- The Middle Atlantic League, 1925–1952 by William E. Akin
Over the past two decades, baseball historians have turned their attention to the 125-plus-year history of baseball’s minor leagues, especially those of higher classifications. The low minors, leagues with now-defunct classifications of D, C, and B and populated by teams primarily located in small towns across America, has largely been ignored until recently. Akin’s study offers a refreshing look at one of those circuits, the Middle Atlantic League (MAL), which was once considered the toughest Class C league and sent an inordinate number of players to the majors.
Lasting just over a quarter-century, the MAL reflected America’s evolving economic landscape from the mid-1920s to the early 1950s. Akin explains that the league developed from the informal semipro, coal field, and factory leagues that dotted the landscape in western Pennsylvania and on the borders with West Virginia and Maryland. Led by President Elmer Daily, the MAL flourished during the Great Depression at a time when the lower minors were fraught with economic instability that forced teams and leagues to disband, often in midseason. According to Akin, three factors contributed to the league’s success in the 1930s. The introduction of night baseball in 1930 increased the fan base by giving working folks an opportunity to see games. Teams established affiliations with major-league clubs as part of the rapidly developing farm system; no longer dependent on finding local [End Page 223] talent, MAL teams were infused with players signed by their parent clubs. And, finally, the league expanded from eight to twelve clubs by establishing teams in industrial cities in Ohio for additional revenue.
The study is organized into five chapters that correspond to what Akin sees as distinct phases of the MAL. A sixth chapter is dedicated to the Class D Pennsylvania State League, which functioned as a coordinated pipeline to the MAL. Following “The Survival Years, 1925–1929,” the reader encounters the “‘Mad-Atlantic League’, 1929–1933,” when innovative and entrepreneurial club owners saved the league from the fate that so many teams and leagues experienced in the wake of economic collapse. The MAL of “The Glory Years, 1934–1939,” emerged from the Great Depression as a “showcase for future big leagues” (109). With financially sound clubs, the newly procured right to play ball on Sunday in Pennsylvania, and a populace anxious to escape at least temporarily its harsh realities, the league played full 120-plus-game schedules with no doubleheaders save for holidays in packed stadiums. The “War Years, 1940–1945” and “Postwar Years, 1946–1952” document the gradual collapse of the league. According to Akin, several factors led to its dissolution. After the war, the MAL retracted to its original footprint in the small cities of western Pennsylvania. But those once-vibrant towns were steadily decimated by economic and cultural shifts, as industry, coal, and mining moved south and west. While the number of minor leagues reached a high of fifty-nine in 1949, attendance across all leagues began to tumble precipitously as the advent of television and increased radio broadcasts of major league games shifted national focus from local minor-league teams to the sixteen major-league teams, all of which were located east of the Mississippi River, save for the two clubs in St. Louis. Akin also suggests that the baby boom, the rise of suburbia, and a less community-oriented society contributed to the demise of the league and, by extension, to the low minor leagues.
With encyclopedic knowledge of minor-league baseball, its personalities, players, and complexities, and a nuanced perception of the interconnectedness and interdependence of baseball, sport, and society, Akin has produced the most thorough study on the Mid-Atlantic League and set a standard for future examinations for other, mostly forgotten lower minor leagues.