baseball's new frontier

Reviewed by Huston Ladner

1 august 2013       archive

Fran Zimniuch is no stranger to writing about baseball, having recently published Going Going Gone: The Art of the Trade in Major League Baseball (2008), and Fireman: The Evolution of the Closer in Baseball (2010). In his latest work, Zimnuich looks at Major League Baseball's expansion, as it grew from a sport centered in the northeast and followed the settled frontier westward.

The book begins, and uses as its focus, the twin moves of the Dodgers and Giants as they left New York and began play on the west coast in 1958. This shift, as Zimniuch details, was as shocking to the established practices of MLB as it was a needed change. Though the fans of both franchises expressed their outrage, it was little consolation to the machinations of business and the realization of opportunities. Dodger's owner, Walter O'Malley, made a sweetheart deal with the city of Los Angeles, establishing their new ballpark, Chavez Ravine, but needed a second team to join his near the Pacific Ocean. He found a willing partner in Horace Stoneham, the Giants owner, who had faced his own problems with the city of New York and the team's crumbling stadium.

The moves of both teams, the Dodgers to Los Angeles and the Giants to San Francisco, were the confluence of a number of factors. Zimniuch notes that MLB encouraged the moves as a way to stave off the Pacific Coast League's potential to challenge the antitrust exemption that Congress had afforded MLB. By expanding MLB's territory they were not as susceptible to a rival league merging with them, as had been seen in pro football. Of course, the focus here was on the fact that the west coast provided a new market with a population boon. Another contributing factor was the advent of the jet airliner, which altered the concept of both time and space for travel. When the Dodgers won the 1959 World Series it proved to be the right move.

Westward expansion may be one of the major themes of the work, but Zimniuch provides a survey of all the moves that followed. Houston forming brings with it the mention of the fact that the team was originally the .45s, a name that lasted all of three years until they moved into the Astrodome in 1965. Zimniuch also offers the story of the failed Seattle Pilots who lasted one season before moving to Milwaukee and becoming the Brewers.

The Brewers highlight the fact that many of baseball's moves came in regards to finding suitable markets with necessary infrastructure. The Pilots played in a dilapidated stadium that accommodated only 19,500 fans on opening day in 1969. Hence, their move foreshadowed ones by many other teams, everyone from the Athletics, from Philadelphia to Kansas City to Oakland, or the Senators, who left Washington D.C. for Texas, or the Expos, who failed the Canadian expansion mantra and later filled the void left in Washington D.C.

The contemporary concept of expansion is exemplified in Zimniuch's look at the inclusion of the Florida Marlins, the Tampa Bay Rays, and the Arizona Diamondbacks. While others came before them, like the Toronto Blue Jays and the Seattle Mariners, these teams reflect a charge into the Sun Belt region of the country, once again following the path of population shifts.

One of the things that Zimniuch brings to his work is a fan's enthusiasm. The book is not bound to focus on just the shifting themes of modernity and how it influenced the moves and births of baseball teams. Instead, the author brings in anecdotes from those involved in the sport and looks at the struggles that many teams have faced to succeed. The Colorado Rockies are a good example of this notion as the altitude in which they play challenges them in ways that other teams never have to consider.

In addition, Zimniuch also looks at how the teams have fared since becoming a part of MLB. He makes mention of their success, or lack thereof, and of notable players. Each team discussed in the work receives this treatment, encouraging readers to connect with the teams beyond just the concept of the organization.

The work supplies an overview of MLB's moves into new markets without going into rigorous detail. It's likely that each team mentioned, its move or its emergence, is worthy of a book in its own right, which allows Zimniuch to give a survey like this one. The book concludes by looking into the futures and imagining MLB's potential to expand into the Asian and Mexican markets – thus realizing the concept of a true World Series.

Zimniuch, Fran. Baseball's New Frontier: A History of Expansion, 1961-1998. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013, 201pp. $19.95.

Copyright © 2013 by Huston Ladner

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