Expansion class of 1977

Baseball’s first two rounds of expansion appeared to be well-coordinated. They weren’t.

Owners resisted for decades any increase in the number of big-league clubs. They didn’t flinch until 1960, when a group of entrepreneurs announced plans for a third league, the Continental League (CL).

Walter O’Malley, the president of the Los Angeles Dodgers, invited the operators of the eight CL franchises to a conference room at a Chicago hotel.

“There is only one move open,” O’Malley told them. “We must compromise. We will take four of your cities and later add the rest.”

And so it was decided. The National League added a pair of CL clubs — the Houston Colt .45s and New York Mets — and the American League was expected to pick two of the remaining six. But the AL reneged on the deal, opting for the Los Angeles Angels and the second coming of the Washington Senators, neither of which had roots in the CL.

The spurned members of the Continental League howled ineffectually at this violation of O’Malley’s verbal compact. Branch Rickey, the CL’s president, assumed the mien of an elderly tragedian. “The dictionary definition of perfidy has now been confirmed,” he intoned.

The American League was angry that the NL has scooped up the two most promising markets, so it retaliated by fielding its expansion teams on an accelerated timetable in 1961. The National League welcomed its two clubs in 1962.

The subsequent expansion in 1969 was equally tumultuous.

Charlie Finley, the owner of the Kansas City Athletics, decided to move his franchise to Oakland in 1968. His fellow American League owners assented, though they failed to account for the anger of Stuart Symington, a powerful Missouri senator who immediately threatened an antitrust lawsuit and a congressional investigation.

The league mollified him by hastily expanding to Kansas City and Seattle, effective in 1969. Symington expressed double gratitude, both for Kansas City’s new team and the departure of Finley. “Oakland is the luckiest city since Hiroshima,” the senator snorted.

The AL’s panicky maneuver caught the National League off guard. It responded methodically, granting franchises to Montreal and San Diego, which also started play in 1969.

This track record almost guaranteed that the next expansion in 1977 would be chaotic — and it was.

The National League had no desire to expand beyond 12 clubs, but the American League had a pair of reasons to be interested.

The National League had already placed a team in Montreal, one of two highly desirable markets in Canada, and it was looking closely at the other, Toronto. The San Francisco Giants came close to moving there in 1976. AL owners wanted to grab Toronto before the other league did.

There also were legal reasons for expansion. The American League’s decision to grant a team to Seattle in 1969 had been a disaster. The Pilots relocated to Milwaukee after a single season, inspiring municipal officials in Seattle to file a lawsuit against the AL, a suit that remained active in 1976.

The obvious remedy was to expand to both cities, which the American League did in 1977. The National League pondered similar action, but then decided to stand pat.

This is the third of five stories about MLB’s expansion rounds, which are running on successive Wednesdays. Click here to read about 1961-1962 and 1969. And check this link for an explanation of my fan support index (FSI), which is cited in the following breakdowns for 1977’s two entrants, the Mariners and Blue Jays. (Win-loss records and attendance figures for 2023 are not included in the summaries below.)

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Seattle Mariners

  • Span: 1977-2022

  • Regular-season record: 3,426 wins, 3,799 losses (.474)

  • Postseason record: 5 playoff qualifiers

  • Fan support: Average FSI of 92.2 (7.8% below expectations)

  • Strange but true: The Mariners played their first 22 seasons in the vast Kingdome, which was often likened to a concrete tomb. They moved to Safeco Field in 1999, becoming the first team to leave a facility with a fixed dome for an open-air stadium. Or, in this case, partially open-air, since the newer stadium has a retractable roof.

  • Verdict: Partly a success, partly a failure. The Mariners qualified for the playoffs last year, their first postseason appearance since 2001. But Seattle has never made it to the World Series, the only existing franchise to endure such a shutout. Fan support has fallen short of expectations in 30 of the team’s 44 non-Covid seasons.

Toronto Blue Jays

  • Span: 1977-2022

  • Regular-season record: 3,598 wins, 3,627 losses (.498)

  • Postseason record: 9 playoff qualifiers, 2 American League pennants, 2 World Series titles

  • Fan support: Average FSI of 111.9 (11.9% above expectations)

  • Strange but true: The nickname of Blue Jays was chosen through a contest that elicited more than 4,000 suggested names from the public. Observers noted that the club’s primary owner, Labatt Breweries, had a signature product known as Labatt Blue, leading to unconfirmed reports that the club was named after the beer.

  • Verdict: Success. The Jays became the first MLB team to draw more than 4 million fans, passing that milestone in 1991. And they won back-to-back world titles in 1992 and 1993. Recent times have not been as exciting, though the club still qualified for the playoffs in four of the past eight seasons.

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