Branch Rickey’s Farm (1925)

Part 7 of our series on Important Moments in Team Building.  See introduction, and up-to-date list.


RickeyBranchIn the early 1920s, Branch Rickey was running (as both field manager and general manager) the impoverished St. Louis Cardinals, and he was getting sick of watching his more well-healed competition spend large sums to buy minor league players. A wave of high-dollar purchases began once the owners realized that post-war surge in attendance and revenue was not transitory and the major league-minor league draft rules became much more skewed in favor of the minors. In one of the first big-buck purchases the Giants paid San Francisco $75,000 for outfielder Jimmy O’Connell, and pretty soon the average big league club was spending $50,000 a year for minor league talent.

Rickey had baseball friends all over the country – college coaches, high school coaches, scouts – and he regularly received tips on where the bright young prospects were. But the Cardinals could control only 40 players – 15 for the big league team, and another 15 (maximum) that could be conditionally optioned and reacquired later. With few exceptions, if the 18-year-old was not ready for the major leagues he signed with an independent minor league team.

Major league teams in this era acquired players by either buying or drafting them from the minor leagues. The draft rules changed many times over the years, and select minor leagues occasionally were allowed to opt out but payments to minor league teams were always a significant expense.

Breadon Sam 4352-76_HS_NBL
Sam Breadon

Rickey’s solution to the high cost of finding players was for the Cardinals to own, or at least control, their own minor league clubs. Sam Breadon took control of the Cardinals in 1920, and Breadon’s deserves credit for agreeing to and funding Rickey’s idea. By the mid-1920s, the Cardinals owned a controlling interest in clubs in Ft. Smith (Arkansas), Houston, and Syracuse. More clubs followed.

An interesting historical question is why Judge Landis, who was named Commissioner in 1921 and became a staunch foe of farm systems, did not work harder to ban ownership interests in these early years. The most likely explanation is that most respected people around the game thought it was a silly idea that would fail of its own accord. Pittsburgh’s Barney Dreyfus and Detroit’s Frank Navin, close confidants of Landis, told the Commissioner it would be financially destructive. John McGraw, the Giants’ respected manager, told owner Charles Stoneham not to waste his money on a farm system. So Landis probably decided to save his political capital on another fight.

images (2)Now that the Cardinals were not signing ready-made players, but high school boys several years away from the majors, Rickey he needed a cohesive philosophy of scouting, instruction, and coaching. Every part of the game—bunting, sliding, run-down plays, and so on—Rickey wanted to be taught consistently throughout the organization. And Rickey wanted the scouting and player-development parts of the system to work hand in hand. As Kevin Kerrane wrote in his classic book on scouting, Dollar Sign on the Muscle, “Rickey applied scouting insights to teaching, and vice versa.” Rickey became a legendary talent evaluator, able to make decisions quickly on players, and all of this became suddenly critical once he had a minor league organization to run.

Rickey’s proto-farm system proved highly successful. He turned one of baseball’s most hapless franchises into one of the best run and one that was consistently competitive. By the end of the decade some of the fruit of his approach was beginning to ripen into major league caliber talent. The team still acquired some of its players the old-fashioned way, but the young ballplayers coming through its system provided a key source of supplemental talent.

Throughout the 1920s, Rickey and the Cardinals still stood alone. As late as 1931, there were still only a handful of minor league teams controlled by a major league team. As long as teams could only control a 40-man roster, there was a limit to how much teams were willing to invest in minor league teams. Before the farm systems could truly take hold, the rules needed to be relaxed. Two clubs in particular led the fight for this – the Cardinals and the Yankees – not coincidentally, the best run and most successful teams in the major leagues.

The Sale of Babe Ruth (1920)

Part 4 of our series on Important Moments in Team Building.  See introduction, and up-to-date list.


Jacob Ruppert
Jacob Ruppert

When American League president Ban Johnson orchestrated the creation of an AL franchise in New York in 1903, it was with the hope that it would become one of the flagship teams in the league. This did not happen right away, as the team mostly struggled both on the field (no pennants for its first dozen years) and off (a pair of unsavory owners). The tipping point in the story, arguably the most important event in Yankee history, was the purchase of the club in 1915 by Jacob Ruppert and Tillinghast Huston. Within a few short years, the AL had its strong team, one that would compete both in New York (where the Giants had long dominated the city’s interest) and in all of baseball. Ruppert, whose family owned one of the country’s biggest breweries, was one of the first truly rich men active in the game, and dedicated the remainder of his life to the greatness of his team.

In 1915, a willingness to spend money to build a great team could only take you so far. Teams primarily acquired fully-seasoned players from the minor leagues and hoped that a couple would turn into stars. For the first few years of Ruppert’s tenure he relied on his field managers to advise on potential deals (there were no general managers yet), and the Yankees were active whenever talent became available. When they purchased the team during the Federal League war, the AL promised the new Yankee owners that some major leaguers would be made available from existing teams. The other AL owners proved not quite as openhanded, and the Yankees could only purchase Wally Pipp from the Tigers and Bob Shawkey from the Athletics. They landed a few others from the Federal League when that league disbanded. Ruppert’s first big purchase came a year later: Frank Baker from the Athletics for $37,500 when Connie Mack was completing the selloff of his stars. The talent had improved, but players like Baker were not available very often.

Harry Frazee

Fortunately for the Yankees, Ruppert soon had another willing seller. The Boston Red Sox won four pennants in the 1910s, but their owner Harry Frazee was feeling a financial squeeze from his purchase of the team and Fenway Park, and a variety of theatrical interests. With several financial issues coming to head in 1919 and 1920, Frazee found himself severely cash-strapped. Frazee was a New Yorker and a social friend of Til Huston, and Ruppert had plenty of money. Frazee’s most sellable assets were his ballplayers.

By 1919 Red Sox star Babe Ruth was one of the best pitchers in the game and also one of the best hitters. After winning 65 games with a 2.02 ERA in his first three seasons, Ruth gradually transitioned to the outfield in 1918 (winning 13 games while leading the league in homers) and 1919 (winning 9 games and setting an all-time record of 29 homers). Along with Washington pitcher Walter Johnson, Ruth was one of the two best players in baseball.

With his financial squeeze mounting, on January 5, 1920, Frazee announced the sale of Ruth to Yankees. Frazee received a record sum of $100,000: $25,000 up front and three promissory notes of $25,000 each at a 6 percent interest rate, due in November 1920, 1921, and 1922. In addition, Ruppert lent Frazee another $300,000 to be secured by a first mortgage on Fenway Park. Without Ruth, the Red Sox – winners of four of the previous eight World Series – would not finish over .500 until 1934 and would not win the Series until 2004.

Frazee was not done, not by a long shot. Over approximately six years, Ruppert sent about $450,000 to the Frazee (plus the loan), and received an extraordinary haul of players. Besides Ruth, the Yankees also acquired Joe Dugan, Everett Scott, Carl Mays, Joe Bush, Waite Hoyt, Sam Jones, Wally Schang, and Herb Pennock, among others. When the Yankees won their first World Series in 1923, former Red Sox made up four-fifths of their starting rotation and four of their starting eight position players.

For more on the Harry Frazee’s sales, read this article.

It was probably inevitable that the Yankees would become the game’s greatest team. Jacob Ruppert was a rich owner devoted to spending his money to build a winner, and unlike many other owners he did not take cash distributions from his team, but reinvested in his ballclub. Just as important, he was a brilliant judge and manager of men. He built an extraordinary front office that became the model of all front offices to come. He hired Ed Barrow as general manager and two great managers (Miller Huggins, and then Joe McCarthy), all of whom he supported completely. He built the game’s greatest ballpark – Yankee Stadium – and soon drew the biggest crowds. But the suddenness of the rise was due mainly to the largesse of the Red Sox and Harry Frazee. The Red Sox had been the dominant team in the league for its first two decades, and Frazee essentially transferred all of the club’s talent to New York.

After two World Series losses, the Yankees championship in 1923 marked them as the marquee team in baseball. In the ensuing century they have usually been very well capitalized and very well run, and have largely retained their status as the best franchise in the game. For most successful teams in the past century, keeping up with or overtaking the Yankees has often been one of their most challenging obstacles.

New York Yankees great Babe Ruth

The AL-NL Peace Agreement (1903)

Part 2 of our series on Important Moments in Team Building.  See introduction, and up-to-date list.


Whatever one might think about the quality and style of the baseball played in the 19th century — the great players, the exciting pennant races, the personalities, the stories, the romance — we should all agree on one thing: for the historian interested in team management or roster building, it was a bit of a mess. There were five different major leagues (counting the National Association, whose major league status is disputed); there were teams that moved cities (including in the middle of a season), disbanded, or merged with other teams. There were owners who controlled multiple teams and swapped players between them at will. There were minor league teams that joined major leagues in mid-season. Some of these teams played only a handful of games in their history, but are still considered “major league” teams today, and their players have the same status in the record book as Willie Mays.

After the American Association folded in 1891 (technically a merger, and four of its teams joined the NL), the National League enjoyed the first stable period of its existence, and exploited its status as the only recognized major league. From 1892-1899, the single 12-team league had the same teams in the same cities, and enjoyed some of its more famous seasons. The Baltimore Orioles and Boston Red Stockings of the 1890s were legendary clubs.

In 1900 the National League dropped its four weakest franchises, providing the

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AL President Ban Johnson

opening for the American League (a strong minor league at the time) and its imperious president, Ban Johnson, to vie for major league status. The 1901 American League (now a self-described “major league”) would be made up of a mix of current NL cities (Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago), and former NL cities (Baltimore, Washington, Detroit, Cleveland) plus Milwaukee. Within two years they moved into New York and St. Louis.

The NL still had the best players, and the reserve clause meant that a challenge would be a tough slog. The AL respected the NL’s contracts, but not the reserve clause, and spent the 1900-1901 offseason traveling the country trying to sign NL players whose contracts had expired. Since nearly everyone had one year contracts, this offered a large field. For their efforts, the AL owners landed many of baseball’s top stars –including Jimmy Williams, Nap Lajoie, Jimmy Collins, and Cy Young—players who had never before known competition for their services.

Within a year it was obvious that the AL was a serious competitor – it was well capitalized, its franchises were in big cities (matching the NL in attendance for the 1901 season), it had good players, and it was unified under a powerful and competent president. Much more unified, in fact, than the constantly feuding and self-interested NL owners.

For about two years, major league players had options. Those who did not switch leagues – men like star shortstop Honus Wagner – could at least bring a little more leverage into negotiations with their current club.

The low point in AL-NL discord came in 1902, and ultimately led to the destruction of the AL’s Baltimore franchise. The Orioles (not the same as the 1890s Baltimore NL club that had folded) were managed by John McGraw, an NL star from the 1890s whose brand of umpire-baiting and general ruffianism put him at odds on a near daily basis with President Johnson, who wanted his league to be a cleaner, more respectable affair. Sensing an opening, the two most scheming NL owners decided to pounce. Cincinnati owner John Brush convinced McGraw to quit the Orioles and move back to the NL to manage the New York Giants in the middle of the 1902 season. Giants owner Andrew Friedman, Brush, and confidants then followed up by purchasing a controlling interest in the Orioles and releasing many of the best players. McGraw quickly directed many of his former charges to re-sign with him and the Giants.

Johnson had been itching to challenge the NL in New York. With the Orioles now decimated on the field and with a muddled ownership, Johnson had his chance. He soon announced that the AL would replace the Orioles with a new franchise in New York City, competing directly with the Giants. Freedman, who didn’t really like baseball anyway, sold the Giants to Brush, who in turn sold the Reds to local Cincinnati businessmen. The new Reds owners named August Herrmann as team president. The resultant National League – losing Freedman and gaining Herrmann — proved to be one of the more important upgrades in league history.

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Barney Dreyfuss

Without Freedman, a remarkably divisive figure, the remaining NL owners – led by Pittsburgh’s Barney Dreyfuss – soon agreed to peace talks with the American League. The resultant agreement essentially recognized the AL as an equal partner. The leagues remained separate legally, but once they agreed to recognize each other’s reserve lists the leagues were effectively a single monopoly that controlled the careers of its players. The emergent two-league 16-team setup made no changes to its map for 50 years, not until the Boston Braves moved to Milwaukee in 1953.

Sealing the partnership, at the end of the 1903 season the NL champion Pittsburgh Pirates and the AL champion Boston Americans agreed to play a series of games to determine baseball’s true champion. This became an annual event — the World Series – and has been played in 113 of the past 115 seasons.  The major leagues, as all of us came to know them, truly came into existence in 1903.



Important Moments in Team-Building

Three years ago, as our book was getting ready to launch, we wrote a blog series to count down the 25 best GMs in baseball history.

As our paperback is going to be released this spring, we are writing a new blog series to discuss 25 “Important Moments in Team Building.”  This series will run chronologically and, if read in order, will provide a broad history of the changes to the game that have effected player movement and the general manager.

The series wills start on Monday, January 29, and (hopefully) will run for 25 consecutive week days.  Thanks for reading!

1.  The Reserve Clause (1879)

2.  NL-AL Peace Agreement (1903)

3.  The Federal League War (1914)

4.  The Sale of Babe Ruth (1920)

5.  The Trade Deadline (1922)

6.  The Anti-Trust Exemption (1922)

7.  Branch Rickey’s Farm (1925)

8.  The Farm System Goes Legit (1932)

9.  Chasing Pennants in Boston (1935)

10.  Jackie Robinson (1947)

11.  Bonus Rule (1953)

12.  Interleague Trading (1959)

13.  Amateur Draft (1965)

14.  Collective Bargaining Agreement (1968)

15.  Free Trade (1971)

16.  Binding Salary Arbitration (1973)

17.  Catfish Hunter (1974)

18.  Andy Messersmith (1975)

19.  Pat Gillick and the Rule 5 draft (1977)

20.  Free Agent Compensation Draft (1982)

21.  Collusion and Tim Raines (1987)

22.  Albert Belle (1996)

23.  “Moneyball” (2003)

24.  The Theo Epstein Effect (2004)

25.  The Latest CBA (2016)

Mark and Dan


Coming Soon: The Paperback! (And more blogging!)

In April 2018, In Pursuit of Pennants will be available in paperback!  The University of Nebraska Press is currently taking pre-orders, and I am sure your favorite on-line retailer will have the book at a much lower price when the time comes.

In the meantime, we plan to do some blogging here to get people ready for the launch.  Three years ago we counted down the list of the Top 25 GMs in history, one blog post at a time.  We have since revised this list, and it will appear in the paperback.

This time we will be blogging the biggest team building stories in history.  Coming soon!  In the meantime, enjoy the holidays.

— Mark and Dan



Honorable Mention — Gabe Paul

Along with our countdown of the greatest 25 GMs in history, we plan to write about people who did not make our list (as well as other topics related to baseball operations and front offices). 

George Steinbrenner, Gabe Paul, Billy Martin

When we were posting our Top 25 GMs series, several people asked about the omission of Gabe Paul from our list.  Honestly, there were a lot of candidates for the last half of the list, and the arguments for Paul are not difficult to make.  His four years in charge of the Yankees (1973-77) constitute one of the more impressive runs a GM has ever had, a period we discuss in our book.  Balancing that, Paul had 18 other years running teams without winning a pennant.  In the end, he just missed making our list.

Paul was covering high school sports for a Rochester, New York, newspaper when Warren Giles offered him an office job with the Rochester Red Wings, a farm club of the St. Louis Cardinals. Paul eventually became road secretary, and when Giles moved to Cincinnati to run the Reds in 1936, he brought Paul along as public relations director. When Giles became nl president in 1951, Paul replaced him as general manager.

Paul ran the Reds for nine seasons, and only in 1956, when they finished two games behind the Dodgers, did they contend for a pennant.  The Reds were not quick to integrate (seventh of eight NL teams), but on Paul’s watch they signed Frank Robinson and Vada Pinson, soon their two best players. Paul left after the 1960 season because he feared owner Powel Crosley might move the team. His successor, Bill DeWitt, made a couple of key trades, but when the Reds won the 1961 pennant, they did so predominantly with the team Paul had assembled.

Paul moved first to the expansion Houston Astros and then to Cleveland, where he ran the Indians for twelve years. Like the Reds, the Indians were an also-ran while Paul was there, beset with financial woes that almost caused the team to leave the city. Paul and George Steinbrenner knew each other well in these years, and when in January 1973 Paul had the chance to come to New York, with the promise of a free-spending owner, he did not hesitate.

Paul’s last move with the Indians was a trade that sent Graig Nettles to the Yankees for four prospects, a deal cynics have suggested was made because Paul knew where he was headed.  In New York Paul was technically the club president for nine months, until Lee MacPhail resigned at the end of the 1973 season.

The available evidence suggests that Paul was more or less in charge of the Yankees baseball operations for the next four years.  From the start Steinbrenner was a hands-on owner who demanded explanations for the moves Paul wanted to make, but it was not until after Paul left that the boss began initiating decisions about trades and signings.   Steinbrenner’s public role was thwarted somewhat in November 1974 when Commissioner Kuhn suspended him from baseball for two years after he pled guilty to illegal contributions to President Nixon’s re-election campaign and to coercing his employees to lie the a grand jury.  Steinbrenner remained out of the public eye for 15 months, though he and Paul spoke regularly.

So Paul was in charge of the Yankees for four off-seasons, and the Yankees were generally the center of baseball activity.  In December 1973 he swapped Lindy McDaniel to the Royals for Lou Piniella, who spent the next decade with the Yankees.  In March Paul picked up Elliott Maddox. who had one excellent season in New York before suffering a devastating injury in early 1975. In April Paul traded four pitchers to the Indians for first baseman Chris Chambliss and pitcher Dick Tidrow.  The 1974 Yankees won 89 games but were overtaken at the end by the Orioles.

After the 1974 season Paul traded Bobby Murcer, his most popular player, to the Giants for Bobby Bonds, one of the best players in baseball.  In December the Yankees landed Catfish Hunter with a record contract after Hunter had been declared a free agent by an arbitrator due to a contractual screw-up by his previous employer, Oakland’s Charlie Finley.  Hunter was a one-person free agent class, and the frenzy that greeted his availability showed the players what free agency could mean for the rest of them.

With Hunter and Bonds, the Yankees were considered one of the favorites to win the AL pennant, but injuries to Maddox and Bonds (who played through them) dropped them back to 83 wins.

On December 11, 1975, Paul made two deals that, more than anything, put the Yankees over the top.  First he traded pitcher Doc Medich to the Pirates for pitchers Ken Brett and Doc Ellis and second baseman Willie Randolph.  Pat Gillick, Paul’s key assistant, had scouted Randolph extensively and coveted him for the Yankees.  Paul then traded Bonds to the Angels for outfielder Mickey Rivers and pitcher Ed Figueroa.

In August 1975 Paul had replaced manager Bill Virdon with Billy Martin, and both Paul and Martin wanted speed at the top of the lineup.  With Rivers and Randolph, they had their speed, and with big years from Nettles, Thurman Munson and others, the 1976 Yankees ran away with the AL East, ultimately losing the World Series in four games to the great Cincinnati Reds.

After the 1976 season baseball had true free agency for the first time.   The rules have changed many times but in the first go-round teams were limited to two free agent signees, unless they lost more themselves.  The Yankees wanted Reds pitcher Don Gullett and Oriole second baseman Bobby Grich.  They lost Grich to the Angels but instead landed Reggie Jackson, who for the next several years added a big bat and an even bigger personality to New York.

Largely because of the signing of Jackson, the 1977 Yankees, already nearly an entire All-Star team, were a year-long circus filled with rivalries, backbiting, and open hostility.  The main players were Steinbrenner, Martin and Jackson, although the latter was hated by basically the entire team.  After Jackson and Martin nearly came to blows on national TV during a game in Boston, Steinbrenner demanded that Paul fire Martin on the spot.  Paul talked him out of it, believing Martin’s release would leave Jackson in an even worse position with the team.  To escape the storm Paul himself disappeared for a while.

Somehow this talented team got through the season, winning a tight division race, beating the Royals in the ALCS, then the Dodgers in the World Series to capture their first title in 15 years.  Jackson was the hero, hitting five homers in the series including three in the clincher, finally making him popular in the clubhouse.  This would not last, however.

After the season Paul resigned.  He built the team, won his first ever championship, but he could take no more.  The Yankee GM job became a revolving door for the next dozen years, with Steinbrenner calling all the shots.  The team won the 1978 Series and added division titles in 1980 and 1981, but the talent in the organization slowly drained away the rest of the decade without stability in baseball operations.  When Steinbrenner was suspended again in 1990 (actually receiving a lifetime ban, rescinded three years later), his lieutenants made several moves to help get the Yankees back on track.

Paul went back to Cleveland and became club president.  He had much less success without Steinbrenner’s bankroll, and finally retired after the 1984 season.

— Mark

(We invite your comments below.)

To read more about the history of baseball operations and the GM, please buy our new book In Pursuit of Pennants–Baseball Operations from Deadball to Moneyball via the publisher or at your favorite on-line store.