50 years, before the Orioles arrived.

The thought of Babe Ruth managing his hometown club in the big leagues is something to ponder, and something Major League Baseball could have made happen by giving the city another chance.

Buffalo

Although not the size it was once was, Buffalo was for several years one of the 20 largest in the United States. It had also been a host to National League baseball. The Buffalo Bisons played from 1879-1885. Not long after, a team of the same name would appear in the Players’ League, and in 1914, the Federal League brought a team to town. MLB has flirted with playing in Buffalo, most recently as part of the 1993 expansion. But to date it has never played host to a major league team, the only one of the Big Four leagues never to play in the city.

Meanwhile, the Buffalo Bisons have enjoyed being one of the most successful minor league teams of all-time, with a history stretching back to 1912. While it’s unlikely Buffalo will ever be seen as a desirable expansion option given the demographic trends of the city, in the 1920s this would not have been an issue, as it was home to over half a million citizens and growing.

Indianapolis

While the Colts and Pacers have both enjoyed loyal fan support, MLB has still yet to venture to the city despite the continuing success of the Indianapolis Indians, the second oldest minor league franchise currently in operation. Like several of the cities listed, Indianapolis played host to the Federal League, and, also like several of the places listed, had a National League team, with the Hoosiers calling the city home from 1887-1889.

While a bit small in terms of market size, given the existence of both the Colts and Pacers and the long term success of the Indians, it’s easy to imagine a major league team playing in the city. Even today, I would consider Indianapolis a reliable potential expansion market worth researching, especially considering that the Indians having finished second in minor league attendance.

Kansas City

Before the arrival of the A’s in 1955, Kansas City played host to several teams associated with the minors, Negro, and major leagues, the most notable being the Kansas City Monarchs, the name whose name the present day Royals suggest. Like Indianapolis, Kansas City would have been a small market, but also one that would have come with a proven track record.

A significant rail stop in the Midwest, Kansas City would have attracted a large number of people moving West. A team placed in Kansas City would have likely prevented the Cardinals from having a near monopoly on Midwest fans south of Chicago until the mid-1950s and also would have helped establish the league in a new market.

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Milwaukee

Although Milwaukee would be the first new city to get an MLB team since 1902, the time for expansion likely could have come far sooner. By 1920, the city had a population just short of half a million, and with a massive influx of immigrants mostly of Eastern European descent, had a booming industrial and shipping industry.

During this time, the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association ruled the land, and, in part because of their long term success, Milwaukee was seen a potential relocation destination. When the Braves finally arrived in 1953, they drew 1.8 million fans, showing just how starved the area was for major league baseball.

Minneapolis

Before the Minnesota Twins arrived in 1961, the Twin Cities played host to not one, but two successful minor league teams: the Minneapolis Millers and the St. Paul Saints. The home of both General Mills and Pillsbury, the Twin Cities region was already an established midwest city by the 1920s.

Like Milwaukee, the Twins’ arrival and subsequent success illustrate how ready the city was for baseball by the time the Senators arrived, but also the fact that MLB likely could have gone to the “Land of 10,000 Lakes” decades before deciding to pull the trigger.

Newark

Much like Buffalo, Newark was in a very different place in the 1920s than it is today. A century ago, Newark was a flourishing city that was home to a large industrial, shipping, and retail base, industries that still survive in the city.

However, instead of crumbling infrastructure, these institutions were housed in state-of-the-art, architectural palaces. Like Baltimore and Buffalo, it had a Federal League team, and also a hotbed of minor league franchises. Unlike Baltimore and Buffalo, the city also had a successful Negro League franchise in the form of Effa Manley’s Newark Eagles, who played from 1934 to 1950 in Ruppert Stadium, which they shared with the International League’s Newark Bears.

When looking for leverage with the city of Brooklyn, the Dodgers played a few games in Roosevelt Field in nearby Jersey City, and the Yankees flirted with the idea of moving to the Meadowlands on several occasions. However, major league baseball has never made a serious play to come to the Northern New Jersey area, and given the territory rights issues with the area, likely never will.

Toronto

Although the Blue Jays wouldn’t arrive until 1977, the Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League were a model minor league franchise, winning the league title 10 times. Part of the reason for Toronto’s dominance was the enormous market size the Maple Leafs enjoyed. Few minor league cities could boast a city population of over half a million, and even fewer had the kinds of financial and business institutions Toronto had at its disposal.

The Maple Leafs have been one of the NHL’s most successful franchises, and also one of their most valuable. If the Leafs didn’t have a 50-year head start on the Blue Jays in building a fanbase, it’s possible much of the devotion and attention given to the Leafs would instead be directed towards the Jays.

Lessons to be Learned

When the Vegas Golden Knights came into the NHL, many hockey fans likely thought the team was a joke. I will admit, I didn’t give them much of a chance, as I couldn’t see how a hockey team in the desert could work. But one factor I hadn’t considered was just how starved the city was for a major pro sports team. Any pro sports team.

The NHL said yes, while the other three leagues said no. The result has been a team that is already considered the 11th most valuable franchise in the league according to Forbes, no doubt bolstered by a first-year Stanley Cup Final trip, but also by the fact that the city generally supports the team. The NFL will soon follow with the arrival of the Raiders in 2020, while rumblings of a possible expansion to Vegas by MLB continue.

But what if baseball had come to Vegas first? What if that team had the same kind of miracle run to the World Series as the Knights did to the Stanley Cup? Would it be a bad thing for the sport to have that happen? My argument would be no. When the idea of expansion is discussed today, I think far too much attention is given to issues like quality of play, and whether it sends to the right message to teams like Tampa Bay and Oakland, whose stadium situations are in flux. More attention should be paid to how these new teams can effectively grow the league. There is no major league franchise in the city of Austin, while the Round Rock Express have consistently proven themselves to be one of  the best draws in the Pacific Coast League.

It has been more than 50 years since Major League Baseball came to a city that none of the NBA, NFL, or NHL have been to before. That more than anything should indicate just how risk-averse the sport has been to the idea of entering new markets, and is part of the reason  baseball no longer captures the national audience like it once did.

If baseball wants to be serious about growing the sport, I believe it should be taking pointers from MLS, and not be afraid of going to unproven markets even as current teams struggle to find their footing. That fear has lead to baseball taking far too long to enter areas like Denver and Toronto. Even Washington D.C. went decades between having a major league franchise, despite having a major metro area to draw from and a rich history to highlight.

The longer baseball waits to expand, the more likely it becomes that another league will be first, allowing that league to draw interest in new areas and grow its sport while baseball’s fan base continues to age.

References and Resources


Paul Moehringer is a data analyst, a SABR member and inventor of the Pyramid Rating System; originally from Mount Olive, NJ, now living in Westwood, MA. Follow him on Twitter @PMoehringer.
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Dennis Bedard
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Dennis Bedard

The AHL (American Hockey League) was a minor league operation akin to the numerous AAA teams in baseball. The league you refer to was the WHA, a new league similar to the ABA and AFL, which later disbanded after the NHL agreed to take in some of its teams. While going back in time and re-creating expansion scenarios is a lot of fun, the flip side of this equation is teams that were but should never have been, i.e., the St. Louis Browns, KC Athletics, for two. The Yankees (George Weiss) wanted to punish Billy Martin for his fisticuffs in… Read more »

nvcjr1
Member
nvcjr1

Very good article, but I don’t think the graph you have actually paints the picture you are trying to create, namely MLB’s hesitancy to expand. I’m not saying that that is not the case, as it absolutely is, but I think the story is more forced to the graph as the graph naturally fits the story.

jarhead659
Member
Member
jarhead659

MLB was, and is, unable to expand to unproven markets successfully because ownership (and the players union) refuse to implement true revenue sharing, salary caps and an expansion draft similar to the one that benefited Las Vegas greatly.

John Autin
Member
John Autin

Very interesting topic! For Baltimore, you might have mentioned their International League dynasty — 7 straight pennants with 100+ wins from 1919-25, with plenty of attendance and long-time superstars like Lefty Grove. I doubt the city’s fans were pining for the “big leagues.” I think you’ve generally overlooked that the minor leagues were largely independent businesses into the 1930s, not the MLB adjuncts they are now. Relations between majors and minors were governed for decades by a strong agreement, and the minors’ rights were taken seriously. (See Commissioner Landis’s ruling that broke up Branch Rickey’s first “farm system.”) It would… Read more »

John Autin
Member
John Autin

There are several factors working against expansion to “not-yet-big-league” cities. One such is the de facto expectation of MLB teams that the ballparks be paid for largely by the public. 23 of 30 teams are in parks opened within the last 30 years, and most of those constructions were sweetheart deals for the team. Every team now wants a state-of-the-art park built just for baseball. But while cities are commonly willing to fund a new park to KEEP a team, it’s a much harder sell to finance a new park in order to GET a team. Another factor is the… Read more »

HandsomeBoyModel
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HandsomeBoyModel

You can look at this another way. If you stared a league now, you wouldn’t put a team in places like Buffalo or Indianapolis. I’d probably say Cleveland or Detroit wouldn’t get teams also. MLS is a good example of this. Cities like SLC and Austin gets franchises why a lot of the old school cities are off the table.

Maybe it was a good thing baseball didn’t anchor themselves in dying cities.

Paul G.
Member
Member
Paul G.

It would have been nice if MLB had expanded sooner, but whether this was feasible or not is still an open question. The Federal League experiment was certainly not encouraging in that regard, which includes five of the cities you mentioned. Indianapolis won the 1914 pennant and went bankrupt. I believe both Buffalo and Kansas City were bankrupt by the end of the 1915 season, I’m pretty sure Baltimore never made any money and was held together by civic pride willing to throw good money after bad, and Newark had a team only out of desperation – it was Indianapolis’s… Read more »

Barney Coolio
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Barney Coolio

Interesting article. Baltimore and Newark seem like easy choices, but they were probably blocked by the interests of the Senators and the various New York City teams. Some of those cities on this list are really farflung when considering prewar transportation logistics. Imagine traveling by rail from Boston on Kansas City or Minneapolis? Probably a major reason why. Then again, the Pacific Coast League existed during this era with teams spread from San Diego to Seattle. (Right?) So, it could be done. But in the West, teams had to deal with the great distances, in the East, the leagues didn’t… Read more »

Barney Coolio
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Barney Coolio

I am skeptical of future baseball expansion. Right now, if things are distributed evenly, each fanbase has an average of a 30 year wait between world series championships. Adding teams, makes that hope even less likely. I also am not convinced that there are even two more markets capable of supporting an MLB team. But an academic exploration of whether MLB should have expanded earlier? Sure. In fact, an emphatic yes. I think that MLB wasn’t run very intelligently for the first half of its history. The slowness to integrate and expand are two glaring examples.

pickleRick
Member
pickleRick

When you have no concern for the quality of baseball on the field and its only about money expansion sounds great.

John Autin
Member
John Autin

Also relevant to an expansion retrospective: The AL and NL were quite separate entities until well after the first expansion. They addressed some big issues jointly, when absolutely necessary, but mainly each league looked after its own interests. Some possibilities that seem logical in retrospect — like realigning the leagues on a geographical basis — were never really considered, due to that “league vs. league” perspective. When the Dodgers and Giants moved west, a fairly natural geographical realignment could have been done by moving KCA, CHW and DET to the NL, and PHI, PIT and CIN to the AL. That… Read more »

Spa City
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Member
Spa City

Montreal in the 1920s was a thriving city with a traditional, east coast style down town (Centre Ville). Closer to NY and Boston than many teams of the era. Larger than many cities with MLB teams at the time. I would put Montreal atop the list of what-could-have-been in terms of historical baseball expansion.

DavidGetz
Member
DavidGetz

I wonder why Indianapolis doesn’t get more looks today. They have two major league level teams (NFL and NBA). They are thriving at the Triple A level. It seems like every time MLB expansion comes up, it is Portland, OR, Tidewater area in VA, Montreal (and rightfully so), and maybe San Antonio. The San Antonio/Austin area is going to be interesting for the future, as it’s growth rate is alarming.

With that said, why doesn’t Indianapolis get more mention? I don’t think that would kill the market in Chicago or Detroit.