Baseball fans of today and recent yesterdays are accustomed to watching young players work their way through minor league systems affiliated with the various American and National League teams. This setup, while common in our lifetimes, evolved gradually from a very different arrangement.
During the game's early days, minor league teams were independent of their big brothers. Most players reached the big leagues only after their minor league owner received compensation for them in dollars and/or players. Thus, future Hall-of-Famer Lefty Grove would play five seasons and win 108 games for the International League's Baltimore Orioles before moving up to begin his Hall-of-Fame career with the Philadelphia A's. Lefty was far from alone in waiting for a deal to be made and, for some players, the deal and a major league career never came.
Over the years, occasional attempts were made to correct this situation. Charles Somers, owner of Cleveland's American League team from 1910 to 1915, purchased the Waterbury Frolickers of the Eastern Association prior to World War I. Somers, who is better known for having Cleveland's nickname changed from the Naps to the Indians, abandoned the effort due to financial strains caused by the war.
Within a few years after the war, the idea would resurface and would eventually succeed, thanks to the genius of Wesley Branch Rickey. His success in establishing the farm system was but one part of the mix that paved his road to Cooperstown. His other accomplishments included sponsoring Jackie Robinson's journey through baseball's racial color barrier, using the bonus baby system to launch a championship team in Pittsburgh, and forcing major league baseball's expansion in the 1960's.
Rickey grew up on a farm in Ohio and developed an early love of sports. During his college days at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio, he organized the baseball and football teams. His athletic skills were sufficient to take him to the majors as a catcher with the St. Louis Browns, but a four-season batting record of .239 with 3 home runs signaled that his love of the game would be channeled in another direction. After obtaining a degree in civil law, Rickey returned to baseball as a scout and, in 1913, he became the manager of the Browns at the age of 32. Again, success was minimal, with second-division finishes marking his two-plus seasons at the helm.
The Browns recognized his organizational talents, however, and in 1916 he was named the team's vice-president and business manager (general manager in today's terms). One season of improved team play could not ease a difficult relationship between Rickey and owner Phil Ball, and an offer from the cross-town Cardinals was accepted by Rickey. Despite legal threats from Ball, Rickey prevailed in the courts and became president and field manager of the debt-ridden and artistically woebegone Cardinals in 1919.
In his new role, Rickey's aggressive, Bible-spouting style became his trademark. And despite a lack of funds, he led the team from the bottom of the pile to middle of the pile over the next six seasons. In 1925 he was replaced as field manager by Rogers Hornsby but continued with the team as general manager.
During his years as field manager, Rickey had learned that winning teams need money, since minor league players were auctioned off to the highest major league bidder. As general manager, he found that the Cardinals were doomed to mediocrity as long as they could not afford to purchase players like the wealthier teams. In 1919 he shelled out $10,000 of borrowed money to purchase pitcher Jesse Haines from Kansas City, and the deal was a bonanza for the next 18 years. It was also the last time the Cardinals would buy a player during the Rickey era.
That same year, Rickey came up with a plan to develop players through a chain of Cardinal-owned teams in various levels of minor leagues. The funds needed to make the plan work were realized when the Cardinals were purchased in 1920 by wealthy automobile dealer Sam Breadon. And the final link came as a new National Association Agreement was struck in 1921, allowing major league franchises to own minor-league teams.
Rickey quickly went to work and the Cardinals bought 18% of Texas League's Houston Buffaloes and then acquired working control of Ft. Smith of the Western Association. In 1921, they purchased the Syracuse Stars of the International League. The first stage was complete, and the second, that of stocking the teams with promising players, followed.
A quick and inexpensive means of finding players was developed as the Cardinals sponsored tryout camps, using the team's popularity in the midwest and south to attract young men with dreams of playing baseball. Success came quickly as three players with considerable talent, Ray Blades, Clarence 'Heinie' Mueller, and Jim Bottomley, were signed to make their way up the chain. Others would follow, and winning baseball would come with them. In 1926, the Cardinals won their first World Series, and their pennant-winning season would be repeated in 1928, 1930, 1931, and 1942. Even after Rickey left St. Louis following the 1942 season, his farm system continued to produce Cardinal pennants in 1943, 1944, and 1946. Not only was the team winning, but they were becoming wealthy as he sold players who were of no use to him or who made their contribution and had become replaceable. Thus, Johnny Mize brought over $50,000, a washed-up Dizzy Dean went for $185,000 and two players, and on and on.
Along the way, Rickey was not without opposition. Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis represented the most powerful challenge. The objective side of the commissioner viewed the success of the Cardinals as a threat to the integrity of the game. The controlling side of the man took offense at Rickey's personal success, particularly when Landis' baseball salary of $40,000 was almost $10,000 short of Rickey's. The prevailing side of the commissioner is subject to debate.
In the late 1930's, Landis' fury was visited upon the Cardinals, Yankees, and Tigers and their perceived violations of the letter and spirit of baseball's rules. By 1938, Rickey's Cardinals owned not only individual teams but backed entire leagues, such as Arkansas-Missouri and Nebraska State Leagues. To level the playing field, Landis ordered 74 Cardinal farmhands to be given their free agency and imposed similar penalties on other teams.
Never known for docile submissiveness, Rickey regrouped quickly and set out to rebuild his empire. By 1940, the Cardinals owned 32 teams and had working agreements with 8 others, resulting in control of over 800 players. Mr. Rickey's farm was alive and well.
His personal relationship with Breadon soured, however, and in 1942 he moved on to become general manager of the Dodgers, where another successful farm system produced the Hodges, Sniders, and Furillos of another era. As in St. Louis, Rickey traded aging talent for apparent mediocrity and acquired Preacher Roe, Billy Cox, Andy Pafko, and others to supplement the home grown talent.
Inevitably, another falling out would occur, this time with Dodgers president Walter O'Malley. Rickey found himself out of work for a short time before joining the Pirates and raising another Phoenix from the ashes.
After leaving the Pirates in 1955, he continued to impact the game in various roles, including his participation in planning a proposed third major league, the Continental League. While delivering a speech celebrating his induction into the Missouri Hall of Fame on November 13, 1965, he suffered a heart attack. His ensuing unconsiousness lasted until December 9, when he died in Boone County Hospital in Columbia, MO.
The impact of Branch Rickey towers above even the most celebrated of baseball figures. Known in equal parts for being a genius, tightwad, saint, hypocrite, innovator, and poacher, Rickey left a mark on the game which stands alone.
The farm systems of yesteryear, which enforced uniformity of style, technique, and attitude throughout an organization, have given way to a collection of working agreements which provide players with opportunities to make their way to the majors in a less demanding, and often less effective, fashion. For those who have an interest in the empires created by Rickey and others, reviewing the players and teams that comprised the organizations provides an enjoyable diversion.
The Professional Baseball Player Database attempts to recreate each of the organizations for the 1922-2004 seasons, so that fans and researchers can examine the players of each system and compare the prospects for each system as they made their way up, down, or out of a system. Our hope is that they will find enjoyment and illumination in doing so.