Q & A with Michael Shapiro; Author of Bottom of the Ninth
Please enjoy this interview I recently conducted with Michael Shapiro, author of the new book, “Bottom of the Ninth”.
Your book, Bottom of the Ninth, what inspired you to write it?
I guess the thing that really inspired me to write Bottom of the Ninth was the idea that… What baseball became over the 1960s, when I really became a fan, was not necessarily inevitable. The Mets of the early 1960s were not inevitable. Expansion the way it happened was not inevitable, and really the fact that football over the 1960s would slowly pass baseball by as the most popular sport in the country was not inevitable either. So if it wasn’t inevitable, why did it happen? I went back and I began to look at the story about what was happening in the late 1950s, really after the Dodgers and the Giants left New York, and New York (inaudible) National League team, what happened? The Mets didn’t just appear. Events and people guiding those events really began to set in motion what essentially the chain of events that led to what we have right now in baseball, and that really led me to Branch Rickey into the Continental League and to really a story that I hadn’t really never heard of about this attempt to start a third Major League and as a way of really bringing baseball into the 20th Century in many ways.
Now the Continental League, Branch Rickey was obviously involved, but who else was?
Branch Rickey was the man. What happened was the Dodgers and the Giants leave New York. Bill Shea, an attorney, is sent by the mayor to find another National League team to replace the Dodgers and the Giants, except no National League team wants to move and the league has no intention really of expanding. So as Shea travels around the country, he discovers all these other cities that have been trying for years without success to get teams of their own in Houston, in Atlanta, in Minneapolis, in Toronto, and he realizes that there’s a whole host of cities that want in that have been kept out, and so it doesn’t take all that much time to begin to see that there are a lot of allies to this. But what he needs is a blueprint, and the blueprint and the idea is Branch Rickey, the idea of a third Major League, eight teams, seven new cities that have never had teams of their own, one in New York because you need New York, the media capital, and the idea that they would play each other for the first four or five seasons until they were ready to play the big leaguers and that most importantly they would share the money that they got from TV so that no team would be at a financial advantage over the others where the Yankees really dominated the American League.
Now Branch Rickey, you say that in your book, that he ended up losing out because he wanted to truly start the Continental League.
What happened with Rickey is that it was clear when you go down to the Law Firm of Congress and read through Rickey’s papers, what you begin to see is a guy who truly believed that he had found the path of baseball salvation. that he could really… The game in his view, and he was right about this, was really falling on hard times. Attendance was down. People no longer wanted to go into downtown ballparks where they couldn’t find parking, new games like professional football really beginning to capture people’s imaginations, the game was really sort of stuck in many ways where it was in 1903 when the American League and National League had join forces. There had been no expansion since then; and Rickey saw that baseball was going to lose, hence the idea of coming up this idea of a third league. What happened is that the men who joined with Rickey, it became ever clearer as this thing began to unfold were very much like the guys who in the big league owners. They didn’t really care about baseball. They cared about getting in, to being part of the Major Leagues. All they wanted was to be part of the Major Leagues. They didn’t care about how good the teams were; they didn’t care about how good the games were as Rickey did; they just wanted to be Major League owners. And so for them it became ever clearer, this was just a device. For Rickey, he really believed in this; and at the end what happened was as soon as the Major Leagues after fighting this thing tooth and nail finally realized that they had to give in or else face the threat of congressional sanction which meant really looking again at the historic exemption from antitrust laws, once they saw that was going to happen, they said, “Fine, we’ll make a deal. We’ll take four of you in now, four of you guys later, and you’ll do away with your league.” As soon as they made that offer in August of 1960, they immediately said, “Okay, the hell with the Continental League. And thank you very much, Mr. Rickey, we really appreciate your help.” They were never serious about this. He was serious about this. He had the vision. He had the plan and in a sense they just kind of used him.
So basically what you’re saying, Branch Rickey did see this Continental League challenging Major League Baseball, but the other people involved saw it more like a bluff.
Exactly. Craig Cullinan, who was one of the guys who was instrumental with Houston, eventually getting the Colt .45s, now the Astros, said years later, “Well it was great boss. I mean we really got these guys to give into us and finally allow us to have teams.” But right before the 1960 World Series, which is where the book ends, Cullinan went to Pittsburgh because all of sudden people were vying for who’s going to get Houston a very valuable franchise and he wrote to Rickey and he said, “Look, I hope we can see each other in Pittsburgh, but I have to think that if we had all stayed together, we really could have made this enterprise work.” But the fact was none of these guys believed in this except for Rickey. All they wanted was teams of their own; and in many ways, that is baseball. I mean that is baseball to a tee.
I mean you look at the comparisons of football. At the same time that this is happening, Lamar Hunt is starting the American Football League and he’s tempted by the NFL to abandon one of his – - one of the guys who had joined in with him, a guy named Bob Howsam from Denver, who was also the guy who the Denver represented him for the Continental League, and Hunt wouldn’t do it. And the AFL started, had a rocky first season and slowly over the course of the next few years, more and more people began to turn out for the AFL and within 10 years, they and the NFL had merged and at the same time the NFL began, accepted the idea that what was good for everyone was good for each of them. Pete Rozelle could push League Think as much he wanted, but he needed George Hallas and Art Rooney and Art Modell and Wellington Mara to say, “You’re right. We’re the guys who were from the beginning and we realize that if we all throw in together we can be more successful.
Baseball never got it and to this day resist that, and I think that that is really many reasons why football has emerged as the great American sport.
You write about Casey Stengal, why?
The reason I wrote about Stengel is that really what the book is about is a story about these two old men. These two grand old men of baseball who loved the game and who don’t want to walk away from it. They want to stay part of the game. And I think what’s really touching about this is that Stengel is the face of, the embodiment of the most successful in the game, the New York Yankees, and the Yankees wanted to get rid of him. He’s been around too long; the players are getting tired of him; the owners are getting tired of him, and Stengel wants to show that he is as smart on the field as by the extension Rickey is off the field. He has the vision; he sees the game, and he still has something to give. In the end, what happens is he… The Yankees lose the 1960 World Series and there is a pretext which they really need and that’s to fire him.
How long did it take to you write Bottom of the Ninth?
Well writing a report, I guess about a year and a half, almost two years of a lot of research and then the writing. I mean these things take awhile.
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