Reading an April 8 USA Today feature on the expansion era of baseball got me to thinking about my lifetime and how I’ve enjoyed this great game. When I began to follow the sport closely, in the mid-1950s, there were sixteen teams, eight in each league. It had been that way for more than fifty years. The winner of the regular season played the other league’s winner in the seven-game World Series. The post-season was only the World Series and the team that endured to the end (only 154 games in most of this period of time) won the pennant in each league. Each team played all the other seven teams 22 times during the season. I loved it. You played to the very last day and if you survived you went to the World Series. The only problem was that in some seasons there was no mystery left by mid-September.
Well in 1961, when I was only twelve years old, expansion began. This means 2011 is the fiftieth anniversary of the new era. It seems impossible to conceive, at least to me, but I have lived through this whole expansion period. Maybe this is how we date our lives as we age; e.g. by historic moments, changes, big events that change the way we think and live, etc.
In 1961 the Los Angeles Angels and Washington Senators (later to become the Texas Rangers) were added to the American League. In 1962 the Houston Astros (originally the Colt .45s) and the New York Mets were added to the National League. Then came the Kansas City Royals and the Seattle Pilots (now the Milwaukee Brewers) in 1969 and the San Diego Padres and Montreal Expos (now the Washington Nationals) in the National League, giving each league 12 teams and the first divisions in each league and additional playoffs. That first year of the new system my Atlanta Braves (who had moved to the South in 1966) played the Mets in the first NL postseason ever. They lost. (This was also the year of the great Chicago Cubs collapse to the Mets, which I much enjoyed!) The Mets went on to win the World Series in a stunning and memorable fashion. Later the Toronto Blue Jays, Seattle Mariners, Florida Marlins, Colorado Rockies, Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Rays were added to make the 30 teams that we know today. The Wild Card was added to the mix in 1995, the year my Braves finally won another World Series, making them the only team to win won in three different cities.
Which team has the best winning percentage of all expansion teams? As of this year the Angels have played at a .498 clip and the Blue Jays at .497. Thus not one team in the expansion era has a winning percentage. But the Mets have won the most titles in the post-season, taking four pennants and two World Series Championships.
I can still remember listening to the Cardinals on the radio late at night when it was the team furtherest west, just across the Mississippi River in Missouri. When the Dodgers and Giants moved to California in 1958 this triggered the response that led to expansion. Without air travel it would never have happened, showing again how much systems and ideas are interconnected. I remember the summer of 1961 when my mom took my brother and me, and an older cousin, all the way to California and I saw the Braves play the Dodgers in the Coliseum and the Giants play the Reds in cold Candlestick Park on an August evening.
While the Mets have won the most post-season titles the Mets also had the worst single season in MLB history, losing 120 games in the inaugural season of 1962. That was a year to remember for so many reasons but most of all for the way Casey Stengel turned misery into humor.
The US has grown from 180 million people in 1961 to 308 million today. Baseball is now an international game and a growing percentage of MLB players come from outside the United States. But the game remains strong and people who love to relax in the warm months by enjoying a sport that requires you to think and engage strategy as it unfolds still love baseball. I just hope the owners and players do not mess it up anytime soon. It is a truly American sport and one that defines our nation in so many ways.