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The Major Leagues and Minor Leagues will stay together a while longer

Mar 8, 2011, 4:06 PM EDT

Minor League baseball

Maury reports that Major League Baseball and the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues — which is what you had no idea the affiliated minor leagues were called — have reached an agreement on a new six-year Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA), extending through the 2020 season.

An agreement, you ask? Why on Earth would they need an agreement?  Don’t the Major Leagues own the minors? Don’t they have complete and total dominion over them and has it not been always thus?

Nope, though a ton of people seem to think that.  As Bill James wrote in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, however, things used to be quite different:

The minor leagues did not start out as what they are. By a long series of actions and agreements, inducements and rewards, the minor leagues were reduced in tiny degrees from entirely independent soverignties into vassal states, existing only to serve the needs of major league baseball.

As James noted — and as people who know their baseball history know full well — the minor leagues used to be their own show. The East Nowheresville Marauders would go out and scout talent themselves. They’d sign a guy. They’d develop him and then — if they wanted to and if the price was right — they’d sell the guy to a major league team.

But really, these teams were their own businesses in ways that we never think of minor league teams being today. They may keep a guy because their job was to win and sell tickets, not to develop talent for a “major league” like the NL or AL. And the guy may want to stay in East Nowheresville because he may have been a pretty big deal there and might have a cushy job waiting for him at the local bank after his playing days ended.

And it’s not like the fans thought that what they were watching was somehow inferior. Indeed, way out west in the old Pacific Coast League, people thought of the product as basically major league level, or at least something close to it.  In fact, there were multiple overtures by the NL and AL over the years to absorb the PCL in order to expand west before the Dodgers and Giants just up and moved out there. It was a totally different time and a totally different thing.

These days the system may work more efficiently to get talent in front of people’s eyes and there is obviously no going back, but I think we’ve lost something as a result too.  I’m still explaining baseball to my kids. When I take my daughter to Columbus Clippers games, we talk generally about how the guys out there are trying to make their way to the Cleveland Indians or some other Major League team.  My daughter, however, still can’t quite process how what she’s watching isn’t the be-all end-all and why the primary goal of the club as a whole isn’t to win, even if it’s a welcome byproduct. I’m worry that — like  me — she may one day come to think of a lot of those guys as frustrated and disappointed that their dreams weren’t realized, whether or not that’s actually the case.

Oh well.  Things change.

  1. cur68 - Mar 8, 2011 at 4:16 PM

    When I was a kid I used to watch the Edmonton Trappers play at John Ducey Park. It was the same way for me; I loved it and thought how hard they seemed to play to win. But, as I got older I realized they were playing to be somewhere else (the A’s I think). It would have been so much better if it was like you described it was like back in the day. We’d still HAVE a ball club in Edmonton for one thing.

  2. florida76 - Mar 8, 2011 at 4:41 PM

    There was a period of time before MLB’s western expansion, when some PCL players had no interest in the majors. The quality of play was similar to the majors, and some players were paid the same or more than their MLB counterparts. When you factor in the reduced travel, and the weather, some quality players were happy to stay in the PCL.

  3. The Baseball Idiot - Mar 8, 2011 at 7:26 PM

    Lefty Grove pitched for Baltimore (minor leagues) until he was 26 because of the money they paid him. Think of the numbers he would have put up if he was in the league at 21?

    • nctaxpro - Mar 8, 2011 at 9:30 PM

      Lefty Grove may have made the majors at 21, but there’s no guarantee he’d have been as good there as he was in Baltimore.

      By 1920 most minor leagues were subject to the major league draft. The International League, largely because of Jack Dunn, opted out of the major league draft, and that allowed Dunn to develop a powerhouse that dominated the league; Baltimore won the league pennant every year because he was able to hold onto his stars while other teams, strapped for resources, had to sell theirs. Those Orioles won over 100 games in eight consecutive seasons, and basically pushed the rest of the league to band against them and subject the IL to the major league draft.

      Grove was good, to be sure. But so was Jack Bentley, who had a middling career with the Giants. So was Jack Ogden, who had been decent but unspectacular in a brief trial with the Giants in 1918 and who was decent but unspectacular with the Browns and Reds later. And so was Tommy Thomas, who had four decent years as an inning-eater with the White Sox before getting hurt. They were better with Baltimore than they were in the majors largely because Baltimore was a *lot* better than anyone else in the IL.

      So I don’t know that Grove’s numbers would have been all that good pitching in the majors instead of in Baltimore at age 21. He certainly didn’t dominate right off when he finally did make it to the A’s; it wasn’t until 1928 that he started pitching the way that he had in Baltimore.

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