photo: Branch Rickey
Baseball, like many things in life, seems to run in cycles. So it has been for the minor leagues for decades.
In the early days of farm systems, pioneering executives like the St. Louis Cardinals’ Branch Rickey built across the country vast networks of teams, through both formal and informal affiliations, to control the future services of as many players as possible. The plan was to sort through and assist the best to rise to the top to feed the Major League club.
The arrival of World War II changed the dynamics, as 41 minor leagues in 1940 dropped to just nine by 1943, primarily composed of players either too young or too old to serve in the military. Rickey’s Cardinals reached its peak of 31 farm teams in 1940, but just seven remained three years later.
Once the war ended, the thirst for entertainment led to a revitalization of Minor League Baseball across America. By 1949, the all-time peak of 59 leagues in 438 cities was reached. Many of these towns may have been too small to support affiliated ball over the long haul, however. (In marked contrast, at the time, MLB had just 16 teams located in 10 markets.)
Some of the Cardinals’ 21 farm clubs at the time were based in Lawrenceville, Lynchburg, Hamilton, Willows, Carthage, Salisbury, Duluth, Pocatello and West Frankfort.
1950’s: A decade of decline
The Korean War opened the difficult 1950’s for Minor League Baseball. The decade concluded with just 21 leagues still remaining across the game. In between, major developments like network television, home air conditioning and the vast migration to the suburbs changed life across the entire country.
As the 1960’s began, Major League Baseball was preparing to expand by four teams – but Minor League Baseball was struggling to survive. Facilities were aging, the larger cities had been swallowed up by the majors and fan attention was fragmented.
More than two-thirds of the cities that hosted a Minor League team in 1949 no longer had one. St. Louis opened the 1960’s with just 10 farm clubs.
1960’s: Something had to change
In 1962, the ground-breaking Player Development Plan was ratified. MLB guaranteed the survival of 100 minor league teams (five per organization) and MLB agreed to subsidize player salaries. The long-time classifications of B, C and D were eliminated as the game streamlined to Triple-A, Double-A, Class A and Rookie designations.
Further changes occurred during the 1960’s, as MLB pushed more leagues to convert to the short-season format first initiated in the Appalachian League, with these teams playing only during the summer months. Organizations also began the earliest stages of adding Rookie level clubs in their minor league complexes, enabling a more efficient and cost-effective environment to begin development of the least-experienced players.
By 1964, just 15 leagues remained, but with the 100-team guarantee, Minor League Baseball as a whole stabilized from there. That does not mean change stopped within, however, St. Louis had seven affiliates in 1964, but declined to just five during much of the 1970’s.
1980’s: Another major surge
Whether due to the end of the Vietnam War, a new breed of minor league owners who drew in new fans via promotions, greater visibility of Major League Baseball on television or something else, the 1980’s marked another upturn in the fortunes of Minor League Baseball. During that decade, nearly 40 new ballparks were constructed and many more received facility investments. Municipalities more greatly appreciated the economic value that affiliated baseball brought them as they fought to keep their teams.
The Cardinals had eight farm clubs in 1989.
1990’s: New rules
As minor league teams as a whole became stronger financially, MLB looked to rebalance the terms. After contentious negotiations in 1990, a new Professional Baseball Agreement was enacted. For the first time, it included a stipulation that minor league clubs were required to share a percentage of their gate receipts with their MLB parent, a process that continues to this day. Pressure also increased on minor league team operators to improve facilities that had fallen behind in standards.
Further growth in the minors was fueled by MLB expansion, which began in the early 1960’s and again occurred in 1977. During the 1990’s, two further expansions increased the size of MLB to its current 30 teams (with 30 associated full farm systems). Organizations began to focus much greater attention on and investment in the international market, establishing academies in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela.
2020: A changing landscape
Excluding the complex teams in Florida, Arizona and the Dominican Republic, Minor League Baseball currently consists of 160 affiliated teams. But the distribution is not consistent across MLB organizations. Totals range from five to six farm clubs today. Add to that the number of Arizona/Gulf Coast/Dominican teams, which vary by organization, as well, from as few as two to as many as four.
Across all levels, today’s total farm club counts range by organization from seven to nine. St. Louis is in the latter, highest group, with full season teams at the Triple-A (Memphis), Double-A (Springfield), High-A (Palm Beach) and Class A (Peoria) levels. Short-season Class A (State College) and Rookie Advanced (Johnson City) are the two teams likely to be cut. The current group also include a team in the Gulf Coast League (Cardinals) and two in the Dominican Summer League (Cardinals Red and Blue).
MLB’s plan going forward is to field 120 minor league teams starting in 2021, or four per organization, down from 160. 13 leagues may drop to nine. This is not markedly different from 1962, at which point in time MLB committed to five affiliates per organization, or 100 teams in total. Keep in mind that these counts do not include complex and academy teams over three leagues, which did not yet exist in the early 1960’s.
Add to the 120 the 83 teams at the complexes and academies (as of 2019) across the 30 organizations and over 200 minor league teams should still be in operation next season. Granted, those 83 clubs are competing on back fields on team facilities without fans present, and these teams can be expanded or contracted at any time.
Going back to Rickey, common logic suggests that the more players an organization can control, the more major leaguers they will eventually develop. A man who began his long career in the Cardinals system when signed as a player by Rickey himself in 1940, the late, great player development icon George Kissell, had a favorite saying for this. “The more lines you cast in the water, the more fish you are going to catch.”
But that kind of “more is better” philosophy has been restricted in recent years by a quest for greater efficiency.
This is hardly unique to baseball. For years across corporate America, businesses have strived to lower expense by downsizing, moving jobs overseas and generally finding ways to squeeze more from less. The goal is to improve the bottom line for stakeholders.
In the baseball world, major advancements in tools and technology that can analyze and guide every aspect of a player’s development have led to some to believe they possess a heightened ability to identify future major leaguers. This directly results in a perceived need for fewer players in the developmental pipeline. Fewer players mean smaller drafts and potentially lower bonuses, and at the bottom line, fewer teams are needed for these players to play.
Therefore, it should not be surprising that the current minor league contraction plan, to be executed as a cornerstone of the next Professional Baseball Agreement between MLB and Minor League Baseball, was reportedly first proposed by the Houston Astros. At the time, that organization was guided by former McKinsey consultant Jeff Luhnow.
Even though the ownership vote in favor of the reductions was reportedly 30-0, it does not necessarily mean that all organizations will act in the same manner in the future. Some will continue to see and exploit perceived competitive advantages in new and different investments in player development.
None of this soothes the sting being felt by those in the 40 to 42 towns across America likely to lose their affiliated baseball teams starting in 2021. While that will hurt now, this look back in history should remind us that Minor League Baseball has repeatedly altered its size and shape over time while continuing to survive.
There is no reason to suspect that change will not continue, even if we may not like every step taken along the way.
Check out The Cardinals Nation’s in-depth series outlining the history of the St. Louis Cardinals minor leagues, still underway.
Thanks to Baseball America and their book, The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, as well as the historical team records provided by Baseball Reference.
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