Review by Budd Bailey
The New York-Penn League filled an odd little niche for decades for baseball fans in Upstate New York. It was something of an entry-level business for professional baseball players. Athletes would come to play in small towns in the region in a short-season league (June through August) and see how they measure up against others in the same situation. Every once in a while, a Wade Boggs or Ryan Howard would pass through so that the host cities could say "We knew him when."
Fans in the region could see better baseball rather easily, of course. The big league teams (New York, Boston, Cleveland, Pittsburgh) were reachable by car when the urge struck, and games were often on cable television. Triple-A teams were scattered in Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse, and Double-A teams sometimes landed in cities such as Binghamton, Albany and Elmira. So that left the NY-P league to cities like Batavia, Jamestown and Oneonta. It was pure baseball without many of the trappings of the higher levels present, and therefore had a certain charm to it.
So what happened? To a certain extent, that's what "Bush League, Big City," by Michael Sokolow is all about.
A not-so-funny thing happened to minor league baseball starting in the 1980s. Teams became much more valuable in financial terms. You can almost draw the line yourself from there. If an owner has spent a good-sized amount of money on a team, he or she wants a return for that investment. That eventually means that some of the small cities will fall by the wayside, as said owner looks to bigger markets that will buy more tickets and merchandise. Sometimes the teams ended up outside of the states of New York and Pennsylvania, ranging from Massachusetts to Maryland to Ohio.
In the case of the New York-Penn League, the story reached a climax in the 1990s. That's when teams ended up in New York City - as far from Elmira at least in terms of sociology as can be imagined. Most of the book is devoted to the story of how teams ended up in Staten Island and Brooklyn, where the record of success was, well, mixed.
Sokolow outlines how the Mets and Yankees, who owned territorial rights to New York, became involved in bringing Class A ball to the Big Apple. Mayor Rudy Giuliani was determined to make the idea work, no matter what the cost was. The big league teams, themselves looking at the need for new stadiums down the road, went along with the idea to score points. It was, of course, a difficult journey. The Mets and Yankees had different approaches for how they wanted the teams set up, including different ownership percentages.
Most importantly, new stadiums of any size are never easy to build in big cities. The financing is always complicated, and there are always unexpected turns because of such matters environmental issues and neighborhood concerns. So construction takes longer than had been planned, revenues don't match inflated expectations, etc. Brooklyn ended up as the more successful of the two, thanks in part to some excellent marketing in linking the minor league team with its major league predecessor, the Dodgers.
As could be imagined, this is difficult to sort out. So give Sokolow credit for even trying. He's an Associate Professor of History at the City University of New York. There's a little doubt that he was the right man for reviewing the situation with the birth of the new teams.
Still, there are a couple of problems here that are difficult to overcome. Much of the research for the book was done back in 2006. Since it concentrates on the New York City teams, it has to do some difficult navigating through all sorts of government agencies and personalities to tell the story. Anyone would have trouble making this sort of study interesting. The fact that it was researched 17 years ago adds to a slightly dated feel.
Meanwhile, the landscape for the New York-Penn League has changed at a breathtaking rate in the past couple of years. That's because the league fell victim to a contraction plan from Major League Baseball in 2020. The NY-P League is no more, which is sad enough on its own. A couple of the cities moved into leagues that survived the purge. But some of the other cities, like Batavia and Elmira, have been forced to host a newly formed college league that features teams scattered through the Northeast. It's baseball, but it's not the pros. It would have been nice to learn more about that side of the issue, since it's essentially the end of the story for a league that started in 1938. Sokolow gives it part of a chapter at the end, but it feels underdeveloped.
"Bush League, Big City" has some good information along the way, but it's rather dense and probably doesn't have enough baseball along the way to please most potential readers. That means it might have trouble reaching an audience. Still, it's nice to have someone like Sokolow get the story of the birth of the New York City teams in the NY-P league on paper.
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