photo: Branch Rickey
With Major League Baseball clubs having broken camp and moved north for the 2021 season, minor league baseball now prepares for its 2021 season. The minors, thanks in large part to the ingenuity, perseverance and diligence of Branch Rickey, are the usual pathway to a big-league career.
Baseball represents one of the hardest sports to progress from high school to the spotlight of success. Just one half of one percent of high schoolers drafted – or one out of every 200 – make it to The Show. A very few can accomplish it without a trip through the minor leagues.
The St. Louis Cardinals are a storied organization dating back to when baseball was played barehanded. Along the way, the franchise has evolved and morphed into a 21st Century leader on and off the diamond. Between the lines, they consistently are a marquee attraction in part because of a great farm system – but did you know that they were the first to start the baseball farm system as we know it today?
Baseball has always had lower levels and teams independent of the major leagues. In the process that evolved through the late 1800’s and into the 20th Century, major league teams would sign a player, hope he develops, and then make a deal for him to play somewhere else.
In the early 1920’s, St. Louis Cardinals general manager Branch Rickey began implementing a plan that would change baseball history. Although Rickey had previously toyed with idea as the St. Louis Browns general manager, it was with the crosstown Cardinals where his idea came to life. He believed the minors were the lifeline that smaller market teams needed to compete with the big clubs like the vaunted New York Yankees.
The idea for a developmental system was borne from the lack of honesty and integrity among independent minor league owners. They were more likely to sell a player to the highest bidder than to honor their deal with the team that originally had a player’s rights.
After his move to the Cardinals, Rickey received the go ahead from owner Sam Breadon to pursue his idea of a farm system to offset the advantage of bigger markets and to reduce the likelihood of losing potential stars.
The architect of the minors bought a 50 percent interest in the Fort Smith, Arkansas team, securing a spot for his first test case, Heinie Mueller, to begin his ascent to St. Louis. Shortly thereafter, the Cardinals brain trust added a minority interest in the Houston Buffaloes (eventually they would play a role in the Houston Colt-45’s and subsequent Houston Astros history.
With two rungs of the ladder complete, Rickey was set to add Memphis (which would come later) but unbeknownst to him, Breadon had struck a deal with the Syracuse owners and Memphis was scrapped for the moment.
The farm would eventually bring players like Dizzy Dean, Chick Hafey, and Joe Medwick among others to St. Louis, forming the cornerstone of the World Series-winning “Gashouse Gang.” Rickey’s creativity drew the wrath of commissioner Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis. Landis ruled with an iron fist and did not want to be upstaged by someone like the brash Branch Rickey.
Landis attempted to derail the plan but there was no stopping this train. By 1924, Rickey had gained controlling interest in both Houston and Syracuse. No longer did he need backroom handshakes and agreements.
Rickey’s innovation opened the door for stability and growth – not just for the Cardinals, but for major league baseball organizations as a whole. Without the minor leagues, St Louis may not have become synonymous with winning. Without the farm system there may never have been a Stan Musial, a Bob Gibson, a Steve Carlton, a Vince Coleman, an Albert Pujols or a Yadier Molina wearing the “Birds On The Bat” and most likely never 11 World Series titles, the second most in baseball history.
Rickey brought a pathway by which the Redbirds continue to grow and develop some of the best in baseball. Today the Cardinals have 263 players under contract including the 40-man roster. Of the 26-man active Cardinals roster, 14 are homegrown. That is 15, if you count Adam Wainwright, who was obtained in a deal while still a minor leaguer. It serves as a testimonial to Rickey’s vision of building a pipeline of development and success.
Even with baseball’s latest realignment of the minor leagues, the system created by Rickey continues paying dividends for the Cardinals, such as Dylan Carlson, a potential 2021 National League Rookie of the Year. Year in and year out, depending on who you ask, the Cardinals system ranks anywhere from the top 10 (as the pre-eminent deliberator Keith Law had them in 2020) to the bottom third where the website prospects1500.com has them in 2021. In The Cardinal Nation’s annual breakdown of how a half-dozen national analysts rank farm systems, St. Louis remains in the middle third. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and the parameters by which they assess.
No matter how it is measured, Branch Rickey’s genius lives on.
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