Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Expansion Teams of 1969

I was browsing around my normal slew of websites earlier today, and I came across something interesting. Apparently, the 2009 season marks the 40th anniversary of four different major league franchises. The San Diego Padres, Kansas City Royals, Washington Nationals (Montreal Expos), and Milwaukee Brewers (Seattle Pilots) all came into being 40 years ago this season as part of the 1969 expansion crop.

It was a big deal at the time. As this terrific article from the 1969 Sports Illustrated baseball preview issue mentions, the four new teams altered the structure of major league baseball significantly.
"The final out of professional baseball's first century occurred on a beautiful afternoon early last October at Busch Memorial Stadium in St. Louis when Bill Freehan of the Detroit Tigers moved gracefully under a foul fly near the first base dugout. He tapped his catcher's mitt, caught the ball and in an instant was bearing the full weight of Mickey Lolich, the pitching hero in one of the more heartwarming comebacks in sport. It has been only six months since Freehan made the catch, and in just that short period of time baseball has undergone more changes than any other traditional game has ever endured.

This week the second century of professional baseball began, and instead of 20 teams there were 24. Instead of two leagues there were four divisions. One hundred players who were not good enough to make the major leagues in 1968 were suddenly prime properties. Nobody knows what kind of a season it will be because nobody has ever tried to get through a year like this one before. But there are the precedents of two recent seasons when two teams were added, and if what happened then is any measure for 1969 the elements for a spectacular year are present."
The 1969 season also saw the lowering of the pitcher's mound from 15 inches to 10 inches (and the arrival of Bowie Kuhn as commissioner, but that's a whole other post). It was truly a season of change for many reasons, but none were more significant than the arrival of major league baseball in four new cities.

It's been forty years now, and some very different things have happened to these four franchises. The Expos, for example, left Montreal after 36 seasons and became the Washington Nationals. And while today the people of Seattle root on their own team, it's not the team that arrived in 1969. In fact, the Pilots left Seattle after only one season and moved, at the behest of new owner Bud Selig, to Milwaukee to become the Brewers (who then moved to the National League in 1998). The Padres and Royals are still playing ball in their original hometowns, but with some very different histories. Because of this, I thought it might be a fun little exercise to take a look at these four franchises and see if we can determine which one has been the most successful over these last 40 years.

Kansas City Royals
40-year record: 3,078 - 3,263 (.485)
Playoff Appearances: 1976, 1977, 1978, 1980, 1981, 1984, 1985
World Series Appearances: 1980, 1985
Retired Numbers: #5 - George Brett, #10 - Dick Howser, #20 - Frank White

The Royals were by far the first of the four expansion teams to achieve high-level success. In only their third year of existence, they finished in second place with an 85-76 record, and they made the playoffs for the first time only five years later. With the arrival of George Brett in 1974 to go alongside other All-Stars like Frank White, Amos Otis, and Hal McRae, it didn't take the Royals long to make a name for themselves. They were the firstof these franchises to reach the World Series, in 1980, but lost to the Phillies. In 1985, they also became the first of the '69 expansion clubs (and as yet only) to win a World Series, besting the Cardinals in seven games. Sadly, their recent failures have helped to erase the memories of a winning franchise from many people's minds. In fact, the Royals only have five seasons in the last forty where they had a .400 winning percentage or worst, and all five of those have come in the last 10 years. Hopefully, they can turn things around soon (with the likes of Joakim Soria and Zach Grienke) and remind everyone of the winning franchise that they have historically been.

Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals
40-year record: 3,039 - 3,306 (.479)
Playoff Appearances: 1981
World Series Appearances: none
Retired Numbers: #8 - Gary Carter, #10 - Andre Dawson/Rusty Staub, #30 - Tim Raines [as Expos- they also retired Jackie Robinson's minor league number #20 and #83 for their owner, Charles Bronfman]

The tale of the Montreal Expos is a sad one. Over their 35 years in Montreal, they fielded some tremendous teams. Long-time catcher Gary Carter is already in the Hall of Fame, and Andre Dawson is likely to go in in the next few years. And Tim Raines - well, let's just say that Tim Raines should already be in the Hall. Then there was the whole 1994 strike saga, where the Expos were an MLB-best 74-60 and in first place by 6 games in August when the strike happened. The best chance that the Expos ever had at the World Series was washed away when the postseason was canceled, and the team, full of young players on the cusp of free agency, didn't survive the offseason. The team never recovered either - in the next ten years, before leaving for Washington, the Expos finished 2nd twice and either 4th or 5th the other eight years. Today, the Nationals are in bad shape, but things aren't hopeless. If the management can make some smart moves in the next couple of years, the Nats and their fans might have something to look forward to.

San Diego Padres
40-year record: 2,933 - 3,421 (.462)
Playoff Appearances: 1984, 1996, 1998, 2005, 2006
World Series Appearances: 1984, 1998
Retired Numbers: #6 - Steve Garvey, #19 - Tony Gwynn, #31 - Dave Winfield, #35 - Randy Jones

The Padres present an interesting case. Of the four 1969 expansion teams, the Pads have the worst overall won-loss record, but have been to the postseason 5 different times and have even been to the World Series twice. That tells me that they must have had a pretty large number of poor seasons early on, if their recent success still can't bring that career record up. Looking at the records, that proves to be true. In their 40-year history, the Padres have finished with a .400 winning percentage or worse *nine* different times (and in two other years they finished with a .401 or .402 winning percentage). That's a pretty extreme level of losing (a .400 winning percentage amounts to a 98-loss season), and one the other expansion teams don't come close to matching. Still, Padres fans can feel pretty good about their history, with all-time greats like Tony Gwynn and Dave Winfield anchoring their lineups and with more than their fair share of postseason success. It may not be rosy in San Diego today, but they don't have too much in their history to complain about.

Seattle Pilots/Milwaukee Brewers
40-year record: 3,009 - 3,338 (.474)
Playoff Appearances: 1981, 1982, 2008
World Series Appearances: 1982
Retired Numbers: #4 - Paul Molitor, #19 - Robin Yount, #34 - Rollie Fingers, #44 - Hank Aaron

The Seattle Pilots spent one year in the Pacific Northwest. That winter, the team's owners realized that they would have trouble keeping the team afloat in Seattle, and so made a deal with Milwaukee businessman Bud Selig to move the team to Milwaukee. The deal didn't get finalized until the last minute. In fact, when the Pilots packed up their trucks from spring training in 1970, they did not know which city they would be driving to. But the deal went through, the trucks rolled on to Wisconsin, and baseball returned to Milwaukee. The Brewers had their first winning season in 1978, when they won 93 games but still finished in third place. The core of Robin Yount and Paul Molitor, and some great complementary players like Ted Simmons and Gorman Thomas, could not be held down for long, however, and the Brewers made it all the way to the World Series in 1982. They would not return to the postseason again until 2008. After 12 straight losing seasons from 1993 to 2005, the Brewers finally started drafting well and making shrewd trades. Today, Brewers fans have legitimate hope for the future, with a talented young core of players. They also seem to have a slightly unhealthy obsession with that '82 squad, but that could change soon with some new success.

Looking at the forty year histories of these four franchises, I think I'd have to say that the Royals have been the most successful of the four. With the only World Series win of the group, and the most postseason visits, the Royals dominated a good stretch of the '70s and '80s. However, that stretch coincided entirely with the peak of George Brett's career, and the Royals haven't been able to do too much since then. In recent years, the Padres have had more success than any of the other '69 expansion teams, though their immediate prospects have taken a big hit recently. The Brewers and Nationals hope to take over that mantle soon, but that may only be possible for one of those teams. However you cut it, though, the 1969 crop of expansion teams have added a significant amount of color to the annals of major league history, and helped pave the way for baseball as we know it today. For that, we can be quite thankful, even if we aren't from any of these cities.


The Common Man said...

Terrific post, lar. I doubt we'll ever see an expansion like this again, either (especially with 6 divisions now). For more on these teams, definitely check out The Hardball Times' Franchises at Birth series (written by Treder) if you haven't already. It's fascinating, particularly how the Royals jumped into respectability.

I had a long ramble about the reasons for the Royals slide here, but it was looking and acting more like a blog post, so I'm going to throw it up over on my site. Anyway, terrific job.

lar said...

Thanks, TCM. Glad you liked it. There's some good discussion going on over at Baseball Think Factory about those expansion teams. You should definitely check out comment #12 for a pretty good detail about why these four cities were chosen.