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Lunch » Tags » Books » Reviews » Bottom of the Ninth: Branch Rickey, Casey Stengel, and the Daring Scheme to Save Baseball from Itself » User review

How baseball's Continental League influenced the NFL and the Super Bowl. . . and never played a single baseball game!

  • Jan 25, 2009
Shapiro hinges his tale of Major League baseball's gradual but seemingly unstoppable descent to second-rate fan-dom around the most momentous home run in baseball history.

I was 18 months old and a future Pittsburgh Pirate fan when Bill Mazeroski sent his home run out of Forbes Field and stunned the perennially-powerful New York Yankees in 1960. Baseball in my lifetime has been a tale of bitter strikes, backroom scheming, and drug-driven scandals, which have left the game shrinking in popularity far behind the juggernaut NFL which seems, despite its own strikes, schemes, and scandals, to hold a license to print money on the teflon-plated strength of its fan base and unparalleled television success.

Shapiro promises a "daring scheme" in the subtitle, and delivers: the tale of the Continental League, a planned "third" major league in eight cities was indeed an audacious attempt to bring Major League baseball to new population centers as America moved south and west. The Continental, ironically enough, was driven by the departure of two established New York teams to the West Coast in the mid- 50s, leaving the huge New York market alone in the hands of the Yankees. The Continental hoped to fill this New York void (and the city's new stadium in Flushing Meadows), and promised new business plans far-reaching in their audacity and scope: revenue sharing of all television contracts, player drafts based on prior year team performance, pooled minor league talent so a single team (i.e. the Yankees) could not hoard talent, and revenue enhanced by games broadcast on pay-per-view television!

While Shapiro does provide some coverage of the game on the field, particularly the saga of the Yankees and their aging but baseball-powerful manager Stengel, his focus is on the back-room machinations between the Yankees, the American and National Leagues, the Commissioner's office, New York City government, potential backers in new Continental league cities, and Congress. Moves and countermoves come fast and furious during the two years documented here, most of them focusing on attempts to raise money, win Major League approval for the new league, and uphold or end the anti-trust exemption Major League baseball has enjoyed since 1922.

Particularly interesting is the overlap in financial backers and cities between the Continental League and the American Football League, which Shapiro sketches in parallel. While the NFL is usually credited with forward-thinking money moves like revenue sharing and national television deals, most of those ideas originated not with the NFL, or even the more progressive AFL, but with baseball's Continental League . . .

. . . which never fielded a team or played a game! Yet Shapiro's tale shows how its influence extended all the way to the Super Bowl and its delivery of a megalithic world-wide audience to commercial sponsors.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, so why not give it five stars:

--too many characters and thumbnail biographies threaten to derail the main story. Every time Shapiro introduces a new character, he provides a paragraph (or more) thumbnail, and sometimes two or three of these thumbnails strung together left me flipping back pages to pick up the main thread to remember why he was introducing these characters in the first place.

--Shapiro never really integrates the financial and expansion part of his history with the on-the-field coverage, which seems superfluous at times. I think he might have been better served to drop the on-field framework of the book (Shapiro's tale covers the 1958 to 1960 seasons in nine innings, with three headings under each), and use the extra space to spend more time carrying the story of MLB's response to the Continental League's challenge through the next thirty years of expansion and franchise movement.

Still, fans of the game who wonder how MLB grew to its current size at the same time it was sliding to its second-level position of fan support will find this book of great interest.

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More Bottom of the Ninth: Branch Ri... reviews
review by . January 22, 2009
is a baseball fan's dream. The book is filled to the top with historical moments, lore, and characters that shaped America's national pastime. The books spans several years in one of baseball's defining moments in history.    This book is not for everyone, as it is loaded with players, managers, political figures, prominent city people, cities, states, and their little (or big) stories and motivations. With the sheer volume of stuff going on in this book it is hard to keep track, …
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Todd Stockslager ()
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I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
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In 1958, after the Dodgers and Giants had both left New York for California, a group of investors sought to bring the city a new baseball franchise, and their proposal was a bold one. Led by former Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey, they sought to create an entire new major league. Meanwhile, as the advocates for the would-be Continental League tried to make their case before the existing major league owners, New York Yankees manager Casey Stengel struggled to keep America's most popular team in championship form. Shapiro (The Last Good Season) parallels these two stories, arguing that they represent a hinge point when team owners could have taken radical steps to reclaim the sport's hold on the public imagination, but chose instead to cling tightly to their near-monopoly, paving the way for other sports, like football, to rise in popularity. The history, filled with colorful personalities, is told in a straightforward manner. While its two halves don't always fit together neatly, they offer a lively perspective on backstage dealings that almost changed the course of professional sports in America. 8 pages of b&w photos not seen byPW.(June)
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ISBN-10: 0805082476
ISBN-13: 978-0805082470
Author: Michael Shapiro
Publisher: Times Books

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