Branch Rickey is the most lionized executive in American sports history, and for good reason. Rickey was at least partially responsible for two of the biggest developments in North American professional sports in the 20th century. The first is, of course, his role in facilitating Jackie Robinson’s entrance into the major leagues in 1947. The second came years before, when Rickey was still with the Cardinals: the development of the minor league farm system.
In the July 1946 issue of baseball magazine, published as Jackie Robinson played minor league games in Montreal as part of Rickey’s farm system with the Dodgers, writer Ed Rumill presented an article, “Chain Store Baseball is Here to Stay.” Rumill opens:
“It was a comparatively few years ago that Branch Rickey and (Cardinals owner) Sam Breadon put their heads to gether and created the famed St. Louis Cardinal farm chain system of devleoping ballplayers. While other magnates sat around and watched, the Mound City pair laid the foundation of an organization which was to prosper and win with only rare interruptions.”
The Cardinals were a doormat for the first two-and-a-half decades of Major League Baseball’s existence. They mustered just two winning seasons from 1903-1920 and didn’t win a pennant until 1926, just as Rickey’s farm system plan was moving into place. Over the next two decades, the club reached nine World Series, won six, and finished under .500 just twice. Rumill also mentions the Yankees as a team to benefit from a strong farm system, a club that didn’t reach any of the first 17 World Series and finished fourth or worse (of eight AL clubs) in 13 of their first 18 seasons in New York.
But the farm system wasn’t truly primed to take off until 1944, when baseball’s first commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis turned power over to Albert B. “Happy” Chandler. Landis “made frequent attacks on the chain store system of producing big league prospects,” Rumill wrote, “several times turning loose a small army of potential rookie sensations.”
Landis strongly believed that minor league clubs should be playing for championships, not player development. Not only did he occasionally release players from their minor league contracts if he felt teams were cynically stashing players on minor league clubs, he also instituted a minor league draft to prevent teams from keeping players on the same minor league squad for more than two years at a time (something similar to the minor league rounds of the current Rule 5 draft).
Rickey’s model earned the nickname “chain store baseball” — effectively the model we have today, with players advancing from rookie ball through Triple-A on their way to the majors, except with some different names (“Class C” and “Class D” instead of Low-A, etc.). Between the typical reticence baseball has always shown for trying new things and Landis’s fights to keep the minor leagues as competitive leagues as opposed to development leagues, it was slow to catch on. But the success of the Cardinals and Yankees in particular was impossible to ignore, and the change happened swiftly.
“It wasn’t very long ago that farming was vigorously opposed by many officials, among them Judge Landis,” Owen Bush, the head executive of the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians, told Rumill. “It was maintained by some that an organization such as the Cardinals and, later, the Yankees, held back certain players who should have been playing regularly in the majors, but who couldn’t because there wasn’t room for them on their parent clubs; and the clubs refused to sell them to needy rivals.”
It’s clear in this arrangement there is only one winner: the parent club, which can use and assign its farm system players to its heart’s content, regardless of whether or not the player deserves more money (via either a promotion or moving to another club) for his skill. The minor league teams and their fans lose as well, as winning becomes a secondary goal. But it was obvious the chain store model, due to the control it conferred to the major league clubs, was the best at producing a winner. Enter the invisible hands of the market, which went on to make sure the chain store model was the only viable one for minor league teams to survive on.
“Today,” Bush continues, “every sound head in the game realizes that a universal chain store system will work to the advantage of all concerned, including the player. Even most of the independent minor league owners are being won over to the farming idea, because they have been shown in dollars and cents that it is very difficult — many times impossible, to buck farm organization teams in their own leagues and continue to exist.”
These teams, and the minor leagues in general, were unable to buck the farm organizations because they had little choice in the matter. Major League Baseball’s antitrust exemption made breaking free of the rest of the minor leagues impossible. All the leagues that tried — the Pacific Coast League came the closest, and only survived as long as it did because MLB was unable to expand westward until air travel became viable — were eventually forced into minor league subordination.
Bush says the chain store model benefits players. He obviously isn’t talking monetarily, as the model could easily leave a player — say, the second-best first baseman in the Yankees system, behind Lou Gehrig as the Iron Horse played in over 2,000 straight games — stranded in the low-budget minors, especially without free agency of any form to open any avenues for him. Instead, Bush uses an argument we still often hear used on amateur athletes (particularly those in the NCAA system) today: avoiding the pros and developing as a youngster will make the player better.
“Those teams without farm systems have seen many a promising young player hurt and possibly ruined because they had to bring them into the majors too soon. A green kid comes into fast company and finds everything over his head. He may be a good prospect, yet he finds the pitching a little too tough; or, if he happens to be a pitcher himself, he finds that the hitters are not at all fooled by his stuff. But as his outfit has no minor league tieup, he has to struggle along as best he can in the Big Time, learning the game the hard way.
Obviously, if those boys could have been brought along slowly in farm chains, moving higher whenever their development deserved it, they would have been equal to the big league standard by the time they had reached the parent club.”
And perhaps this would be to the benefit of some players. But what of the wages sacrificed by toiling in the minors when another team would pay him to be on the major league roster? Bush doesn’t push this point — and why would he? As a minor league executive, he was in the business of suppressing the wages of minor leaguers.
But none of this was particularly important. Branch Rickey — who, at the heyday of his Cardinals farm system, had some 30 minor league teams and even full leagues under his club’s control — had found another way to win, and if the result was widespread exploitation of minor league athletes for miniscule wages (or no wages, in the case of college athletes) and terrible living conditions, so be it.
Consider the sports landscape in North America today. The four major sports are all dominated by all-powerful top leagues — MLB, NFL, NBA, and NHL. They are all supported by a massive minor league system — MLB and NHL have their own explicit systems, and the NBA and NFL have the NCAA (as well as the NBA D-League). The system was allowed to thrive first thanks to the anti-trust exemption and then cemented by the way Rickey’s teams (and a few others who followed his lead) ruthlessly dominated the league from the 1920s through the 1950s.
“Yes, chain store baseball is here to stay,” Bush added in closing, “so everybody, major and minor, might as well climb abord the bandwagon. Otherwise, they’ll soon be forgotten.”
And of course, he was right, as the PCL, the International League, the Federal League and all other such challengers baseball has faced have been either forgotten or subsumed, and the same happened to other challenges in other arenas of sports as well (consider the USFL football league in the 1980s, or the ABA basketball league in the 1960s and 1970s).
This, to me, is one of the largest and most fascinating what-ifs in sports history. What if the anti-trust exemption was never granted to major league baseball? What if the farm system hadn’t caught on? How many professional leagues would exist in America? What kind of fascinating systems may have arrived for crowning a champion?
Instead, we’re stuck with an institutional system with the power to keep teams and owners locked in at the top, no matter how incompetent or atrocious they or their franchises become. We’re locked into a system that exploits minor leagues and amateurs instead of allowing them the right to work where and for who they please. I watch the relegation and promotion systems in football across the world, and I’m fascinated, and I wonder, could we have done that? Could we have done something better?
But, in the end, Bush is right. Chain store baseball is here to stay, and given the institutional power of the major sports leagues today, it’s impossible to imagine a North American sporting world without it any more.