For more than half a century, big league baseball has been the exclusive property of a select few cities scattered across the face of the United States. Its structure—eight teams called the National League and eight teams called the American League—has stood firm in the face of criticism and open warfare, unchanged, unwavering, unconcerned. Occasionally a franchise has been moved, but this has happened only with the express consent of the club owners. Those men with more courage than wisdom, more daring than dollars, who have dared to buck the system have always been humbled and routed in shattering defeat. In 1914 the Federal League was formed, in 1946 the Mexican League. Both were outlaw organizations and neither survived.
Today a brawny, fast-talking Irishman from New York named Bill Shea is ready to try again. Some time within the next month he will sit down with seven representatives of Organized Baseball and talk about a third major league, this one hopefully to be formed as part of the present structure. And although the nation has been inundated for months with talk and headlines roaring "Third League," this will be the first time that the 16 club owners and their representatives—the presidents of the two leagues and Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick—will really know what Shea and his followers want. For the first time they will learn of his offers and demands—and even now, it will be not because they want to, but because they feel they must. How they react will, in one way or another, change baseball.
If they say yes to a majority of Shea's proposals, then big league baseball will spread across the land, and people in cities like Houston and Toronto and Minneapolis, in Denver and Dallas and Atlanta—people who have never seen Don Drysdale and Herb Score throw a fast ball or Henry Aaron and Mickey Mantle swing a bat—will find themselves going to big league ball games. For a few years they may not see many Drysdales or Scores or Aarons or Mantles, but eventually they will have their own great stars, too.
July 19, 1959
If Organized Baseball says no, and Bill Shea is not at all sure it won't, the impact may be even greater.
"We have had to battle for everything we have got so far," he says. "They don't want us, they're out to block us in any way. Now we're going to have a meeting, and if it turns out that they still don't want us we'll have to go get legislation to help."
An ex-Dodger fan, Shea was originally charged with a much less spectacular task, that of heading a committee which would bring another big league team back to New York. Now the possibility exists that he may succeed where the Federal League failed. If he does it will be due to three factors: the growth of the nation in the last 45 years; recognition of a few simple words like altruism and cooperation; and the firm backing of such congressional leaders as Senator Estes Kefauver, chairman of the Senate antitrust committee, and Congressman Emanuel Celler, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who is, like Shea, a Brooklyn Democrat.
In 1914 there was really no demand for expanded major league baseball. Today, with cities like Houston, Denver, Minneapolis, Atlanta and Dallas booming into sprawling giants, there is a hunger for major league ball. These cities and the vast trade areas which surround them have become major league in size.
And where the old Federal League was frankly out to make money, in open competition with the National and American Leagues, the new third league is backed by a horde of extremely wealthy individuals who, according to Shea, have no desire at all to get any richer from the proceeds of baseball. They see expansion as a civic duty, an outlet for their love of the game. Most important of all, they do not intend to wage open war with Organized Baseball, but instead become a part of it. They want some help in the beginning, it is true; at the same time they feel that their contribution to the game, in expanding it and bringing it to additional millions of people, will far outweigh the sacrifices which they are asking the present 16 owners to make.
In Organized Baseball, Bill Shea will find some enemies and some friends. A few men still exist in the game today who shudder at the thought of expansion in any form. What is the sense, they figure, of lousing up a good thing? He will also find some who speak out in favor of expansion while kicking viciously under the table at the shins of those who suggest that something be done about it. And, finally, he will find those who really want expansion and desire to help—but not right now. In this group are men like Phil Wrigley of the Cubs, Lou Perini of the Braves, Tom Yawkey of the Red Sox, John Galbreath of the Pirates and the commissioner himself. Frick's plan, and he has been talking about it since 1953, is to increase the number of teams in the current leagues until there are two six-team divisions in each, then expand to three leagues.
"I firmly believe," he said recently, "that we will have a third league within five years."
"Horsefeathers," said Shea. "We'll have a third league by 1961."
Shea is a wealthy lawyer, with a legal residence in Brooklyn, where he spends a night or two each week, and a 10-room home in Sands Point, a lovely suburban residential area on Long Island's north shore, just 40 minutes from midtown Manhattan. Here Shea spends most of his time, when he isn't working or on the golf course, with his wife Nora, children Billy (19), Kathy (14) and Pat (8), a 13-year-old German shepherd named Flash and a four-year-old Airedale named Gordon.
Senior partner in the firm of Manning, Hollinger and Shea, he is an expert in the field of corporate and estate law, an associate of Louis Wolfson, a former director of American Motors and an interested observer of a large number of other corporate ventures. Almost as a matter of accident, Shea is also something of an expert in the field of financing ball clubs. His first job after graduation from Georgetown Law School in 1931 was on the staff of George V. McLaughlin, who as president of the Brooklyn Trust Company kept the old Dodgers in business for years.
Shea, who is 6 feet tall, weighs 195 pounds and still looks like an athlete despite his 52 years, was a sandlot catcher as a kid in New York and played football and basketball at NYU and Georgetown. Later he was a member of the Crescent Club lacrosse team, which was ranked among the best in the country. He had an interest in the old Long Island Indians, a semipro football team which played in a fast league just before World War II. He is still a spectator at every football, baseball and basketball game he can take in, and is a persistent middle-80s golfer. Among Shea's friends are some of the big names of professional sport: the Maras, George Preston Marshall, Curly Lambeau, Ned Irish, Branch Rickey, Walter O'Malley.
A TOMATO FOR WALTER
"Walter and I are still friends," he says, "although on some things we don't exactly see eye to eye. I had a great letter a few weeks ago. Some fan wrote me that, if the third league was formed and O'Malley ever came to town with the Dodgers for an exhibition or interleague game, that he would like to have the tomato concession. I sent it on to Walter. I don't know whether he thought it was funny or not."
Despite his love for sports, the last thing that ever occurred to Bill Shea was that he might be picked as the man to revise so drastically the structure of Organized Baseball. Before Mayor Wagner tapped him for the job he was busy enough, the administrative head of a firm of 19 lawyers. Today he moves at such a pace that his coattails seldom touch his back.
"If I had known then," he says, "what this would turn into, I never would have put my nose near it."
Most of Shea's operations are carried on in a comfortable, roomy office on the 20th floor of a building at 41 West 42nd Street, just off Madison Avenue. The carpeting is beige, the walls are beige, the furnishings a dark brown, none of which matches Bill Shea, who has black hair and blue eyes and a red face. His desk is covered with papers and magazines and legal documents and letters. There are individual pictures of his family on one wall and a group picture of them on a window ledge behind his chair. There is also a clock-radio, a dictating machine and a telephone which never seems to stop ringing. When talking on the phone, Shea spends a great deal of time gazing out the window, where the 77-story Chrysler building rises on Lexington Avenue two blocks east.
"New York fans," Shea says, "have always been the principal supporters of baseball. No team here ever lost money. When the Dodgers and Giants left, it was simply a question of making more money. The most flagrant violation of loyalty to one's fans I've ever seen.
"Anyway, on at least five different occasions, I thought we had a team all lined up, one of the other National League franchises ready to move in. Each time the deal fell through. So, when it became apparent that this wasn't going to work, we began to talk expansion. And you know what happened. Warren Giles told us there was 'no sentiment' for expansion in the National League at that time."
After that Shea gave up on both enticement and expansion and set out quietly to organize backers for a third league. There were a lot of cities in America, he soon discovered, clamoring for big league ball.
"Our problem, from the first, was one of cutting the number of applicants down, not finding them. I must have talked to hundreds of individuals and dozens of groups, most of them people I had never heard of before. I got letters and calls from mayors and governors and multimillionaires. We investigated. We surveyed. We probed and questioned. Sometimes the telephone at my house would ring all night long. It still keeps ringing. My wife says that when this is over she never wants to hear the word baseball again. I think the third league has already lost one fan."
Shea believes that each sponsoring group should have ready between $3 and $5 million to start a team. Since the new or remodeled stadiums in each city will be municipal structures ("No private group can afford to build a big stadium any more," he points out), that is the amount which Shea is certain will do the job. He feels that the New York group announced last month (SI, June 29) is typical. None of them seems to be in need of income from baseball in order to survive. One of the prospective owners, Pete Davis, whose father donated the Davis Cup, when asked what he did for a living, just smiled. "He clips coupons," explained another member of the group. The New York syndicate says it is ready to produce $4.5 million to help get things under way.
"The root of all evil in baseball has been money making," Shea says. "A lot of people have tried to make their living from the game. So it had to be a business. With our owners it is a matter of civic pride. They are trying to bring big league baseball to people everywhere, all over the country. If there is one thing we are not worried about, it is money.
"We are almost completely organized now. Originally, I thought each city would want to make its own announcement. Now there is a feeling that it should be a joint announcement, made here in New York. We want time for one more meeting, since we still have to make our final selections. We aren't yet sure whether we want eight teams or 10 or even 12. It depends upon how we are received by the present baseball owners."
Shea does not think that the new league members will cause any surprise, since every city under consideration—and a few not considered at all—have appeared in print dozens of times already. The founding teams are generally well known: New York, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Houston and Toronto. Other strong possibilities are Denver, Fort Worth-Dallas, Miami, Buffalo, Atlanta and Montreal. New Orleans has made a strong application. And Shea finds it hard to overlook the West Coast.
"San Diego is a natural," he says. "So is the Seattle-Portland area. That could be another Milwaukee."
The major weakness in Shea's entire plan has centered around his inability or reluctance to discuss the one big problem nagging at the creation of a third league. Where does one find enough major league players to fill up even eight new teams? Some, of course, he expects the present big leagues to furnish—which is one reason why they are so jumpy right now. But unless he is willing to cut his own throat with exorbitant demands Shea must find some other player supply.
Basically, it all boils down to the question of who is a major leaguer. Is he a man with certain qualifying capabilities, which may be ticked off yes or no? Or is a major league ballplayer simply a ballplayer who plays on a major league team?
"Not every ballplayer on the Giants is a Willie Mays," says Branch Rickey, a stout proponent of the third league and the man who Shea has turned to for help in settling the player problem. "But that does not mean that Willie Mays is the only big league ballplayer on the Giants."
"For a long time now we have had a plan to supply players for the third league," says Shea. "I have discussed this with Mr. Rickey and we will present it to the club owners when we sit down and talk.
"Actually, the supply of young players can be unlimited. They aren't coming up now because they haven't been given the opportunities. The risk of a big league career with only 16 teams has been too great. The big leagues keep too many old players around now simply to profit from their names and reputations. The young players have to wait too long for their chance. With 24 big league teams—or maybe more—they'll get their chance.
"After a year or two, people will realize what can be done. This is the sort of thing which America does best. No one ever heard of an atomic scientist 15 years ago. Now they're coming out of the woodwork. You can't tell me that a nation of 160 million can't produce 200 more big league ballplayers."