Three years before he became CEO of a Minneapolis investment banking firm, 34-year-old Wheelock Whitney found himself standing with 78-year-old baseball icon Branch Rickey in the Imperial Suite of the Conrad Hilton Hotel in Chicago.
It was Aug. 2, 1960, and the two men — 44 years apart in age, from vastly different backgrounds — shared the same goal: to bring major league baseball to Minnesota. With the Twins currently in a midsummer pennant race, it's worth revisiting the pivotal meeting that led to the team coming to the Twin Cities only a few months later.
Whitney, who died in 2016 at 89, was just emerging as a mover and shaker in 1960. A self-proclaimed "young whippersnapper," he had grown up in St. Cloud, where his father was a transportation executive. Wheelock, whom the family called "Whee," attended Phillips Academy and Yale before becoming a charismatic Minneapolis business and civic leader. He ran twice for statewide office, owned a share of the Vikings and helped bring the National Hockey League to town.
Rickey was born in 1881 to a religious Ohio farm family; 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 league farm system to the batting helmet. His legacy was burnished in 1947 when, as general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, he overturned the game's all-white makeup by signing Jackie Robinson.
To Rickey, baseball was "a civil religion which acted out public functions organized religion was unable to perform," journalist John Helyar wrote. And in 1960, Rickey was intent on growing the major leagues from their traditional 16 teams.
"Rickey believed that baseball would only truly stand up to its 'national pastime' mythology if the game was played in the new cities of the middle part of the country and Canada," St. Paul author Jay Weiner wrote in his 2000 book, "Stadium Games."
Baseball teams were bouncing around the country like grounds balls in the 1950s, including the Boston Braves moving to Milwaukee and the Dodgers and Giants of New York heading west to California. But league owners resisted adding new teams that would dilute revenues from the emerging world of TV.
Minnesota sports boosters built Metropolitan Stadium in 1955 to bring a team to town, but that only enabled the Giants, Cleveland and Washington Senators to flirt with the Twin Cities and enhance their own deals at home. Whitney called it a racket and told Weiner: "We were being used."
As a point man for Minnesota's baseball boosters, Whitney struck an alliance with Rickey, who was organizing the new Continental League to challenge baseball's federal antitrust exemption. Rickey recruited Whitney and his business peers in Houston, New York, Denver and Toronto to join his campaign, and Whitney would often introduce him as they barnstormed the country to drum up support for the Continental League.
"I don't know how you say you're somebody's disciple," Whitney told Weiner. "But I was ready to serve Branch Rickey. I revered him."
All of which brings us back to Chicago in August 1960, when Rickey made his pitch to major league owners. He told them it was time to grow baseball, either with a third league or expansion of the current leagues. "He had them under a spell," Whitney said.
The owners finally agreed to expand — if Rickey folded his Continental League before it ever stitched a uniform or signed a player. That was his plan all along, Weiner wrote, "to gain leverage, then hammer the American and National League into expansion."
Whitney loved to tell the story of how the businessmen, when they got word of the owners' decision, embraced each other in glee. "And that was even before men hugged," he said.
On his plane ride back to New York that night, Rickey wrote Whitney a six-page letter, predicting Minneapolis would be among the first cities with a new team. He credited his young protege for his "good sense [and] candor under pressure."
"There is glamour, almost romance in the prospective adventure" of major league baseball coming to Minnesota, Rickey wrote in a letter Whitney kept and cherished.
Less than three months after the Chicago meeting, Washington and Los Angeles were granted new franchises — allowing Calvin Griffith to move his Senators to Minnesota in 1961. The Houston Colt .45s (later Astros) and the New York Mets joined the big leagues the next year.
The Continental League "clearly" led to the Twins, Clark Griffith, Calvin's son, told the Star Tribune in 2009. "It was, at that particular time in history, the catalyst that forced expansion."
Summed up Whitney: "I'll go to my grave believing that if it hadn't been for the Continental League, it would have taken a number of years before we got major league baseball."
Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.