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The Birth and Almost Near-Death of the Independent Baseball League

December 7, 2018

Back in the ‘80s, there was almost a second huge pro baseball league. It fell apart before a single pitch was thrown.

Trying to buy a team

In addition to acquiring properties and developing real estate in New York, Donald Trump spent a good deal of time in the 1980s trying to buy a Major League Baseball team. Between 1984 and 1986, he nearly became the controlling interest in the Minnesota Twins, the Seattle Mariners, the San Francisco Giants, the San Diego Padres, the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the Cleveland Indians. Trump wasn’t going to move any of those teams, except for the last two—he had plans to build a state-of-the-art stadium and install the Pirates or Indians there. Trying to buy a professional sports franchise is incredibly tricky business, so Trump decided that it might be easier to just forget the whole thing…and form a brand new baseball league. (It was not easier to do that.)

Independent Baseball League

In 1989, the Washington Post reported that the baseball-hungry city, team-less since the second iteration of the Washington Senators moved and became the Texas Rangers in 1971. No, the D.C. area hadn’t scored an expansion team, which MLB was discussing at the time, but rather Trump announced he was starting a league, and that one of the flagship teams would sit in the national capital. Over the next few weeks, the league was alternately referred to as the Independent Baseball League as well as just the Baseball League, and that in addition to Washington, it would field teams in New York (which Trump would personally own and run), Los Angeles (owned by Meshulam Riklis, the guy who owned the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling), but mostly heretofore cities without pro teams: Denver, Phoenix, Sacramento, Hartford, Indianapolis, Portland, Charlotte, Nashville, Columbus, New Orleans, Miami, and Orlando.

Old-school approach

Further whetting the appetites of sports fans in those cities, Trump and others associated with the new baseball league promised that the league—which would launch in spring 1990, an alarmingly scant seven months away or so—would take a decidedly old-school approach. For example, teams would play mostly day games, there’d be no “designated hitter” like the American League utilized, and players would endure a 154-game schedule like they did in the early 20th century, as opposed to the latter-day 162-game backbreaker. League officials said that ABC and NBC were both bidding on a multi-million-dollar TV deal. Everything seemed to be in place…if the league could get off the ground in such a short period of time, that is.

Minimum salary

The Baseball League (or Independent League) also had to attract players, and it did it in the most effective way possible: with money. Trump promised a league minimum salary of $100,000 a year, much higher than MLB’s rate at the time of $68,000. The upstart league also used money to both aggressively pursue a potential star, which served as free publicity. 

Negotiating

The Major League Scouting Bureau had just given Louisiana State star Ben McDonald the highest rating it had ever given a pitcher, and it’s not surprising that the Baltimore Orioles selected him with the #1 pick in the 1989 player draft. McDonald’s father acted as his agent, and after he felt the Orioles didn’t offer enough cash (about $200,000), he entertained an offer from Trump’s league…which put up a $2.25 million, three-year deal. However, the Orioles blinked and gave McDonald a much larger offer, and he went with that MLB team.

The fatal blow

And that failed negotiation was about the last time Trump, or anyone mentioned the Independent Baseball League. Losing McDonald seems to have been a fatal blow for the young, barely there organization.

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