ARTICLES

Will Canada ever make the majors?

Even ebullient Jack Kent Cooke is growing frustrated chasing the big-league baseball franchise that’s been “coming” for nine years Here’s a penetrating look at the confusion that’s holding it up—and our chances of getting it at all

TRENT FRAYNE April 11 1959
ARTICLES

Will Canada ever make the majors?

Even ebullient Jack Kent Cooke is growing frustrated chasing the big-league baseball franchise that’s been “coming” for nine years Here’s a penetrating look at the confusion that’s holding it up—and our chances of getting it at all

TRENT FRAYNE April 11 1959

Will Canada ever make the majors?

ARTICLES

Even ebullient Jack Kent Cooke is growing frustrated chasing the big-league baseball franchise that’s been “coming” for nine years Here’s a penetrating look at the confusion that’s holding it up—and our chances of getting it at all

TRENT FRAYNE

At eleven thirty-five on the morning of May 2, 1950, the commissioner of baseball, Ford Frick, adjusted his hornrims in a hotel room in Toronto and articulated a front-page story for George Dulmage, a reporter for the Toronto Telegram.

“A third major league is as inevitable as tomorrow,” said Frick, an unsmiling man with a furrowed face and the tones of an evangelist. “Montreal is a major-league city now and Toronto, with its Sunday ball, is getting there. The National 1 eague and the American League will expand to twelve teams each and out of these will emerge the third major league.”

Nine years ago, this was revolutionaiy thinking. The major leagues hadn’t altered their construction, or discussed changing it, in nearly fifty years, defying change through two world wars and a depression, ever since the American League had been formed in 1901. It was frontpage news in this country because until that precise moment Canadians had regarded the big leagues as a segment of purely American culture, rather like the hot dog. and whatever widespread enthusiasm the majors elicited was usually confined to small boys with large scrapbooks or to a week in October each year during the World Series when people hugged their radios for the blow-by-blow superlatives of the announcers.

But since that precise moment, it has been an unusual summer month that somebody somewhere hasn’t proclaimed that the major leagues are unalterably destined to embrace one or more Canadian cities. The fact that in the last six years five clubs have moved to new cities, none of them in Canada, has not dimmed speculation that a Canadian city will be next.

The first shift came three years after Frick first wedded Canada and the majors in that Toronto hotel room. The Boston Braves moved to Milwaukee three weeks before the 1953 season opened. Money poured into the ball club’s coffers like beer flowing into kegs, setting up a wild gleam in the eyes of prospective owners in other cities. In relatively rapid succession the weak and unattractive St. Louis Browns and Philadelphia Athletics had found new homes. Baltimore businessmen took the Browns and sought to disguise them under the name Orioles, and the Athletics were hauled all the way to Kansas City to commit their athletic atrocities there. The new and enthusiastic customers in these virgin territories overlooked every sin and responded to major-league baseball like sailors to shore leave.

Then last year, with the civic fathers of Los Angeles and San Francisco offering slightly less than the Santa Anita race track and the Golden Gate Bridge to attract them, the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants sped west.

Thus today, after nine years and several million words on the subject by assorted politicians, business tycoons and baseball executives, the big leagues have developed a migratory streak. But they are as far removed from Canada as they ever were.

There are three ways by which a Canadian city can acquire major-league status: (1) expansion of one of the leagues to embrace more cities, (2) formation of a third major league, (3) transfer of an existing franchise from an American city to a Canadian city. Of the three, the first seems the most likely, presuming there will be any change at all. Item (3) can be eliminated almost at once because all sixteen major-league teams are mak-

ing money, even including the pseudo-majorleaguers masquerading in Washington. Chronic cellar-dwellers, the Senators pick up enough money via television and visits by the Yankees to pay their bills, even though they have known seasons when they’ve drawn fewer people than the Toronto Maple Leafs, the top attraction in the minor leagues.

Speculation on the possibility of more big leagues or more teams in the existing big leagues is just that: speculation. Even the baseball powers themselves don't know what they’re apt to do next; and what they were most apt to do yesterday doesn’t necessarily bear any relation to what they’re most apt to do today.

For example, on a cold bright-blue afternoon in Washington last winter, the cold bright-blue eyes of Warren Giles, president of the National League, reflected a bleak attitude toward expansion. All around him in the teeming lobby of the Hotel Mayflower at baseball’s annual winter convention were people interested in knowing if the league planned to shift a franchise back to the huge New York market, now barren of NL competition, or expand to ten teams to embrace New York and Toronto, a city frequently mentioned in convention-room haranguing.

“Maybe in five years something could happen,”

said Giles airily, “but right now it’s a dead issue. None of the owners in our league wants to expand. Nobody wants to shift a franchise. We haven't given it a thought.”

That very afternoon the owners to whom Giles had been referring authorized a special study of the possibility of expanding into a ten-team league. The issue was so important, the owners declared, “as to take priority over any other baseball matter." A “dead issue" one moment and a matter of top priority the next, the problem of expansion was turned over to an independent research organization for study and an eventual report to the owners.

American League owners, meanwhile, are conducting their own survey under virtual cloak-anddagger circumstances. The AL's realignment committee is headed by Del Webb, co-owner of the Yankees, a millionaire contractor from Arizona who was asked recently what cities he’d visited in his researches. Webb considered the question gravely before answering. “I'm not at liberty to say,” he replied. He gave the same careful response when he was asked how many cities he’d visited.

As far as is known Webb, the committee’s chairman and therefore a powerful persuader, has visited no Canadian cities. And continued over page

if Webb does have influence on his fellow AL owners, it appears that the only possibility of a new city appearing in that league would be through the switch of an existing franchise. He is personally opposed to expansion and regards a third major league as a “myth.” “You remember the old saying ‘talk is cheap hut it takes money to buy whisky’?” he asked recently. “Well, that’s how I feel about a third major league.”

And yet there are men outside the majors “with money to buy whisky” and one of these is Jack Kent Cooke, the overwhelmingly enthusiastic owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs who built his mint out of a radio station in Toronto and subsequently branched into publishing and plastics manufacturing. A man of vast energy and disarming charm, Cooke entered baseball in 1951 when he was thirty-eight. He bought the lacklustre Maple Leafs and within three years he turned them into the most successful minor-league operation in baseball. The game's purists cringed as Cooke introduced what he elected to call showmanship into his ballyard, cluttering up the place with ceaseless tunes and chatter from the public-address system, fireworks and exploding cartridges and girls clad largely in skin, and an endless parade of giveaways—-orchids and hosiery for lady customers, caps and bats and lollipops for kids, and cartons of corn flakes and razor blades for home-run hitters and rubber-armed pitchers.

Cooke barely knew a switch-hitter from a fireman when he started but he caught on quickly. He was completely uncowed by major-league executives who tended to patronize the upstart from Canada. He put money on the line for hall players who could help his Leafs and he paid them major-league salaries when he got them. A recent example was Glenn (Rocky) Nelson, a first-baseman who drew $12.500 from Cooke, more money than a good many majorleaguers are paid. When the Pittsburgh Pirates drafted Nelson from Toronto at last December’s winter meeting in Washington Cooke was stunned, but only temporarily. Then he went typically into action. I was sitting in his hotel suite when he telephoned George Weiss, the general manager of the Yankees.

"George? Jack Cooke. How are you, George? George, they’ve drafted Rocky Nelson from me. Yes, I was heartbroken. He set a home-run record for us this year.” Cooke looked out of his window across the buildings of Washington and followed a hall from Nelson's bat far over the rightfield wall in Maple Leaf Stadium. Then suddenly Cooke snapped his eyes hack to the mouthpiece of the telephone receiver and. waving his left arm as he spoke, he dismissed Nelson.

“George, I want a first-baseman and money is no object. 1 repeat, George, money is no object. Now. do you have a first-baseman in your organization available for sale?” At this point Cooke named three in rapid succession whom the Toronto manager. Dixie Walker, had told him might be available. He concluded the conversation by saying, "All right, George, you let me know. No, better still, I’ll call you. How about 7.30 tomorrow morning, is that too early? All right, George. Good-by George.”

Operating in this fashion and at this level. Cooke has proved he can deal with major leaguers because he has brought winning teams to Toronto. There have heen occasions when he has been skinned by owners capitalizing on his early naïveté — he paid in excess of fifteen thousand dollars each for ex-big-leaguers Marv Rickert and Cliff Mapes. both of whom turned out to be grossly inade-

quate—but he learned quickly and wangled some outstanding players for his club, the most notable being Elston Howard, one of the Yankee standouts in the 1958 World Series who spent the 1954 season helping Toronto win a pennant.

A second-division team for uncounted years before Cooke got controlling interest on July 4, 1951, the Leafs flourished almost from the moment he gleefully announced the purchase. In the last five years they have won three International League pennants and finished second twice. From a season attendance total that languished chronically around the two hundred thousand figure in the preCooke era, his team reached a high of 446,158 in 1952 and hit four hundred thousand during two other seasons. To Cooke this indicates that the Toronto market is ripe to absorb the increased costs of a major-league operation. In spite of performing in a creaking, thirtythree-year-old stadium with a capacity of about nineteen thousand, Toronto outdrew Kansas City and Baltimore when they were minor-league towns. In acquiring major-league status and stadiums (accommodation for at least thirty-five thousand is desirable to cover big-league costs) both of these cities vaulted over the one-million figure.

It's estimated that a top minor-league operation costs about three hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year. Big-league expenses run roughly a million and a half annually. Cooke feels Toronto, having outstripped . Kansas City and Baltimore on a minor-league basis, would do the same thing in the majors.

“Employing the ingenuity we’ve shown these last seven years in the minors, I’m positive we'd make a glowing success of a major-league undertaking, on the field and at the box office, inside of three years,” he told me.

“A major league town”

Cooke has another asset essential to a potential majer-league franchise-holder, the support of a number of strong voices in baseball, including those of Frank Lane of Cleveland, Branch Rickey of Pittsburgh and Lou Perini of Milwaukee, all of whom have become personal friends. Even E. J. (Buzzie) Bavasi, a shrewd, glib man not given to many enthusiasms who is vice-president and general manager of the Dodgers, told me recently in Washington that “Cooke has turned Toronto into a major-league town, no doubt about it."

Why. then, with recognition, support, money and ambition, has Cooke not succeeded in making Toronto a majorleague town in fact? Partly, he feels, it's because Toronto's civic administration so far has turned plugged ears to his plea that it build a stadium of major-league dimensions and accommodation. No group of individuals can do it, he insists, because the toll on private capital is prohibitive.

“Let’s say it costs ten million dollars to build a fifty-thousand-seat stadium," explains Cooke's general manager, Rudie Schaffer. “To raise that kind of money at. say. six-pcrcent interest, costs six hundred thousand dollars a year. Then you're subject to real-estate taxes. If they’re two percent, that’s another two hundred thousand. There’s eight hundred thousand a year right there. Who can carry that kind of freight as rental?”

Schaffer claims a ci\ ic stadium is another matter.

“The bond interest is a lot less on a municipal proposition, and there are no property taxes.” he says. “Now you’ve cut the eight hundred thousand at least

“The willful men who own major league baseball have not yet managed to strangle it to death”

in half and you’re bringing hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of business into your city.”

Here was reference to surveys conducted in Baltimore, Milwaukee and Kansas City, all of which have civic stadiums. The figures show that total attendance in 1957 included from 26.1 to 37.6 percent of fans from out of town. I he Kansas City figures claimed that 338,801 baseball fans were a.traded to the city by the ball club, that they spent $3,383,000 during their visits, and that 54.5 percent of them traveled more than 150 miles. In answer to the direct question, “If the Athletics were not in Kansas City, would you come to town as often as you do now?” seventy-eight percent answered no.

in Milwaukee, Ray H. Weisbrod, executive vice-president of the Association of Commerce, estimates that the Braves brought more than seven million dollars in business to the city last season.

None of this surprises Toronto’s Cooke, it appears. "It would be the same story here," he says. "And yet City Hall wants private capital to build the ball park. Would those politicians expect private capital to build a zoo?

Ex-controller Ford Brand, a man who opposed civic expenditure over Cooke’s pleas in council, answered the question with a question when I visited him in his office. "Should the city subsidize the building of a hotel for a private opeiatoi on the grounds that the hotel brings business to the city by holding conventions?” he asked. “Where do you start and stop for people who want to make a piivatc profit?”

The only other Canadian cities deemed large enough to accommodate majorleague requirements are Montreal and Vancouver, and both are worse off with regard to stadium facilities than Toronto. The Montreal franchise, in addition, is owned by the Eos Angeles Dodgers, which could cause further complications, although not necessarily insurmountable ones. Montreal, oddly enough, was surveyed as a possible major-league site in 1952 by the now Toronto executive, Schaffer, who then was employed by Bill Veeck. owner of the St. Louis Browns. Veeck, losing money at St. Louis, dispatched Schaffer who returned with a negative report on the grounds of inadequate facilities and no civic interest in providing new facilities or remedying the old.

The studious columnist of the Montreal Gazette, Dink Carroll, says Montreal kissed its big-league hopes good-by in the late 1940s and early 1950s after Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella had fanned a furious baseball interest in the hearts of Royals’ supporters.

“Nobody did anything about it then and anybody who talks of doing anything about it now is just an epilogist,” says Carroll. "The mayor, Sarto Fournier, told me a while back that he d like to see a proper stadium here but that too many people in council are in disagreement. Around here the big leagues are nowhere in sight.”

Vancouver, a comparative johnnycome-lately, achieved triple-A classification (one class below the majors and on a par with Montreal's and Toronto's International League) prior to the 1956 season when the Oakland franchise in the Pacific Coast league was transferred

there. The club is now owned by seventeen hundred Vancouver stockholders and receives the bulk of its players from Baltimore. President and principal stockholder is Nat Bailey, a greying, softspoken man who once sold peanuts in the Vancouver bail park and now owns a restaurant chain. Bailey confesses that his team is so new to triple-A baseball that no one has given much thought to the majors. “We have talked to city council people privately about large-scale park improvements but we’ve made no formal request,” he says.

His general manager, a swarthy and alert graduate of the Boston Red Sox system, Cedric Tallis, suggests that Vancouver's inclusion in a major-league expansion program vvotdd be predicated on inclusion of Portland and/or Seattle in the nearby Pacific Northwest, and feels that Vancouver’s geographical location would be no hindrance to any expansion program.

“We're only three hours to San Francisco and five to Chicago,” he says. “With a sister city like Portland or Seattle in the league, our area could easily pay for a week’s layover by two visiting clubs, just as Los Angeles and San Francisco do now.”

But in any discussion of big-league expansion to embrace a Canadian city there are always the twin spectres of lack of facilities and big-league confusion. And the latter is as real as the former. In the words of the general manager of Cleveland, Frank Lane, “You'd be surprised how hard it is to get two baseball executives to agree on something without one figuring the other’s trying to skin him. So how do you expect sixteen to agree? We're all selfish; right now, Cleveland owns one eighth of the American League, right? Well, if there were ten teams we'd only own one tenth. Would Cleveland be better off if there were teams in Houston and Toronto, say? Who can answer that?”

Red Smith, columnist of the New York Herald Tribune, has no patience whatever with the owner’s greed and lack of imagination. During the Washington meetings, he wrote: “The little band of willful men who own baseball is assembled to see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil about the business they have not yet managed to strangle to death. The winter meeting is a solemn conclave attended annually by members of the baseball hierarchy in order that they may ignore in concert the grave problems which they have disregarded individually since their last convention . . . (They've) played footsie with towns like Houston. Toronto and MinneapolisSt. Paul and then given these cities the back of their hand.”

And, in Toronto, Rudie Schaffer nods agreement. “It's hard to imagine that these are intelligent people,” he says. “Sometimes the confusion seems premeditated.” +

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