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The Last Great MiLB Contraction

With the proposed contraction of 42 Minor League Baseball teams, the relationship between MiLB and MLB could be defined yet again. Here’s a look at the last time MiLB contraction occurred on a mass scale—and how differently the major actors worked together to save the sport.

Ballpark Digest has been intensively covering the ongoing PBA negotiations between Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball, from the initial public revelation of MLB’s plan for MiLB realignment to the release of specific insight into MLB’s realignment proposal and the reaction of elected officials on MiLB’s behalf around the country. Recently, Ballpark Digest publisher Kevin Reichard outlined how MiLB could address MLB’s concerns without full-scale contraction.

The potential for wholesale realignment of Minor League Baseball carries far-reaching consequences from league to league and state to state. On FanGraphs, Meg Rowley and Ben Clemens conducted a study on how Major League Baseball’s realignment plan would effectively remove Minor League Baseball as an option for as many as 16 million people across the country.

The last time that Minor League Baseball encountered such pessimism, uncertainty, and consequential realignment on a national scale was over a half-century ago. Baseball had enjoyed a great boom of attention following World War II, and the minor leagues expanded in order to capitalize. In 1949, there were three Class AAA leagues, two Class AA leagues, four Class A leagues, 11 Class B leagues, 14 Class C leagues, and 25 Class D leagues. The Class C level included, among others, the East Texas League, the Pioneer League, and the Sunset League. The Class D level featured the Appalachian League, the Blue Ridge League, the Longhorn League and the PONY League. With so many teams, affiliates were plentiful; the St. Louis Cardinals boasted 20 affiliations, the New York Yankees had 21, and the Brooklyn Dodgers, as directed by Branch Rickey, had agreements with 25 Minor League teams.

All told, Jonathan Fraser Light wrote in The Cultural Encyclopedia of Baseball, Minor League teams drew 41.8 million fans in 1949, setting a new high-water mark for total annual gate.

But as the new decade dawned, the attendance numbers plummeted. Light linked these sudden attendance woes to the rise of television and network radio, writing, “The combination of those media brought Major League Baseball to areas of the country that had never experienced anything except minor league baseball. Rather than stimulate additional interest in the minor leagues, the beginning of this media saturation turned fans to Major League Baseball.”

As James R. Walker detailed in Crack of the Bat: A History of Baseball on the Radio, Gordon McLendon had created the Liberty Broadcast System (LBS), which delivered MLB radio broadcasts and game re-creations to over 200 affiliates in by mid-summer 1950, and over 400 affiliates by mid-summer 1951, penetrating into the hearts of minor-league markets. McLendon must have heard the concern. When he spoke at the 1951 convention of the National Association of Broadcasters in order to defend himself against the outcry, his address was titled “What Is the Effect of Major League Broadcasts on Attendance in Minor League Cities?” and sought to persuade his audience that LBS had no part to play in MiLB’s difficulties drawing crowds.

LBS was overtaken by the Mutual Broadcasting System (MBS), aided by a series of strongarm moves by Major League Baseball. By 1952, wrote Walker, MBS’s Al Helfer was broadcasting baseball in 65% of the nation’s households. That same year, Minor League Baseball’s total attendance fell to 25.3 million. The East Texas League disappeared, as did the Sunset League, the Blue Ridge League and the Longhorn League.

By 1956, Minor League Baseball featured the open-classification Pacific Coast League, two Class AAA leagues, three Class AA leagues, three Class A leagues, only five Class B leagues, six Class C leagues, and eight Class D leagues — a decrease from 59 to 28 total leagues in a seven-year span. On August 2, MLB commissioner Ford C. Frick announced the forming of a “Save the Minors” committee headed by New York Yankees assistant general manager Bill DeWitt, working with a $500,000 budget to find solutions and keep Minor League teams afloat.

The number of MiLB circuits continued to drop. The Class D Georgia State League folded after the 1956 season. The Class B Big State League and Class B Southwestern League closed up shop after the 1957 season, as did the Class C Central Mexican League, the Class C Evangeline League, and the Class D Sooner State League. In 1958, Minor League Baseball drew just 13.2 million fans. Following the season, the Class A Western League, the Class C Arizona-Mexico League and the Class D Georgia-Florida League ceased operations.

In 1959, the Save the Minors committee was replaced by the Player Development and Promotion program. “Under this program,” wrote Frank Hoffmann, Rebecca S. Kraus, and Martin J. Manning in Minor League Baseball: Community Building Through Hometown Sports, “major league clubs paid minor league teams if they completed the season. Payment ranged from $22,500 for Class A teams, to $3,000 for Class D teams.” But this program was as unsuccessful as its predecessor. The 1962 Minor League Baseball season began with only 20 leagues and 134 teams left in existence, with only two leagues each at the Class A and Class AA levels.

On May 18th, 1962, Major League owners took a real, significant step toward ensuring the long-term survival of Minor League Baseball, announcing a momentous “player development plan.” Wrote Hoffmann, Kraus, and Manning, “Major league teams essentially adopted minor league teams at each classification level, guaranteeing the survival of twenty AAA and AA teams”—ideally one affiliate for each MLB club—“and sixty lower-level teams,” allowing each MLB club anywhere from three to five additional affiliates. In addition, “the majors would pay much of the minor league players’ salaries and would also provide equipment and other resources for their minor league affiliates.”

With this Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA) in place entering 1963, the following changes went into effect:

  • The Class AAA American Association was dissolved. Indianapolis joined the Class AAA International League, Oklahoma City, Denver, and Dallas-Fort Worth joined the Class AAA Pacific Coast League, and Louisville and Omaha shut down operations.
  • The Class A Eastern League and South Atlantic League jumped up a level, joining the Texas League in Class AA. (The South Atlantic League changed its name to the Southern League entering the 1964 season.) The Mexican League was also regarded as a Class AA league in 1963.
  • Leagues at the Class B level (Carolina League and Northwest League), Class C level (California League, Mexican Center League, Northern League, Pioneer League) and Class D level (Florida State League, Midwest League, New York-Penn League, Western Carolinas League) were reclassified as Class A leagues. (The Western Carolinas League’s name was changed to the South Atlantic League entering the 1980 season.)
  • The short-season Class D Appalachian League was reclassified as a Class R league, representing Rookie ball.

It’s fascinating to look back on the Great Reclassification of 1963 now, particularly when considering how the situation has reversed itself in the current negotiations.

A little over 41.5 million fans attended MiLB games in 2019, the 15th consecutive season that the minors has drawn over 40 million fans total and a far cry from the lack of crowds at MiLB parks in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Indeed, in 1962, Major League Baseball was concerned about the rapidly vanishing quantity of minor league clubs. Today, with 176 teams in 15 leagues, Major League teams raise the concern that there are too many.

In 1963, there were 118 affiliated MiLB teams for 20 Major League teams. MLB’s proposed plan for 2021 consists of reducing the Minor League landscape to the extent that each franchise retains only four full-season teams (plus one rookie-ball complex team)—120 affiliated MiLB teams for 30 MLB teams.

Lastly, and most devastatingly: The Professional Baseball Agreement as announced in 1962 and put into place in 1963 was believed necessary to keep such leagues as the Pioneer League, the Appalachian League and the New York-Penn League (renamed from the PONY League) alive. Under Major League Baseball’s 2021 proposed plan, the three venerable leagues would cease to exist as affiliated minor leagues, if at all.

Photo of Dehler Park, home of the Pioneer League’s Billings Mustangs, one of the teams proposed for contraction by MLB negotiators.

This article first appeared in the Ballpark Digest newsletter. Are you a subscriber? It’s free, and you’ll see features like this before they appear on the Web. Go here to subscribe to the Ballpark Digest newsletter.

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