How a Minneapolis Businessman and Baseball Icon Made Minnesota Major League

Three years before taking over as CEO of an investment banking firm in Minneapolis, 34-year-old Willock Whitney found himself standing with 78-year-old baseball icon Branch Rickey in the Imperial Suite at the Conrad Hilton Hotel in Chicago.

It was August 2, 1960, and the two men—44 years apart, and from very different backgrounds—shared the same goal: to bring Major League Baseball to Minnesota. With the Twins currently at the Pennant race in midsummer, it’s worth revisiting the pivotal meeting that brought the team to the Twin Cities just a few months later.

Whitney, who died in 2016 at age 89, was just beginning to emerge as a mover and shaker in 1960. He grew up in St Cloud, where his father was a transportation executive. Willock, who was nicknamed “Wee” by the family, attended Phillips and Yale Academy before becoming a charismatic Minneapolis businessman and civic leader. He ran twice for statewide position, owned a share of the Vikings and helped bring the National Hockey League to town.

Ricky was born in 1881 to a religious farm family in Ohio. As a baseball player and manager, he refused to participate in Sunday games. But he’s considered among the game’s great innovators, creating everything from the Major Leagues farm system to the batting helmet. His legacy was polished in 1947 when, as general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, he upended the game’s all-white makeup by hiring Jackie Robinson.

Journalist John Hillyar wrote that for Ricky baseball was “a civic religion that performed public functions that organized religion was unable to perform”. And in 1960, Ricky was intent on growing the major leagues out of their traditional sixteen teams.

Paul author Jay Weiner wrote in his 2000 book, “Ricky believed that baseball would not stand up to the legends of ‘national pastime’ unless the game was played in new cities in the central part of the country and Canada.” Stadium Games”.

Baseball teams were cruising around the country like globes in the 1950s, including the Boston Braves who moved to Milwaukee and the Dodgers and Giants of New York moving west to California. But league owners have resisted adding new teams that would dilute the revenue of the emerging television world.

Minnesota’s athletic boosters built Metropolitan Stadium in 1955 to bring a team into town, but that only enabled giant senators and Cleveland and Washington to court the Twin Cities and cement their deals at home. Whitney described it as a racket and told Weiner, “We’ve been used to it.”

As a key player on the Minnesota baseball promotion team, Whitney forged an alliance with Ricky, who was organizing the New Continental League to challenge the federal antitrust baseball exemption. Ricky recruited Whitney and fellow businessmen in Houston, New York, Denver, and Toronto to join his campaign, and Whitney often introduced him while storming the country to rally support for the Continental League.

“I don’t know how you say you’re someone’s disciple,” Whitney told Weiner. “But I was willing to serve Branch Ricky. I would venerate him.”

It all brings us back to Chicago in August 1960, when Ricky made his bid for the majors. Tell them it’s time to develop baseball, either with a third league or expand existing leagues. “He was under the spell,” Whitney said.

The owners finally agreed to expand – if Ricky folded his Continental League before he sewed a uniform or signed a player. Weiner wrote that this was his plan all along, “to gain influence, and then get America and the National League to expand.”

Whitney loved to tell the story of how the two businessmen, when they got word of the owners’ decision, hugged each other happily. And that was before men embraced, he said.

While flying back to New York that night, Ricky wrote a six-page letter to Whitney, predicting that Minneapolis would be among the first cities with a new team. He credited his young stepson for his “good feeling [and] Honesty under pressure.

“There is a glitz, semi-romantic in the anticipated adventure” of Major League Baseball coming to Minnesota, Ricky wrote in a letter that Whitney kept and cherished.

Less than three months after the Chicago meeting, Washington and Los Angeles were granted new concessions—allowing Calvin Griffith to move senators to Minnesota in 1961. The Houston Colt .45 (later Astros) and New York Mets joined the major leagues the next year .

“Obviously” the Continental League led to the twins, Clark Griffiths, Calvin’s son, told the Star Tribune in 2009. “It was, at that particular time in history, the catalyst that compelled the expansion.”

Whitney summed up, “I’d go to my grave thinking that if it wasn’t for the Continental League, it would have taken several years before we had Major League Baseball.”

Kurt Brown’s tales of Minnesota history pop up every Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at mnhistory@startribune.com. His most recent book takes a look at Minnesota in 1918, when influenza, war, and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.