Sunday, March 8, 2009

Oakland A's owner decision to relocate could change Major League Baseball

Oakland A's owner decision to relocate could change Major League Baseball

By Evan Weiner

March 8, 2009

1:45 PM EDT

(New York, N. Y.) – Lewis Wolff is taking some time off in his effort to find a community that wants his baseball team, the Oakland A’s. Wolff is not moving down the I-880 to Fremont but doesn’t want to stay at the Oakland Coliseum anymore either. Wolff doesn’t seem like the type of owner that could shake Major League Baseball to its core but if Wolff wants to move his A’s to San Jose, he just might have to do so. Wolff doesn’t have permission to go to San Jose, Major League Baseball gave that territory to the San Francisco Giants but if Wolff starts any negotiations with San Jose elected officials he will run afoul of Major League territorial rules and either would have to negotiate a compensation deal with Giants ownership or sue Major League Baseball to get into San Jose.
If that happens, Wolff will just be following the footsteps of previous A’s owners, Connie Mack in Philadelphia and Charley Finley in both Kansas City and Oakland in changing baseball’s structure.
In 1960, the Kansas City A's were purchased by Charles O. Finley, a Chicago insurance broker. Finley bought the team from Arnold Johnson who originally got the team from Connie Mack on November 5, 1954 and moved the A's from Philadelphia to Kansas City in time for the 1955 season. Mack always managed to put together talented teams but never had enough money to pay his players, twice breaking up championship teams. Mack’s first championship teams of 1910, 1911 and 1913 were broken up following the 1914 season due to rising salaries from the rival Federal League. Mack sold off his players because he needed money and turned down an offer to buy Babe Ruth’s playing contract in 1914 from the financially struggling from the minor league Baltimore Orioles.

The Federal League left two imposing imprints on Major League Baseball. The ballpark known today as Wrigley Field was originally built for the Federal League’s Chicago Whales and Major League Baseball enjoys an Anti-Trust Exemption because of the collapse of the Federal League. The Federal League’s Baltimore Terrapins' owners did not like buyout offer that was made to them by the American and National Leagues owners. The Terrapins owners filed a lawsuit claiming the buyout violated the Sherman Antitrust Act. In 1922, The United States Supreme Court ruled that the scheduling and playing of "base ball games" did not constitute "interstate commerce” which meant the Sherman Act and other federal laws and regulations did not apply to baseball.

Major League Baseball is a legal monopoly and although some elements of the 1922 ruling have been weakened through collective bargaining, it remains a powerful weapon in both Major League Baseball’s arsenal and for those who want something from Major League Baseball.

The second Mack dynasty, which included World Championships in 1929 and 1930 and an American League pennant in 1931 fell victim to the depression. Mack sold off players because he needed the money. By the 1950s, the lack of funding, a poor minor league system, Mack's age and the competition of the National League Champion Phillies in 1950 contributed to empty seats at Shibe Park. Mack's sons Roy and Earl bought controlling shares of the club from Mack's partners the Shibe family and their half brother, Connie Mack Jr. The Mack's soon had a large debt and were forced to sell off their concessions rights at the ballpark. By fall of 1954, Mack’s heirs had enough and got rid of the team. That move would eventually have major consequences for the business of Major League Baseball. Finley changed the way baseball marketed its product in numerous ways.Baseball uniforms became colorful; he threw gadgets into the park like a mechanical rabbit that popped out of the ground behind home plate when the umpire needed new baseballs. He had a home run porch in the outfield in Kansas City and proposed that players should all be free agents after every season. Most of Finley's ideas were considered at best goofy and at worst as anti-Baseball. He dumped the Athletics’ Elephant logo and replaced it with a mule that traveled with the team. "We had some episodes," said Howard (Doc) Edwards who was a Kansas City A's catcher in the 1960s. "Once we came into New York City and we were staying at the Americana, and the Americana at that time was the elite place in the city of New York. They rolled out the red carpet but forgot there was a marble floor underneath it and the mule looked like Bambi on ice coming through the locker room. We had a lot of laughs because of the mule, but I really respected the animal because it was beautiful. "It was a logo for Charley. It was like the team mascot. I think Charley, as it was proven later, was a promotional genius because of the different colored the time a lot of people laughed at Charley Finley, but years proved he had a great mind and I think one of the things with the mule was the mascot and we'd get publicity for the ballclub." Finley had a zoo in the outfield and had sheep grazing, rabbits running around and, of course the mule. "It was behind the fences. I think you got accustomed to it," said Edwards talking about the most unusual outfield setting in baseball. "I think you associated Charley with doing a lot of things for the game and he did a lot of great things for the game. I think, before the game there was a lot of hoopla and publicity but once the game started the only time you would think of it was if someone hit a home run. "That bell or horn from the Queen Mary went off and the sheep started running across the hill, then you had to notice them but otherwise once the game started you really didn't pay any attention to it. "The home run porch was something to copy Yankee Stadium because we had Jim Gentile at that time who was basically a left hand pull hitter and Charley felt that the home run porch would help him. But it really didn't because the home run porch took up such a small portion of the right field corner and the opposing teams had far more left handed hitters than we did and we actually lost the home run battle during the course of the year because of it." Finley eventually would develop a Mack like dynasty after he moved his team to Oakland. the A's won three straight titles in 1972, 1973 and 1974. Finley’s teams got good but that happened after the Kansas City days. Finley wanted out of Kansas City and threatened to move his team to a cow pasture in Louisville, Kentucky in 1964. Finley would finally leave Kansas City after the 1967 season, three years after the owners of the Milwaukee Braves decided Atlanta would give them a better business opportunity. While Finley dithered, Milwaukee became a baseball problem.
In 1964, the Milwaukee Braves ownership moved the franchise to Atlanta. That didn't sit well with the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors who took legal action trying to stop the move. Braves ownership was forced to keep the team in Milwaukee for the 1965 season. In 1966, Milwaukee was without a team. By 1967, the case worked its way up to the Supreme Court and the high court refused to review a Wisconsin Supreme Court decision for a second time that Wisconsin court reversed Milwaukee Circuit Judge Elmer Roller's verdict that the Braves violated Wisconsin anti-trust laws by moving to Atlanta. A car dealer named Allan "Bud" Selig and his group, the Milwaukee Brewers Baseball, Inc. wanted baseball however and in 1967, they convinced the Chicago White Sox to play an exhibition game against Minnesota in Milwaukee on July 24. The game drew 51,144 people. In 1968, the White Sox scheduled nine regular season games in Milwaukee, and Selig's group sold about 7,000 season tickets for the nine games. With no threat of a rival league but faced with a possible loss of their Antitrust Exemptions because of Finley's move and the ranting of influential Missouri Senator Stuart Symington, Major League Baseball announced plans to expand in 1968. The American and National League's acted separately with the American League moving back into Kansas City after the A's left for Kansas City and Seattle. The National League would end up with Montreal and San Diego. Once again, a sports league reacted to political intervention. Finley's move prompted a series of actions. The American League met on October 18, 1967 to consider Finley's request to transfer to Oakland and entertain expansion. The league on a second vote that day gave Finley permission to go immediately and that a Kansas City expansion team would start play no later than 1971. While Kansas City Mayor Ilus Davis and Missouri Senator Stuart Symington weren't opposed to Finley leaving immediately, they were against Kansas City being without a Major League team for three years. Symington threw some nasty heat at the American League by threatening legislation to revoke Baseball's Antitrust Laws exemption. By midnight, American League President Joe Cronin opened the meetings again and the American League announced it pushed its timetable up for expansion by two years. Kansas City would get a team in time for the 1969 season. In January, 1968, the American League owners had selected owners in Kansas City and Seattle. Both cities would build new stadiums for the teams, with Kansas City building two stadiums for baseball and the NFL Chiefs as part of a $43 million complex approved by voters. In Seattle, the new team would also get a taxpayers assisted ballpark. The expansion baseball team would play in Sicks Stadium until that park was completed. The new Seattle team never did play in that new stadium and the 1968 American League expansion would become one of baseball’s worst business nightmares.

National League owners were furious that the American League took the Seattle market and expanded by 1969. The National League approved expansion plans by December 1, 1967 with Dallas-Fort Worth, Buffalo, Milwaukee, San Diego, Toronto, Montreal and Denver seeking teams. National League owners committed to expansion but refused to give a timetable for the new teams. Baseball would undergo its biggest change since the turn of the 19th century in 1968. With Kansas City and Seattle entering the American League, the National League decided to expand although the league was taken aback by losing Seattle. By May 27, the National League added San Diego and a major surprise, Montreal. San Diego had a new 50,000 seat stadium ready for immediate use while Montreal had no stadium and planned to use the 25,000 seat Autostade as a temporary facility. Milwaukee might have beaten out Montreal for the second slot, but National League owners were miffed at Milwaukee and Wisconsin for bringing litigation against the league after the Braves move to Atlanta.Montreal drew more than a 1.2 million people its first year in the big leagues, Kansas City pulled in 900,000 customers but Seattle and San Diego did poorly at the gate. The Pilots were a financial dud and rumors began in midseason that the team majority owner William Daley of Cleveland was looking to sell. By September, Daley was negotiating with Selig's Milwaukee group and with Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt who would purchase the team and move it to Dallas-Fort Worth. The American League wanted to keep the Pilots in the Pacific Northwest and came up with three conditions. Sicks Stadium would have to be expanded by 8,000 seats, plans had to be completed for a taxpayers supported $40 million stadium and there was local money available to buy out Daley. Eventually the Pilots ownership went into bankruptcy court and the team was sold to Selig's group for $10.8 million. While that satisfied Milwaukee and Wisconsin, Major League Baseball was once again having its Antitrust Exemption threatened. This time by Senator Warren Magnuson of Washington and by Seattle elected officials. Seattle would build its domed stadium and get a team back. Baseball would once again be forced to expand from outside forces and add Toronto and Seattle in 1977. Finley's move to Oakland resulted in six expansion teams, Bud Selig getting a franchise in Milwaukee and radical changes in the structure of baseball including free agency although he was not the owner that killed the reserve clause which tied players to their teams in perpetuity unless they were traded or released. Charley Finley reneged on the terms of the pitcher Jim (Catfish) Hunter's 1975 contract. Hunter filed for arbitration and won. He became a free agent and was able to talk to the other 23 teams. Hunter signed with George M. Steinbrenner's New York Yankees on December 31, 1974, the first free agent ever signed by Steinbrenner. Hunter was Major League Baseball's first free agent. The next year baseball owner's lost the reserve clause when an arbitrator gave Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally free agency. Finley left a large legacy in Major League Baseball history although he will never get that sort of credit or Hall of Fame recognition. He was an outsider in the baseball industry although he ultimately is responsible for expansion, night World Series games, colorful uniforms, and Bud Selig’s entry into baseball as a full time owner. Selig eventually would become Major League Baseball Commissioner.

Lewis Wolff wants a new stadium although he doesn't seem to want to change Major League Baseball. That is unless he wants to relocate in San Jose. If that's the case, he might have to sue Major League Baseball because MLB has awarded the San Jose territory to the San Franchise Giants ownership and because Major League Baseball has that Antitrust Exemption, Wolff can not move his business there. Perhaps Wolff could impact Major League Baseball after all, like Mack and Finley, because if he decides San Jose is right for him, a whole lot would have to change.

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