There is a certain undeniable charm to Minor League Baseball. Young, aspiring ball players in their late-teens and early-twenties, running out every ground ball as if his life depended on it. Spending their lives on the road in cheap motels, dreaming dreams of castle-like stadiums, celebrity fame, and million-dollar paychecks. One summer, a good friend and I took a road trip to Omaha to watch the Triple-A Royals (now the Storm Chasers) as they won a thrilling game with a walk-off home run. The tickets were cheap, the sun was hot, and the bleachers were uncomfortably hard, but it was still cool to sit there and think that each one of those players was a potential future Kansas City Royal.
The minor leagues as a farm system for major league teams, however, didn’t start out that way. Young players did not start their professional careers by signing with a major league team and then working their way up through their minor league structure. Rather, the minor leagues started out as entitites of their own; dozens of lower-level professional leagues out of which any major league ball club could scout promising talent, and attempt to persuade those players to join their particular big-league team. In other words, playing for a given minor league team did not obligate a player to join a specific major league club when they were ready to take the next step up.
What we know as the Minor Leagues today originally started out as the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues. During a meeting at the Leland Hotel in Chicago, minor league executives formed the NAPBL on 5 September 1901. The executive elected Patrick T. Powers the first president of the association. During its first season, in 1902, the NA consisted of fourteen leagues and ninety-six teams. By 1909, those numbers increased to thirty-five leagues and 246 teams. Even united under the NA, however, major league teams played no direct role in the growth and development of future big-leaguers. The concept of farm teams was not born until the 1920s.
Branch Rickey joined the St. Louis Cardinals as president in 1917, moving over from the St. Louis Browns. He recognized early on that the city of St. Louis wasn’t quite large enough to adequately support two major league teams financially. Meanwhile, the National Agreement of 1921 exempted players in five of the leagues in the minors (including the top three of these leagues) from the annual player draft. The leagues, therefore, could hold onto players as long as they wished, or even hold out until a major league team offered the right price for a player. This had allowed the minor leagues as a whole to thrive, but it also resulted in disgruntled minor league players and hurt those Major League teams, such as the Cardinals, that did not possess fat checkbooks.
In order to ensure that the Cardinals could compete with teams like the Yankees and the Cubs, Rickey convinced the team’s majority owner, Sam Breadon, to purchase a controlling interest in the International League’s Syracuse team, the Texas League’s Houston club, as well as a string of other lower-level minor league teams. By 1930, seven minor league clubs were owned by or had close working agreements with the Cardinals. This allowed the organization watch and develop their own future players, molding them to become major leaguers.
In addition to developing the farm system, Rickey increased the number of scouts he hired and sent them out to sign as many young prospects as possible for as little money as possible. Out of the larger pool of ball players, the Cardinals were able to develop and discover quality players more consistently. On the flip side, of course, many promising young players opted for better-paying careers, rather than risk an attempt with baseball, which started out paying next to nothing.. Nevertheless, as a result of Rickey’s innovative system, the Cardinals quickly became one of the top clubs in the Majors, winning the World Series in 1926 over the Yankees, then securing another pennant in 1928 (only to lose the championship to the Yankees in a sweep).
The Detroit Tigers were the first to begin emulating the minor league farm system during the 1920s, and by the 1930s, all Major League teams were following suit. It was, you might say, an early form of Moneyball, a system that gave clubs with a financial disadvantage a fighting chance at competing with big money teams. Over time, the system grew and developed into the Minor League Baseball organization that we know today.
Alexander, Charles C. Breaking the Slump: Baseball in the Depression Era. New York: Columbia U P, 2002.
“The History & Function Of Minor League Baseball.” MiLB.com. Minor League Baseball, 2013. Web. Accessed 22 March 2013. http://www.milb.com/milb/history/general_history.jsp
Riess, Steven A. Touching Base: Professional Baseball and American Culture in the Progressive Era. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood P, 1980.
Sullivan, Dean A., ed. Early Innings: A Documentary History of Baseball, 1825-1908. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1995.