By Andrew McGregor
Tomorrow night the 2015 World Series begins with the Kansas City Royals hosting the New York Mets. For the first time in its 111 year history, this year’s World Series features two expansion teams. While for most baseball fans this is mostly a meaningless footnotes, it’s a reminder of how much the professional sports landscape has changed over the last 50+ years.
While on the surface, Kansas City and New York seem like opposites, their franchise histories indicate they’re actually quite similar. The Royals and Mets characterize a distinct era in baseball history characterized by relocation and expansion. Both teams were founded to appease critics and preserve MLB’s status quo. They’ve also been two of the most successful expansion teams in the postseason.
Relocation and Expansion
During the 1950s, Major League Baseball (MLB) had a relatively small geographic footprint. The 16 major league teams were located in just 10 cities, mostly in the northeast. What’s more, Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and St. Louis all had multiple teams. The westernmost team was St. Louis and the southernmost Washington D.C.
This created multiple problems for Major League Baseball. First, several of the teams competed directly with each other for attendance. Next, the limited geography prevented the sport from reaching a wide audience, particularly as Americans began moving West and to the Sun Belt following the Second World War. Finally, the lack of teams across the country prompted challenges to MLB’s antitrust exemptions and discussions about creating new, rival leagues.
These pressures resulted in the movement of several teams during the 1950s and ‘60s. The Braves moved from Boston to Milwaukee in 1953 and then to Atlanta in 1966. Similarly, in 1955 the Athletics moved from Philadelphia to Kansas City and onto Oakland in 1968. The St. Louis Browns became the Baltimore Orioles in 1954. These moves made sense because Boston, Philadelphia, and St. Louis all had multiple teams, and the Braves, Athletics, and Browns struggled to survive. The later moves by the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants to California in 1957, however, represented a more major shift. Both teams were pushed west by deteriorating ballparks and the lure of new markets, but, unlike other relocating clubs, they were also widely popular and successful.
Relocation, however, only solved some of the problems. Major League Baseball was still limited in size and growing cities wanted teams. Expansion was needed to ward off threats from emerging rival leagues. The prospect of multiple major leagues scared team owners, who remembered the intense feuds over players, salaries, and attendance from baseball’s early years. Since the Federal League folded in 1915, the National League and American League maintained relative peace and hoped it would to continue.
Congress was concerned, too. According to Benjamin Rader, “one or both houses of congress held hearings on some aspect of baseball” nearly every year between 1951 and 1960. Though they were reluctant to get involved, the congressional hearings frightened Major League Baseball and highlight the severity of the moment.
New York fans were particularly upset. The city lost its two national league teams that both had won World Series in the last 5 years. William Shea and Branch Rickey hoped to fill the void with a new league — the Continental League — with a franchise located in a brand new stadium planned for Queens. Though the Continental League never became a reality, it did motivate Major League Baseball to act.
The expansion era began in 1961, when the American League added two new teams (today’s Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim). The National League responded a year later, enfranchising the New York Mets and Houston Colt 45’s (now the Astros).
The Mets were established as an attempt to bring “national league baseball” back to New York. The team intentionally chose orange and blue as its colors to honor the legacies of the Dodgers and Giants. More importantly, however, the Mets were sought as a corrective to the chaotic period of relocation, By creating the Mets, MLB was able to maintain order and appease Shea, Rickey, and the Continental League’s challenges to the status quo.
The four new teams did little to quiet critics, however. In the mid-60s the Braves moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta, while the Athletics went from Kansas City to Oakland. The persistence of relocation continued to anger fans and lawmakers. In another attempt to squash dissent, each league added two more teams in 1969 — the Royals and Brewers (who were the Seattle Pilots for one season) in the American League and Expos and Padres in the National League. (The Brewers moved to the National League in 1998 and the Astro’s joined the American League in 2013). Like the Mets, the Royals were a replacement team created to continue their city’s baseball tradition. And, like America’s reorientation toward the Sun Belt, the Royals are the product of legislative machinations and pork barrel politicking.
After the Athletics moved to Oakland for the 1968 season, U.S. Senator Stuart Symington was outraged. He thought Kansas City deserved a team. Although it had only been a major league town for just over a decade, the city had a long relationship with professional baseball dating to the 1880s and including the founding of the Negro Leagues in 1920. Added to his fury, was the fact that the traditionally dismal A’s finally had young talent emerging from its farm system (future stars like Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, and Rollie Fingers) and were close to competing. When American League owners approved A’s owner Charley O. Finely’s request to move the team to Oakland, he demanded the league give Kansas City a new team. Symington used his position in the Senate to threaten Major League Baseball with legislation that would remove its antitrust exemption unless Kansas City was issued an expansion team. MLB quickly complied, guaranteeing a team for the 1971 season. The impatient Symington was not satisfied, however, and convinced the AL to expand in 1969 instead.
Expansion continued, of course. The Blue Jays and Mariners joined the AL in 1977, giving the league 14 teams. In 1993 the NL equaled the AL with 14 teams, adding the Marlins and Rockies. The last round of expansion occurred in 1998, with the creation of Rays in the AL and Diamondbacks in the NL. The Brewers switched from the AL to the NL that year, giving the NL 16 teams and the AL 14. (Each league now has 15 teams after the Astros moved to the AL in 2013).
Kansas City and New York were at the center of the expansion and relocation era. The creation of the Royals and Mets reflects the criticism and threats of the era. This history, combined with their on-the-field success, positioned both teams as leading symbols of this period in baseball history.
The Postseason and the Expansion Era
While relocation and expansion dominated the landscape, they also forced changes to Major League Baseball’s playoff format. Prior to expansion the American League and the National League each had 8 teams with no divisions. Each league’s champion was determined by the standings table and advanced automatically to the World Series without a playoff round. After 1969, each league split into an eastern and western division. As a result a “league championships series” was added to the postseason.
For the 1994 season, each league split into 3 divisions, forcing Major League Baseball to add a “wild card” team and further expand the playoffs. The postseason now featured four teams from each league in the “divisional series” round, followed by the league championship series and world series. The playoffs continued unchanged until 2012, when a second “wildcard” team was added. Under the current format, the two wildcard teams meet for one game with the winner advancing to the divisional round.
These changes in the postseason are the direct result of expansion — and Bud Selig’s incessant meddling. While they have resulted in more opportunities for postseason play, they have also increased the difficulty of winning a World Series. This is perhaps, one reason why two expansion teams have never met in a World Series. The original 16 teams, however, continue to fare well in the postseason (except the Cubs). This is the 55th World Series since the expansion era began in 1961, and only 6 of the new teams have won World Series (though 3 have won it multiple times).
Why do older clubs do better? One plausible reason is the location of expansion teams. The majority of teams added to Major League Baseball during the expansion era are located in small(er) markets. The New York Mets, of course, are one exception. Another factor is the continuity and tradition of older organizations — it takes a while to build a new baseball team. There are a few counterexamples to this point, such as the 2001 Diamondbacks and the 1997 Marlins, but generally expansion teams need more time to build a farm system, scout and develop players, and establish a fan base. The stakes are higher in these activities for smaller market teams, too, because they can’t rely on expensive free agents.
Given these limitations for new and small market teams, it’s not surprising that the Mets have had the most postseason success of any expansion team. Although 12 of the 14 expansion teams have reached the World Series, none has made it more often than the Mets. This year is their 5th trip to the World Series. The Mets benefit tremendously from being in New York as well as being one of the oldest expansion teams.
The Royals, however, are second in World Series appearances. This is Kansas City’s 4th World Series. The Mets and Royals are tied for the most league championship series appearances by an expansion team at 8. Yet, Kansas City is one of the smallest market teams. The Royals experienced a 29-year playoff drought between 1985-2014, which illustrates the essential nature of good management and player development. Money couldn’t save them.
With these postseason histories, it makes sense they would face off in the first all expansion team World Series. They’re the class of the expansion era.
The Royals and Mets are both products of the 1960s that represent a certain moment in American history and changes in baseball history. They’re both an attempt at bridging the past and present. And now, they represent a new historic moment. A moment where young-blood, expansion teams have finally reached maturity.
The Miracle Mets of 1969 offered a glimpse of this future, when they became the first expansion team to advance to and win the World Series. In the late-1970s and early 1980s, Kansas City joined them when the Royals became a model franchise with its player development. They consistently challenged the Yankees in the ALCS, creating a dynamic rivalry that pitted a young upstart team versus a traditional, big market goliath.
Growing up was hard for both of these teams, however. Their golden years belonged more to Gen X than to the Baby Boomers, caught in an undertow of nostalgia reserved only for baseball’s original teams. Now, as they face off in the World Series, they reflect a new retro-sentiment. Neither team has won a World Series since the mid-80s (KC in 1985 and NY in 1986). They both attempt to do so with rare, unconventional teams in today’s baseball.
The Mets’ hard throwing starting rotation reminds fans of teams from the 1960s and ‘70. New York is built around starting pitching and strikeouts. They’ve dominated with depth and momentum. Their four starters have ace-like stuff, enabling them to shut down opposing hitters. Daniel Murphy has further propelled the Mets with his historic hot streak.
The Royals, on the other hand, continue to win with aggressiveness, speed, and mistake-free defense. They play a throwback style of team baseball reminiscent of the 1970s and ’80s. Kansas City’s hitters strike out the least of any team, and instead put the ball in play, pressuring opposing defenses with their speed. Like the Mets, the Royals have an intimidating bullpen whose depth is unrivaled.
Added to this nostalgia and retro-feel, is each club’s wariness of fully embracing analytics. While every team in baseball now uses some sort of advanced statistics, Kansas City and New York continue to use a solid dose of old school baseball sense. Neither manager is into wonky stats or extreme defensive shifts.
Ultimately, the World Series has a lot of moving storylines. From the expansion era and playoff history, the small market-big market dynamics, to the strengths and weaknesses of their rosters, the Mets and Royals provide a lot to watch. On paper, it’s hard to pick a favorite. That is, unless you’re from Kansas City or New York.
Andrew McGregor is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at Purdue University and the founder of this blog. He was born and raised in Kansas City and remains a die-hard Royals fan. You can reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @admcgregor85