- The Continental League: A Personal History by Russell D. Buhite
This is a book about something that never happened, an idea, a conceptual pawn in a battle involving moneyed men seeking entry into the cartel known as Major League Baseball (MLB). In the latter part of the 1950s, the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers, hightailed across the continent and moved to San Francisco and Los Angeles, respectively. This left a hole in the baseball scene in New York. The setting up of a committee by the Mayor of New York to encourage a National League club to move to New York did not bear fruit. Congress also initiated hearings into the anti-trust status of baseball, hearings that went nowhere.
During these machinations, legendary baseball man Branch Rickey, who revolutionised baseball twice—the first time in developing the farm system, and the second, integrating baseball when he employed the African American Jackie Robinson with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947—proposed the formation of a third major league, the Continental League. Rickey and his associates found enough rich men to express interest in being part of a new eight-team league. After a series of meetings, and various political manoeuvrings in New York and Washington, MLB agreed to expand both of its leagues by two teams from the proposed Continental League franchises. This merger put an end to the Continental League.
At the time these events took place a new eight-team minor league circuit, the Western Carolina League, was formed. It developed a working relationship as a farm system for the Continental League. One of the players who played in the Western Carolina League was Russell D. Buhite, who had had previous stints in the minors. He subsequently became an academic historian, making his career in the area of Foreign or International Affairs.
As a participant and an historian, Buhite states, “I believe I am better positioned than most to explain the life—and death—of this agent of change” (p. 9). Buhite provides a descriptive account of the various events and persons associated with MLB’s put out of the Continental League. There are two major problems with Buhite’s account. First, more than a third of the book recounts his time as a baseball player in school, local, and minor league teams. It smacks of self-indulgence.
Second, he does not understand the “workings” of sporting leagues. Branch Rickey proposed that all operations of the league should be centrally controlled, with him as its head. Players would be allocated to clubs by a draft with broadcasting and gate receipts evenly distributed between competing clubs. Buhite asserts that such arrangements constituted a form of Socialism (pp. 5-7 and 105).
Sporting leagues are cartels, which are more or less imperfectly coordinated. The major problem impacting on their operation is the difference in the financial strength of competing clubs. MLB put the “cost” of this problem onto players in the form of the reserve (option) system, where players could only move to another club with the permission of the club that had previously employed them. Players, in the form of the Major League Baseball Players’ Association (MLBPA), successfully challenged the reserve system [End Page 117] and achieved free agency for six-year veterans in 1976. It took MLB almost two decades to learn that players were not going to give up free agency. Once the penny dropped, MLB started to explore revenue sharing and luxury taxes, as it moved along the spectrum of cartel coordination. Rickey’s proposals were an attempt to impose “perfect” coordination onto a new league. A “perfect” cartel is the antithesis of socialism.
In the final chapter, Buhite admonishes Rickey and others for not pursuing anti-trust actions against MLB over the reserve rule, maintaining that such a challenge would have been successful (p. 164). A major oddity of the American legal system is the anti-trust exemption given to baseball by the Supreme Court (Federal Baseball Club of Baltimore v National League of Professional Baseball Clubs, 259...