1871 was a pivotal year in both American Baseball and English Football. Before then, both sports were only in the embryonic stages of the international juggernauts we know them to be now.
Baseball after the Civil War was an unorganized mess of amateurs and professionals, plagued by the influence of gambling, players jumping from team to team if they could get more money, and a “gentleman’s agreement” to exclude non-white players. And football was only starting to emerge from the violent, rugby-esque game it had been before, and there were no organized professional leagues or tournaments for fans to enjoy. The sport featured rules that had only recently been agreed on by the Football Association, such as not being able to pick up the ball and run with it. Though the recent disallowing of players wearing nails and plates on their shoes had taken effect. So that was nice.
But in 1871, two completely unrelated events happened thousands of miles apart that set the stage for the way both sports are played today. 1871 saw the first attempt at organizing baseball’s convoluted mess of professionals through the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players. Wracked by lack of parity (Boston won four out of the five championships), and the same influence from gamblers and constant money problems, the NA lasted just a few years, and Major League Baseball doesn’t consider it “major league baseball.” But some of its clubs would survive and go on to form the National League – making the NA the grandfather of the MLB we know and love today.
1871 also saw an English gentleman named C.W. Alcock (a name that I couldn’t make up if I tried) propose the formation of a “Challenge Cup” to be contested by all clubs of the nascent Football Association, regardless of skill level. His equally awesome-named compatriots agreed, and in1872, the first FA Cup final was contested between two amateur teams that haven’t existed in a century. The idea caught fire, the original 12 FA teams ballooned to over 120, and football went from weekend brawl at English colleges to ahe national pastime of pretty much the whole world. Beyond that, in the FA Cup, a tradition was born that thrives to this day. Every year, nearly 800 teams from across England, from the lowest amateur and factory clubs to the giants of the Premier League play a massive, eight-month tournament to crown the best team in England. The lower level teams play each other for the right to play higher-level teams, the survivors of those matches move up the ladder to play even higher teams, which join as leagues are added into the tournament. Upsets are routine, sometimes massive. The FA Cup is an important, hotly-contested trophy, and association “challenge cups” are now common around the world.
Needless to say, such a tradition never caught on in America. But what if there was an American FA Cup? What would it look like? How would it work? The first concern is, of course, cash. You’d need sponsorship. You’d need all of baseball’s owners, leadership and the players association agree to it (which they probably wouldn’t). You’d need MLB to want this to be something worth winning. And since it would take place during the season, as the FA Cup does, you’d have to chop a few games off the MLB season, meaning lower attendance and concessions. But if your could get the players union and the owners on board…then why not?
THE AMERICAN BASEBALL CUP OF BASEBALL!
Major League Baseball has an extremely solid system of tiers, but there’s nothing like the FA, a massive pyramid of leagues stretching from London to East Shropshire-upon-Thislewick, with a promotion/relegation system for moving up and down, and a bureaucracy to ensure everything happens that’s supposed to.
For the moment, we’ll forget that there’s no structure for an American Baseball Cup, and just say it exists. Poof.
As with the FA cup, in our ABC, games would be one-and-done. No series, no best-of. Each winning team gets a small prize, with the cash amounts increasing the further you go. I’d start the earliest rounds with amateur baseball, which is still extremely popular. Through groups like Town Team Baseball, NABA, National Baseball Congress, and AAABA, we could probably find dozens, if not hundreds of teams to enter into the the preliminary levels for a chance at playing the big boys. If we really wanted to go nuts, we could add organized softball, company teams and even American Legion.
Then we get to the semi-pro leagues, including Midlands Baseball League, National SemiPro Baseball Association and many others. The winners from the amateur levels would move up to play the semi-pro teams. Then those winners would move up, and on we go.
Now, it’s time for the pros. But before we get to the minors, we start with the independent leagues. The North American League, Frontier League, American Association, Atlantic League and others join here and play the survivors from the lower rounds. Then it’s on to the minors proper, starting with Rookie ball, then Class A, AA and AAA, added round by round. The competition gets tougher, the stakes get higher and the chance to play against a major league team increases. Finally, we’d add in MLB to the tournament. To ensure every major league team has an opponent, I’d add all 30 teams and have 34 teams remaining from the previous levels to have a 64 team bracket, where one winner would be crowned. Aping the FA Cup’s structure we’d have:
A GIANT TOURNAMENT!
- First Round: All amateur teams, plus company teams, American Legion, qualified softball teams, weekend leagues, etc. I have no idea how many teams this is, so let’s guess 300.
- Second Round: ADD semi-pro teams. Again, just a guess. 200 new teams play 150 winning teams from the first round, and against each other. 175 teams remain after this.
- Third round: ADD Independent leagues. 100 new teams join 175 winners. 140-ish teams remain.
- Fourth Round: ADD Rookie Ball and Rookie Advanced: 45 new teams join 140-ish winners. 95 teams remain.
- Fifth Round: ADD Class A. 30 teams join 95 winners. 65 teams remain.
- Sixth Round: ADD Advanced-A. 30 teams join 65 winners. 47-ish teams remain.
- Seventh Round: ADD AA. 30 teams join 47-ish winners. 37 teams remain.
- Eighth Round: ADD AAA: 30 teams join 37 winners. 34 teams remain.
- Ninth Round: ADD MLB: 30 teams join 34 winners. 32 teams remain
- Tenth Round: 32 winners play down to 16
- Eleventh Round: 16 winners play down to 8
- Quarter-Finals: 8 winners play down to 4
- Semi-Finals: 4 winners play down to 2
- Finals: 2 winners play for the championship
All of these numbers would have the change based on how many teams entered, and we might have to add another round to winnow down the number of teams, but as long as there were 34 teams remaining going into whatever round we add MLB, we’re fine. And this dovetails nicely with how the FA Cup works, because to win, an EPL team needs to win 6 matches, and here, an MLB team would need to win six games to take home the ABC. And win eternal glory.
- The ABC would be a huge shot in the arm for amateur and semi-pro baseball in the US. A chance for your company team to play the Yankees? Come on!
- It would be a hell of a lot of fun for everyone involved. Minor league teams could have insanely awesome promotions built around games.
- Countless talented players who never got a shot a chance would get to play in front of the pros, and minor league players would get priceless experience against better players.
- It would give major league teams that aren’t playing well something new to compete for.
- Everyone loves upsets. When the #14 seed beats the #3 in the NCAA Tournament, people go insane. Imagine a semi-pro team knocking off the Red Sox. Same thing.
- Sponsorship! Every level of the tournament could get sold off to the highest bidder. It’s the American way.
- The tournament would be a huge pain in the ass to put together. Huge.
- MLB probably would never get on board with playing games that didn’t count in the standings, and losing games that did.
- As with the FA Cup, you’d probably never see any team other than one from the Majors (or a REALLY good AAA squad) win the title. In fact, you could see massive, not-entertaining blowouts.
- Scheduling would be a nightmare.
- A made up championship doesn’t have a lot of value. BP Cup, anyone?
- There would be serious money issues, especially with amateur teams against pros.
WOULD IT WORK?
Maybe, if everyone involved pulled together and made it work. MLB would have to get on board, and the mess of amateur and semi-pro leagues around the country would need to be organized. But it works pretty much everywhere else in the world, so why not here?
C.W. Alcock would expect nothing less.