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This week (day) in history: Expansion Baseball

Eighteen years ago today, the Arizona Diamondbacks played in their first game. It wasn't particularly pretty, but it was the start of something. Here's a look at that, and at other expansion teams.

Andy Benes awaits the start of an era
Andy Benes awaits the start of an era
Vincent Laforet/Getty Images

March 31, 1998 was the first of many firsts for the Diamondbacks. It was the first game of the first season, and the first opening day lineup featured a range of players from the memorable to the not so memorable. Think you know the 1998 Arizona Diamondbacks? Here is a quiz with all 46 players to appear for the Diamondbacks that season. Try it and see how many you get.

History of Expansion Teams

But, back to the history of expansion. Major League Baseball has expanded in basically three waves: the 1960s, 1977, and the 1990s. Expansion began in 1961 with the Los Angeles Angels (who played at Wrigley Field, but not the famous one) and the Washington Senators joining the American League. The long process that would surround the Diamondbacks simply didn't exist; the franchises got their start after the 1960 season was completed, and while an expansion draft was held, there wasn't much time to build up infrastructure or a farm system. Despite the challenges, the Angels won 70 games and finished 8th out of 10 AL teams; the Senators weren't so lucky, finishing tied for last with the Athletics (then in Kansas City) and losing 100 games. The Angels would post their first winning season in 1962, but wouldn't reach the postseason until 1979; the Senators would move to Arlington to become the Texas Rangers, wouldn't reach the postseason until 1996, and wouldn't win a pennant until 2010.

The National League followed suit in 1962, adding the Mets to replace the Giants and Dodgers in New York, and the Houston Colt .45's (now Astros.) The Mets started out historically bad, but won famously won the World Series in 1969; they have won more pennants (five) than any other expansion franchise. But while Houston didn't have such extreme success, and still has only one pennant to their name (in 2005) they were more consistent; they didn't lose 100 games until 2011, a record for expansion teams.

1969 brought four more teams to Major League Baseball, as well as the first divisions. The Seattle Pilots and Kansas City Royals joined the American League, and the Montreal Expos and San Diego Padres joined the National League. The Royals would become the first of these teams to win a pennant, and in 2014 joined the Mets as the only expansion franchise to win more than two; it was fitting that these two teams became the first to contest an all-expansion World Series. Seattle moved to Milwaukee after one season to become the Brewers, and won a pennant in 1982. We all know what happened to Montreal. San Diego won pennants in 1984 and 1998, but of these four teams, the Royals are the only won to win a World Series.

In 1977, Seattle was awarded a team yet again, as the Mariners joined the American League. The Toronto Blue Jays also began play that year, and it didn't take them long to become successful, nearly winning the pennant in 1985 before winning consecutive World Series trophies in 1992-1993. The Mariners are still waiting for their first pennant.

Many of us likely remember 1993, when the Marlins and Rockies joined the National League, followed by the Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 1998. All of these expansion teams have won at least one pennant, with the Marlins winning two.

How they fared in their first game

  • 1961 Angels: defeated the Orioles, in Baltimore, 7-2, but followed that up by losing 8 in a row.
  • 1961 Senators: lost to White Sox, at home, 4-3.
  • 1962 Colt .45's: defeated Cubs, at home, 11-2. They would sweep the Cubs and wouldn't drop below .500 until the 13th game of the season.
  • 1962 Mets: lost at Cardinals 11-4. They would lose their first 9 en route to a 40-120 season.
  • 1969 Pilots: won at Angels, 4-3. They finished the season 64-98.
  • 1969 Royals: won at home against Twins, 4-3 in 12 innings. They won again in 17 innings the following day, and didn't drop below .500 for good until May 14th, on their way to a 69-93 season.
  • 1969 Expos: won at Mets 11-10. Ironically, they would go on to lose 110 games while the Mets would win 100 games and the World Series.
  • 1969 Padres: won 2-1 at home against the Astros. They joined the Astros as the only expansion teams to sweep their first series, but followed that up by losing six straight on the way to a 52-110 record.
  • 1977 Blue Jays: beat White Sox 9-5 at home, but went 54-107 on the year.
  • 1977 Mariners: lost 7-0 at home to Angels. Would win their first game two days later on a walk-off, joining the Royals as the only teams to pick up their first wins in that fashion. Went 64-98 on the season.
  • 1993 Marlins: beat Dodgers, 6-3, at home. Strangely, this seems to be the only "first game" available on YouTube. The Marlins would join a lot of expansion teams in going 64-98.
  • 1993 Rockies: lost at Mets, 3-0. They would post a somewhat respectable 67-95 record, and become the quickest expansion team to reach the playoffs (until the Diamondbacks surpassed them four years later) when they were the Wild Card in 1995.
  • 1998 Devil Rays: lost at home to Tigers, 11-6. Actually were above .500 on April 25th, but lost 99 games.
  • 1998 Diamondbacks: lost at home to Rockies, 9-2. The Diamondbacks would finish 65-97 after a 2-13 start that could be considered the worst in expansion history. As we all know, they turned it around quickly to win the division the next year and the World Series shortly after that.

Expansion teams are 8-6 in their first games, but the 1993 Marlins are the most recent expansion team to win their first game. The 9-2 loss by the Diamondbacks is tied with the 1962 Mets 11-4 loss for worst loss in first game, but the Mets were on the road while the Diamondbacks were at home. First game aside, though, 1998 was a successful year; the Diamondbacks posted a better record than the Devil Rays, and drew over 3.6 million fans to Bank One Ballpark, a figure which puts the Diamondbacks fourth in highest single-season attendance among expansion clubs (trailing the Rockies in 1993, the Blue Jays in 1993, and the Mets in 2008, all of whom drew over 4 million fans.) The Rockies nearly 4.5 million in attendance in 1993 remains a MLB record for single-season attendance (thanks, Mile High Stadium!)

While you can't watch the first game on YouTube, the opening ceremony is available