The revival of independent professional baseball, which began with the establishment of a new Northern League in 1993, has been one of the most fascinating developments of the past 20 years in the world of baseball. The baseball-reference.com website, one of the authoritative sources for information on baseball history, lists thirty different independent professional baseball leagues that have operated in the United States since the early 1990s.
It is curious, though, why none of these independent leagues joined, or so far as I know, attempted to join the National Association, the umbrella organization within Organized Baseball for the minor leagues.
I realize that there are reasons why an independent league might not want to join up with Organized Baseball. Minor league salary restrictions might be more stringent than those in independent leagues, and of course, any independent league with a team occupying the same geographic territory as a team in organized baseball (like the St. Paul Saints) would have to relocate those teams if it affiliated with the National Association.
On the other hand, membership would provide added security for player contracts and would allow league owners to profit by selling players for modest sums under the Rule 5 draft. Plus they would be eligible for major league affiliations which might help boost attendance.
Does the National Association itself have restrictions that limit the possibility of the admission of new leagues, particularly those composed of teams without major league affiliations? Did the so-called Player Development Plan of 1962, the agreement that led to the restructuring of minor league baseball, include an agreement that no new independent professional leagues from the United States would be admitted into Minor League Baseball?
Only a handful of new leagues have joined the National Association since the 1960. They are
1. Western Carolinas League, 1960.
2. Mexican Center League, 1960.
3. Georgia-Florida League, 1962.
4. Mexican Southeast League, 1964.
5. Gulf Coast League, 1966.
6. Mexican Northern League, 1968.
7. American Association, 1969
8. Arizona League, 1988.
The two real minor leagues on this list, the Western Carolinas League and the Georgia-Florida League, both represented efforts to revive earlier lower-ranking minor leagues with the same name that had previously folded. Both, it should be noted, were admitted to the National Association before the 1962 reorganization.
The Western Carolinas League, which was originally founded as a minor league for the proposed Continental League (and was to be a third major league), is still around today, although since 1980, it has operated under the name South Atlantic League. (The original South Atlantic League changed its name to the Southern League in 1964, and it is also still around today.) The revived Georgia-Florida League, however, folded at the end of the 1963 season.
Three of the leagues on the above list were admitted to the National Association simply because they were located in Mexico. Under the terms of the settlement growing out of the “war” between Organized Baseball and the Mexican League in the 1940s, Mexican professional leagues were eligible for National Association membership (and the protection of player contracts that implied), even though they were not part of the minor league player development system. The Mexican Southeast League lasted through the 1970 season, and the Mexican Northern League folded the following year, while the Mexican Center League lasted through 1978.
The other three leagues were creations of Organized Baseball and not new leagues in the traditional sense. The Gulf Coast League and the Arizona League are special rookie leagues created by the Major Leagues to facilitate player development under highly controlled conditions. The teams in the two leagues do not have individual owners or geographic names—they are known only by the name of their major league parent. Games are played in mid-summer in spring training facilities; no admission is charged for the games, and no attendance records are compiled.
The re-creation of the American Association in 1969 and its readmission to the National Association was also not the product of a new league seeking to join Organized Baseball. It was the product of a decision by Organized Baseball to reestablish the once famous minor league which after the 1962 season had been folded into the PCL and the International League.
The new American Association was created by Organized Baseball and composed entirely of teams that had played in one of the other two AAA leagues the previous season. The decision to add a new AAA league was motivated by the fact that the 1969 expansion of the number of major league teams from 20 to 24 (which necessitated a similar increase in the number of AAA teams) made it seem more reasonable to operate three AAA leagues rather than two. (In 1997, the powers that be changed their minds, and the three AAA leagues were consolidated into two with the American Association once again disappearing.)
So, in reality, the National Association has not admitted a newly organized league to its membership ranks since 1962. On the other hand, it appears that, other than the American Association which was absorbed into two other leagues, only one non-Mexican based league has folded since the Georgia-Florida League went under in 1963. (The league that folded was the original Northern League which went under at the end of the 1971 season.
This certainly makes it look like a decision was made somewhere along the line to fix the number of member leagues. (The plan adopted in 1962 keyed the number of high ranking minor league teams to the number of major league teams, but it did not appear to place an absolute cap on the number of minor league teams.)
Forty years ago, after the collapse of the Northern League, there were 16 United States-based minor leagues in the National Association. Today there are still 16, with the Arizona League “replacing” the American Association as the only difference.
Am I right to assume that Organized Baseball today would reject an application from a well-funded, well-organized independent league that wanted to join the National Association?