In June of 1989, the monthly baseball history magazine “Great Moments In Baseball” wrote the following as the introduction to an article, “The Front Office: Baseball and the Bottom Line:”
Once upon a time, so they tell me, baseball was a game played on the field. Nothing else counted. You could depend on it. Winning or losing depended strictly on the players themselves… and the managers. In the really old days the managers and the owners were the very same people. And the players, bound by the most regimented contracts since the middle ages, stayed put, year after year after year. The fans could watch and discuss their local heroes from the time they broke into organized baseball, follow them up through the minors and then watch them succeed or fail as they hit the big time.
And then came 1956.
It began slowly. The Dodgers said goodbye to Brooklyn and the Giants gave their farewell to Manhattan and both took off for the greener pastures of California. Green says it all. Green as in money. More space; bigger stadiums holding more paying customers. Damn the fans. Damn the loyalties. Baseball is a business and the only thing that counts is the bottom line.”
The refrain here is a common one, particularly from traditionalist fans. The idea of a lost purity in baseball manifests itself yearly in the form of Hall of Fame votes, and it’s a mythology MLB seems to have every interest in maintaining. No wonder the World Series audience skews so old (median viewer age: 53.4)
But such a view, naturally, ignores the actual history of the league and of the country as a whole. Specifically it ignores a simple logistical impossibility: travel from New York to San Francisco and back would have been untenable by rail within a major league schedule.
In post-World War II America, air travel was just beginning to catch on. Baseball Magazine — a typically progressive magazine, such as when F.C. Lane essentially invented wOBA in 1915 in its pages — was right on the case. In July 1946, a writer named Daniel M. Daniel (no, seriously, that was his name) published a story titled “Yankees, Red Sox Take To Air: Baseball Visions Vast Implications.”
The piece tells the story of the New York Yankees’ first airplane trips, all offseason barnstorming tours, which included flights from Miami to Panama, Dallas to Atlanta, Tampa to New Orleans, and others. It tells the amusing story of a tumultuous flight from St. Louis to Chicago.
The Yankees ran into soup. Your correspondent looked out the window of the plane and could not see its wing. Not so good.
A very encouraging fellow traveller says, “There are nasty high tension wires around this Chicago airport, which is one of the worst in the United States, and what with an instrument landing, I don’t think we should sing.”
“This is not so good, boy,” [Yankees manager] Joe McCarthy admitted.The plane came down, it rose again. It came down a second time, only to pull up the landing gear and circle once more. We must have gone around that field six times. Once another plane sidled out of the soup and shocked us. But that ship was on another level.
Let it be said that this landing scared the Yankees. Phil Rizzuto announced that it was worse than jumping to Mexico, and that he would not fly again. Others talked of hodling another meeting to reconsider the culb’s policy of flying on all moves.
However, the incident soon was forgotten, and when the Yankees flew from Chicago to Cleveland, there were no defections from the air ranks.
Unsurprisingly, in the early days of air travel, there was substantial fear of crashes. “One little fumble up there and our race is finished, our season ruined,” said one official.” But convenience tends to win out, and air travel was no different. As Daniel put it, “Be all that as it may, progress is the watchword, and anything that will carry you in four hours where another conveyance takes 24 is progress plus.”
Convenience within the borders of major league baseball, then largely restricted to the Northeast and parts of the Midwest, was a big enough advance. But consider: a trip from New York to San Francisco generally takes some three days by rail. A flight from New York to San Francisco takes 10 hours. All of a sudden, expansion was open to owners. And make no mistake, it was not a spontaneous decision over the winter of 1956:
“For many years,” Daniel wrote, “there has been talk of changing the major league map. There has been random conversation about taking Los Angeles and San Francisco into the National and American Leagues. To forestall this, the Pacific Coast League last Winter made a start in an effort to gain recognition as a third major and save its two largest cities from the threat developed by astounding air travel progress.”
He continues: “This setup places before the major leagues for as early as 1947 the ability to travel from New York to Los Angeles in half the time that it now takes to go from Gotham to St. Louis by either the New York Central or the Pennsylvania [railroads].”
Consider the timeline of expansion and relocation and the new cities’ distances from New York City:
- 1953: Boston Braves move to Milwaukee (880 miles, 13 hours by ground). The St. Louis Browns also moved to Baltimore, obviously closer, but this move left St. Louis as a one-team city.
- 1954: Philadelphia Athletics move to Kansas City (1,189 miles, 18 hours by ground).
- 1958: Brooklyn Dodgers move to Los Angeles (2,790 miles, 40 hours by ground). New York Giants move to San Francisco (2,905 miles, 42 hours by ground).
- 1961: American League adds expansion team in Los Angeles. Washington Senators move to Minneapolis (1,197 miles, 18 hours by ground).
- 1962: National League adds expansion team in New York (to replace Dodgers/Giants) and Houston (1,627 miles, 23 hours by ground).
- 1966: Milwaukee Braves move to Atlanta (864 miles, 13 hours by ground)
- 1967: Kansas City Athletics move to Oakland (2,899 miles, 42 hours)
- 1969: National League adds expansion teams in Montreal (371 miles, 5 hours by ground, but air travel made international travel significantly easier) and San Diego (2,795 miles, 41 hours by ground). American League adds expansion teams to Kansas City and Seattle (2,852 miles, 41 hours by ground).
- 1970: Seattle Pilots move to Milwaukee
- 1972: Washington Senators move to Arlington, Texas (1,567 miles, 23 hours by ground)
- 1977: American League adds expansion teams in Toronto (international) and Seattle.
- 1993: National League adds expansion team in Denver (1,779 miles, 26 hours) and Miami (1,277 miles, 18 hours by ground).
- 1998: National League adds expansion team in Phoenix (2,406 miles, 36 hours by ground). American League adds expansion team in Tampa Bay (1,150 miles, 17 hours by ground).
With very few exceptions, Major League Baseball spread westward as soon as it was capable. Between 1903, when the original Orioles moved to New York and became the Yankees, and the Braves and Browns moves in 1953, there was no change to the major league map. None. And why would there be? Transportation capabilities on the large scale necessary to carry a full major league squad had not changed in any radical way until air travel became a possibility following World War II.
Baseball has always been in the business of making money. Owners and teams were not comfortable to remain in any one city out of the goodness of their hearts. They were never beholden to the fans. The logistics simply weren’t there. And once the logistics were in place, following the post-war airplane boom, it was the bottom line and nothing else that demanded expansion.
As with the rest of his report, Daniel’s conclusion was prophetic:
“The canals wailed when the railroads came. The railroads will rail at the planes. Soon the slower air lines will rail at those using jet propulsion. The world moves on. Our ball clubs move with it.”