When East Was West: The Great Divisional Debate of 1968

The Reds won three World Series titles while playing as a member of the National League West. (via Rick Dikeman)

Ever wonder why the Atlanta Braves and Cincinnati Reds were members of the National League West Division from 1969 to ’93, while the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals were in the East? A cursory glance at a map would tell you Atlanta and Cincinnati are far to the east of Chicago and St. Louis, with the former two cities in the Eastern time zone and the latter two on Central time. And it’s not as if baseball owners and league executives didn’t know this.

However, if we know anything about baseball decision-makers, it’s that they rarely do the most sensible or logical thing. Flouting geography when it came to alignment at the birth of divisional play 50 years ago certainly fits in with that line of thinking.

But how did it happen exactly? As with much of baseball melodrama in that era, it started with Charles O. Finley.

The mercurial owner of the Kansas City Athletics decided to move his team to Oakland for the 1968 season, which got league approval by a 7-3 vote. But the decision didn’t go over well in Kansas City. On October 17, 1967, the day the American League approved the transfer of the Athletics to Oakland, U.S. Senator Stuart Symington of Missouri threatened to open hearings into baseball’s long-treasured anti-trust exemption. That was all it took for the American League to immediately grant an expansion franchise to Kansas City for 1969. The AL then gifted a franchise to Seattle to reach an even 12 teams.
With no immediate pressure from national political entities, the National League could afford to be more deliberate. At the 1967 Winter Meetings in Mexico City that December, NL owners committed only to expanding to 12 franchises “no later than 1971.”

“We were hoping they would expand at the same time we do, and maybe they will yet, but there is nothing we can do about it if they don’t,” AL president Joe Cronin told The Sporting News. “Regardless of when they expand, we’ll work with them harmoniously.”

As it turned out, Cronin wouldn’t have to wait long. In April of 1968, National League owners voted to expand for 1969. In late May, they awarded franchises to San Diego and Montreal. But how the two leagues would construct themselves as 12-team entities was still up for debate. In their previous eight- and 10-team incarnations, both the AL and NL had been “division-less,” with the first-place finisher advancing to the World Series.

Upon expansion to 12 teams, American League owners favored breaking into two six-team divisions, with a “playoff” round pitting the two division champions for a berth in the World Series. The tradition-bound NL powerbrokers wanted to maintain the status quo, with no divisions or playoff round. (If this seems like strange thinking, remember we are now 46 years into one league having the designated hitter and the other not.)

Though they ultimately needed approval from the commissioner’s office, American League owners already had decided they would create an East Division of the Baltimore Orioles, Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers, New York Yankees, and Washington Senators. The West Division would consist of the California Angels, Chicago White Sox, Minnesota Twins, Oakland Athletics, and the two expansion clubs: the Kansas City Royals and Seattle Pilots.

National League owners refused to budge. Theirs would be a 12-team league, with one champion and one postseason representative.

“We don’t believe in a playoff system because of the tradition and history of baseball,” NL president Warren Giles blustered to the Associated Press in May 1968. “A playoff system would be in contradiction to these traditions. You can have teams finishing fourth or fifth percentage-wise and then playing the champion of the other league in the World Series. We do not believe the public will accept this. The World Series is the greatest event in sports, and it is dangerous to tamper with it.”

Cronin argued it was the public for whose best interests he was looking out. “You can’t sell a 12th-place club,” he said. “Who wants a lot of second-division clubs?…You have to look ahead 20 years and not just next year. Our teams will retain their rivalries and create new ones under the divisional system.”

Writing in The Sporting News in June of 1968, veteran sportswriter Bob Broeg put forth a compromise solution that doesn’t seem to have gained any traction at all but is still worth mentioning if for nothing other than the sheer amusement of it all. Broeg credited St. Louis Cardinals assistant general manager Jim Toomey with the idea of creating three eight-team major leagues, with the third league comprised of the eight post-1960 expansion franchises (California, Houston, Kansas City, Seattle, Washington, the New York Mets, and the two to-be-determined expansion franchises).

Toomey’s plan would include interleague play (which didn’t become a reality for nearly 30 years) as well as a first-round playoff “bye” for the league whose champion won the previous year’s World Series. The champions of the other two leagues would meet in a five- or seven-game playoff, with the winner of that series advancing to the World Series.

“It has merits, friends — plenty,” Broeg wrote of Toomey’s plan. All this to avoid splitting into divisions.

A Bursting Beat: Excerpts from Aisle 228
Selections from AISLE 228, a collection of poetry about the 2016 Chicago Cubs.

(Legendary executive Branch Rickey, who died in 1965, had at one time in the late 1950s championed the idea of a third major-league — the Continental League. Like Toomey’s idea, Rickey’s third-league vision was never seriously considered, though it did lead to the first round of National and American League expansion in 1961 and 1962.)

The NL awarded 1969 expansion franchises to San Diego and Montreal during league meetings in Chicago in early June, but Giles and his compatriots were still resistant to divisional play. For a time, it appeared the National League would play a 162-game schedule with a 12-team league and no divisions, while the American League would play a 156-game schedule with two six-team divisions and a championship series prior to the World Series.

Not that the AL owners stood in unanimity. As you might expect, the owners of the Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins were not wild about being grouped with West Coast teams such as Seattle and California.

Still, the AL West in 1969 was to be evenly divided among three teams in the Central time zone (Chicago, Minnesota and Kansas City) and three in the Pacific (Oakland, Seattle and California). That would change a year later, when the cash-strapped Seattle Pilots moved to Milwaukee to become the Brewers.

Writing in the New York Times on July 8, 1968, columnist Arthur Daley argued the American League splitting into divisions and the National League not doing so was “a manifest invitation to disaster.” He also hinted that Los Angeles Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley — then considered the most powerful man in baseball and something of a shadow commissioner behind actual commissioner Spike Eckert — had brokered a sit-down between the two leagues at that week’s All-Star Game festivities in Houston.

On July 10, 1968, the day after the All-Star Game, it was announced that, in exchange for the American League going to a 162-game schedule, the National League would, in fact, split into two divisions. In both leagues, teams would play 18 games against divisional opponents and 12 against those in the other division.

The New York Mets, Montreal Expos, Philadelphia Phillies, Pittsburgh Pirates, St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs would make up one division. The other division would be comprised of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Houston Astros, San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants, Atlanta Braves and Cincinnati Reds. (Giles and various National League owners were insistent that naming the two divisions “East” and “West” wasn’t a certainty, but sportswriters were already referring to them as such in print.)

“It is a great step forward for baseball, showing cooperation and uniformity,” Eckert told the Associated Press. What he didn’t say was what The Sporting News reported a few weeks later — that it took more than 10 votes for National League owners and executives to agree on the division alignments.

Mets owners wanted to be in the same division as the Dodgers and/or Giants, which had left New York less than a decade earlier and still had large and highly engaged fan bases in the city. The Cardinals and Cubs wanted to be in the same division, and the Reds wanted to be in the same division with them.

The Dodgers didn’t want to be in the same division as the Padres, whom they considered interlopers on their territory. There really wasn’t a way to make everyone happy, so the National League ended up settling on a solution that made no geographic sense.

For the Braves and Reds, 18 games against the Dodgers, Padres and Giants meant at least three West Coast road trips per year and generally later start times for radio and TV broadcasts back home. The Cardinals and Cubs — again, both of whom were farther west than Atlanta and Cincinnati, and in a different time zone — had to make only two such trips.

St. Louis general manager Bing Devine, naturally, was pleased. Not only would his team play the majority of its games in the Eastern and Central time zones, they would play 18 games per year against their arch-rival Chicago Cubs.

“If expansion was to come about, as it was, then this seemed to be the logical thing to do,” Devine told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “And although the Cardinals won’t play teams such as Los Angeles and San Francisco as much now, we won’t lose contact with them for good. In our division, we will have Chicago, and the rivalry between the Cubs and Cardinals has always been a good one…I recognize that from a rivalry standpoint, a division with St. Louis, Los Angeles, and San Francisco could have been the most interesting. The league went the way it did for the best baseball interest. I think it made the wisest move.”

And though he initially resisted moving to the West Division, Cincinnati Reds president Francis L. Dale seemed to buy what Devine was selling. Rather than complain about more West Coast trips, he chose to focus on cultivating rivalries with new division-mates Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Atlanta.

“Our statistics show the three top draws in our park in recent years were St. Louis, Los Angeles, and San Francisco,” Dale told the Cincinnati Enquirer. “We have two of those in our division. Atlanta is also in what we consider our trade area, and we’ve been building up a good rivalry with them.”

As noted, New York Mets executives were less thrilled with the new set-up. “I went to Houston with the understanding that either the Giants or the Dodgers would be in our division,” a disappointed Mets chairman M. Donald Grant told The Sporting News.

As with Devine and Dale, Atlanta owner Bill Bartholomay appeared to take the short-term view. Atlanta Constitution columnist Jesse Outlar wrote July 12 that not only were Atlanta fans used to the idea of playing in the West Division because the NFL’s Falcons already did so, but that more games against league powers Los Angeles and San Francisco meant more money at the gate for Bartholomay, steeper travel expenses be damned. (Outlar also wrote that it was good for the Braves to be in a different division than the Cardinals, who in 1968 were on their way to a second straight NL pennant.)

The person who seemed the angriest was not even connected to a National League team. It was Chicago White Sox owner Arthur Allyn.

Allyn was enraged at both the idea of being in the AL West and having fewer games against the likes of Detroit and New York — teams he considered traditional rivals — as well as with later start times for games his team played on the West Coast. Complicating matters was the fact that television broadcasts at the time required “line charges,” which would obviously be more expensive when beaming games back from, say, Anaheim to Chicago than from Cleveland to Chicago.

Shortly after Eckert announced the decision on the divisional alignments, Allyn called his own press conference in an adjacent room at Houston’s Shamrock Hilton Hotel. He told the Chicago Tribune, “we took a shellacking.”

“We are strongly opposed to…the makeup in our division,” Allyn said. “We plan to appeal to the commissioner and will abide by his decision.”

Few took Allyn’s pleadings seriously. South Bend Tribune columnist Joe Doyle wrote on July 12 that “the folks running Atlanta and Cincinnati television shows probably have more real complaints than the White Sox.”

Allyn’s appeal eventually was heard in October but swiftly denied by Eckert. The following year, Allyn sold his interest in the White Sox to his brother John, who eventually sold the team to Bill Veeck in 1975.

The National League’s geographic set-up didn’t appear to have a detrimental effect on the Atlanta Braves or Cincinnati Reds, at least not in the short term. The Braves won the first NL West championship in 1969 and remained a competitive team until the mid-1970s.

Cincinnati, of course, reeled off five NL West titles, four NL pennants and a pair of World Series championships between 1970 and ’76 before ceding control of the division to the Dodgers in the latter part of the decade. Conversely, neither St. Louis nor Chicago won an NL East title until the Cardinals broke through in 1982. (The Cubs would win the division for the first time two years later.)

But as cable television began to spread throughout the country and TV revenue became as important to teams’ bottom lines as attendance (if not more important), the idea of geographic realignment became a more openly discussed topic. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn proposed the idea of three divisions in each league and a wild-card playoff round as early as 1980.

Like most things in baseball, however, it took a while for the idea to take root. The American League had expanded to 14 teams by adding Toronto and Seattle in 1977, going to a balanced schedule (13 games vs. division teams, 11 vs. non-division) and making the geographic set-up less of an issue in that league.

It was not until 1994 that Major League Baseball finally split into three divisions in each league and realigned on largely geographic grounds, after Florida and Colorado had joined the National League as expansion clubs the previous year. Atlanta was placed in the National League East, and Cincinnati finally was reunited with St. Louis and Chicago in the new Central Division.

The Chicago White Sox went to the American League Central Division, where they could play Detroit and Cleveland more often once again and didn’t have to travel to the West Coast as much. Arthur Allyn never got to see it. He died in 1985, nine years before baseball finally came to its geographic senses.

References & Resources

“It’s Oakland A’s in ’68; KC Seattle Clubs by ’69,” Charles Chamberlain, Associated Press, Elmira Star-Gazette, Oct. 19, 1967 (Retrieved from Newspapers.com, 6-28-2019)

“NL Will Meet Within Five Days to Study Expansion,” Jerry Liska, Associated Press, Glens-Falls Post-Star, Oct. 20, 1967 (Retrieved from Newspapers.com, 6-28-2019)

“National’s Giles Raps American’s Expansion,” Associated Press, Chillicothe Gazette, Nov. 14, 1967 (Retrieved from Newspapers.com, 6-28-2019)

“Expansion Hot Topic on Major Docket,” Dick Kaegel, The Sporting News, Dec. 2, 1967 (Retrieved from PaperofRecord.com, 6-28-2019)

“NL Will Add 2 Teams; Seattle Franchise Ok’d,” Associated Press, Arizona Daily Star, Dec. 2, 1967 (Retrieved from Newspapers.com, 6-28-2019)

“Foot-Dragging N.L. Agrees to Expand,” Stan Isle, The Sporting News, Dec. 16, 1967 (Retrieved from PaperofRecord.com, 6-28-2019)

“Seattle and Kaycee Will Pay $5.3 Million to Stock Clubs,” Dick Kaegel and Stan Isle, The Sporting News, Dec. 16, 1967 (Retrieved from PaperofRecord.com, 6-28-2019)

“National League Adds San Diego, Montreal,” United Press International, Pittsburgh Press, May 28, 1968 (Retrieved from Newspapers.com, 6-28-2019)

“NL Takes ‘Tradition’ Over Divisions,” Associated Press, Iowa City Press-Citizen, May 29, 1968 (Retrieved from Newspapers.com, 6-28-2019)

“Cards’ Toomey Suggests Three Majors in ’70,” Bob Broeg, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, reprinted in The Sporting News, June 1, 1968 (Retrieved from PaperofRecord.com, 6-28-2019)

“Sweating, Waiting … As N.L. Debated,” Dick Kaegel, The Sporting News, June 8, 1968 (Retrieved from PaperofRecord.com, 6-28-2019)

“Cool It! That’s What Club Brass Will Do in Wake of Big Fuss,” By Dick Kaegel, The Sporting News, June 15, 1968 (Retrieved from PaperofRecord.com, 6-28-2019)

“Rickey Was Right,” Arthur Daley, New York Times, syndicated in Great Falls Tribune, July 8, 1968 (Retrieved from Newspapers.com, 6-28-2019)

“Meeting of Baseball Brass May Bring About Uniformity,” Associated Press, News-Palladium, July 10, 1968 (Retrieved from Newspapers.com, 6-28-2019)

“National to Split League in 1969,” Associated Press, Atlanta Constitution, July 11, 1968 (Retrieved from Newspapers.com, 6-28-2019)

“Westward Ho,” Jesse Outlar, Atlanta Constitution, July 11, 1968 (Retrieved from Newspapers.com, 6-28-2019)

“Cubs Placed in East Along With Cards,” Richard Dozer, Chicago Tribune, July 11, 1968 (Retrieved from Newspapers.com, 6-28-2019)

“2 Hot Rivalries Alive For Reds,” Cincinnati Enquirer, July 11, 1968 (Retrieved from Newspapers.com, 6-28-2019)

“Big Devine Okays Divisions,” Dave Dorr, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 11, 1968 (Retrieved from Newspapers.com, 6-28-2019)

“According to Doyle,” Joe Doyle, South Bend Tribune, July 12, 1968 (Retrieved from Newspapers.com, 6-28-2019)

“N.L. East-West Divisions Called Permanent,” Jack Lang, The Sporting News, July 27, 1968 (Retrieved from PaperofRecord.com, 6-27-2019)

“N.L. ’69 Slate Opens April 7, Closes Oct. 4,” Earl Lawson, The Sporting News, Aug. 24, 1968 (Retrieved from PaperofRecord.com, 6-27-2019)

“’69 A.L. Chart to Lift Attendance, Cronin Predicts,” Edgar Munzel, The Sporting News, Oct. 3, 1968 (Retrieved from PaperofRecord.com, 6-27-2019)

“Eckert Denies Petition to Bar Divisional Play,” The Sporting News, Nov. 2, 1968 (Retrieved from PaperofRecord.com, 6-27-2019)

BaseballReference.com

BaseballAlmanac.com


Creg Stephenson has written about sports, mostly college football, for a variety of publications since 1994.

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Lanidracsabr16chewbaccaDMataWhatLeylandNoooo Recent comment authors
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doctorisin
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doctorisin

If it was so bad in the past, and better now, then why is Atlanta and Miami in the NL East and Pittsburgh in the NLCentral, when Pittsburgh is farther East than both Miami and Atlanta?????

Defenestrater
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Defenestrater

They probably wanted to keep Atlanta and Miami in the same division, especially since Miami would be very isolated from all of its division mates without Atlanta.

Dennis Bedard
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Dennis Bedard

Very nicely researched. I think the real impetus to this realignment was the rising popularity of the NFL and its growing TV revenue. There was a feeling that baseball was becoming old hat and staid and did not mesh with the fast paced culture that was leaving it in the dustbin of history, so to speak. On the issue of long standing rivalries and fast forwarding to 1994, the league broke up one of the greatest rivalries by putting the Pirates in the central division and the Phillies in the east. I remember them battling it out in the mid… Read more »

Paul G.
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Paul G.

You have the Mets in the NL East twice and no Cubs.

mgwalker
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mgwalker

Gosh, that Larkin photo is a grim reminder of how depressing those 3Rivers/Riverfront/Veterans/Busch stadiums were….

Subway Alum
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Subway Alum

Excellent article . . . I was a casual fan when all of this took place, but didn’t pay a lot of attention to it. Recently, as I’ve had more time to research baseball history in retirement, I’ve come to wonder exactly what happened. Thanks for putting all the pieces together.

Paul G.
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Paul G.

The concept of 3 leagues with 8 teams each is certainly intriguing. That would have kept the traditional 8 team league while still opening up another playoff spot. However, that playoff arrangement with the prior champion’s league getting a bye would never have worked as it is grossly unfair, both because it makes little sense to seed teams based on what a different team did the year before, and because getting a week off is usually a disadvantage in baseball. A better solution, though hardly ideal solution, would have required a three-way playoff with all three teams playing each other… Read more »

Barney Coolio
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Barney Coolio

Minor point, the article says Montreal and San Diego were awarded franchies in late May and early June of 1968. It doesn’t really matter. I kind of like how in the old days, each team played each other very frequently. Warren Spahn faced Stan Musial 353 times. If you visit every other city three times in a season, you could reasonably have a girlfriend in every other city in the league. Would that make a good movie? I would set it in 1969. The player plays for Pittsburgh, and he has a girl in Montreal, New York, LA, San Francisco,… Read more »

Barney Coolio
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Barney Coolio

Ok, so you’ll have…. 1. The Montreal girl is bohemian, and barely speaks English but does impart a bombshell of sage advice. 2. The sophisticated New York girl who is trying to marry him. 3. The hardscrabble working class girl with a heart of gold in Chicago 4. The hippie, Vietnam War protesting girl in San Francisco 5. The aspiring actress in LA 6. The southern Belle in Atlanta. They all impart advice to get this guy’s head screwed back right. And they are all hot. Super hot. I cannot stress that enough. Smokin’ And either Chicago or New York… Read more »

DMata
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Member
DMata

Are you Kevin from The Office?

WhatLeylandNoooo
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WhatLeylandNoooo

It still bums me out the Tigers agreed to move to the Central to accommodate the friggin’ Devil Rays. (Plus Toronto-Detroit is one of the underrated rivalries across all applicable sports leagues.)

How did Ilitch let that happen? We are a charter member of the AL.

NONSENSE

chewbacca
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chewbacca

Great article. Thanks!

sabr16
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sabr16

Excellent article. Thank you.

Lanidrac
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Lanidrac

Wait a minute! If the Mets actually wanted to be in the NL West, why didn’t they just take the place of either the Reds or Braves?! While the latter two teams may have found the move acceptable, surely at least one of them would’ve preferred to concede the spot to an actual volunteered preference. By the way, I had heard a large part of the issue involved the Cubs being as strongly opposed to being in the West Division as the other Chicago team was (while as you noted the Cardinals wanted to stay with the Cubs). Why didn’t… Read more »