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As rich got richer, less wealthy teams starved

By Staff | Jun 22, 2018

The St. Louis Cardinals had an organized group of baseball scouts who were competent and had bonus money to sign amateur players. New York’s Yankees had another extensive scouting system that was matched only by Boston and the Dodgers.

Those scouts were one of the lifebloods of their organizations. As a group of talent hunters, they scoured the country, searching for athletes who could spent a few seasons learning the game’s nuances, fundamentals and techniques in the minor leagues before emerging from the bushes as big-league contributors.

St. Louis, the Dodgers, the Yankees and the Red Sox were the richest teams in baseball. They squabbled over most of the pennants that were won for decades at a time. Those teams had the resources – money – to sign players for a much higher bonus than most of the rest of the pretenders could find.

They could literally outbid the competition. And, by doing so, could keep their minor league systems stocked with to-be major leaguers.

A competitive imbalance existed. Philadelphia (A’s and Phillies), Cincinnati, Washington, Cleveland, the forlorn Cubs and the Boston Braves couldn’t keep pace with the “have’s.”

The richer organizations could make mistakes when evaluating talent, but still thrive because they could afford to sign so many players.

Teams that habitually sipped the water in the cellars of the American and National leagues couldn’t make money, couldn’t outbid their competition and continually looked up at the others from sixth, seventh or eighth place.

In bidding wars for the players perceived to be the country’s best, the franchises with the resources almost always claimed the amateurs they wanted. Many times, the amateurs whose services were wanted did well in this system.

Signing bonuses could exceed $100,000 for an unproven 18-year-old.

The just-out-of-high-school athlete receiving a signing bonus in the era between 1947 and 1965 was called a “bonus baby.”

Detroit signed outfielder Al Kaline to a bonus, and he never spent a day in the minor leagues, going on to a Hall of Fame career. Carl Yastrzemski received $108,000 from Boston and Harmon Killebrew rewarded Washington and Minnesota with his productive career.

Ole Miss quarterback Jake Gibbs ($106,000) started for the Yankees for a time, and pitcher Johnny Antonelli ($66,000) delivered double-figure wins for several teams. Herb Score, a lethal left-hander with a fastball that could often reach 100 mph, went to Cleveland for $60,000.

But the “bonus baby” busts were memorable. Bob Bailey grabbed $175,000 and did very little. Pitcher Paul Petit was gifted with $100,000 and languished on the bench for years. Outfielder “Hawk” Taylor ($119,000), outfielder Dave Nicholson ($120,000), pitcher Danny Murphy ($130,000) and first baseman Frank Leja ($50,000) never really helped the teams that took a chance on them.

The richest bonus ever paid went to Rick Reichardt, an outfielder from the University of Wisconsin. He inked a bonus contract worth $205,000 with the California Angels. Catcher Randy Hundley was given $132,000 by the Cubs. Those two athletes spent years in the major leagues but were not vital to their teams.

For years, any player receiving a bonus of $4,000 had to spend a year in the major leagues, whether he played or not.

A guard on the Xavier University (Cincinnati) basketball teams was gifted with a $24,000 bonus by Brooklyn, an organization that once had 23 minor league teams, including three in Class AAA at Montreal, St. Paul and the Hollywood Stars.

The left-handed pitcher had little control, but possessed an other-world fastball and curveball. He didn’t pitch in games that hadn’t been decided by large margins, but finally harnessed his talents and became baseball’s most effective pitcher for a time. He was Sandy Koufax, a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

To all but silence the free flowing bonus money, the major leagues brought forth a draft of amateurs in 1965. No longer were athletes being bid on by teams. They could only deal with the one team that drafted them.

Just weeks ago, another draft of free agents was held. The amateurs drafted could only bargain with the team that selected them, but the “slotted” bonus money was mind-boggling.

The first player selected could be signed for up to $8.9 million. Even the 10th player selected in the first round could command $4.56 million if he had honed his negotiating skills.

The era of the “bonus baby” is long gone. But the era of the millionaire baseball player who has never appeared anywhere in a professional game is here to stay.