I’ve often mentioned that the good folks at University of Nebraska Press send me books to review and Baseball’s New Frontier: A History of Expansion, 1961-1998 is no exception. Fran Zimniuch takes a look at the times leading up to the addition of teams to the original set of 16 that made up Major League Baseball.
Expansion has always been an interesting topic to me. I actually recorded the expansion draft for the Rockies and the Marlins and might still have it around, though it’s in an unviewable format since none of my VCRs still work. The idea of adding teams into an existing pool is always intriguing and, if done properly, could aid in fixing some of the ails of baseball, in my opinion.
The first expansions came out of the threat of the Continental League, which was headed up by Branch Rickey. Indeed, Branch Rickey III writes the foreword to this tome and talks about his grandfather’s work. The Continental League threat was fairly serious, but most of the people involved were just hoping to exploit that leverage to get into MLB and they were successful.
Zimniuch looks at all the rounds of expansion and gets into some of the behind the scenes stuff, talking with those that were involved, discussing expansion strategy and the like. You’ll find a lot of great stuff in here about the challenges some teams faced, like the fact that the Angels only had about eight days to prepare for their expansion draft.
However, this book is a bit of a mixed bag. First off, while there’s a lot of information about the teams, including the fascinating rosters from each expansion draft, there’s a lot of statistics from the first couple of years for each squad that get a bit dry. Listing out “Player hit .xxx with X HR, while pitcher won X games with an X.XX ERA” can get a little old after a while and you’ll be forgiven if your eyes tend to wander from that.
The other issue, besides the fact that there seemed to be a lot of typographical errors in this book (and while I did get an advance copy, I noticed in one of the Amazon reviews the problem apparently didn’t get rectified before final copies were printed), is that the book seems padded at the end. After the chapters that detail the teams coming into the league, there’s a chapter called “Bottom Feeding”, which talks about the impact expansion teams had on statistics, wins and losses, etc. This is an interesting chapter, as the author explores the alternative theory that a rising tide lifts all boats and the expansion teams didn’t change the results much.
After that, though, it goes downhill. There’s a chapter on the supposed characters of the expansion teams, but save Bo Belinsky most aren’t necessarily tied to expansion teams. Jim Bouton might be, since his lasting fame might be Ball Four, which dealt with his year in Seattle as part of the ’69 Pilots, but he obviously had a lot of ties to the Yankees. The other two are Casey Stengel and Richie Ashburn. Both, of course, were part of the Mets when they came into being, but I don’t think either of them are really identified with that club first and foremost. In fact, the examples given for Ashburn seem to be more about his broadcasting days with the Phillies than with anything else.
In the last chapter, the author starts talking about the color barrier (which was broken well before the expansion era), steroid use, and various other baseball issues that have no real connection to expansion at all. Eventually, Zimniuch uses expansion as a way to solve the playoff puzzle, but after stating that 15 teams in each league “would never happen”. This is a book that is copyright 2013, so the move of the Astros to the American League was at least finalized before the writing was finished, even if they hadn’t played any games. While I’d agree with the author that expanding two teams would be a great way to fix the playoffs (though I’d go with four divisions and no wild cards instead of his two divisions and two wild cards), a glaring factual error like that is tough to overcome.
If you are looking for an intro primer to why expansion happened and how it happened, this is a great book. However, if you already know much of the basics, you might not find a lot of new information in here. It’s a great topic to read about, even if this time out it’s not executed as smoothly as I’d like to see.