Professional baseball teams hit the scene in 1869 when the Cincinnati Red Stockings played their first game. Several leagues arose over the next 45 years to attack and challenge both the American League and the National League. But 1901 was the landmark year for what would eventually become minor league baseball. The Northwest League of 1883-84 is often referred to as the first minor league, because it was conceived as a permanent organization. During the late 1890’s, we witnessed the Western League challenging the National League’s superiority.
In 1900, Ban Johnson, the Western League’s president, claimed that he would provide better contracts to NL players who were dissatisfied with their current ones and the owner-friendly reserve clause that was always standard text within them. A bitter war ensued between the Western and National Leagues, and it provoked the concern of one Patrick T. Powers, then President of the Eastern League. Powers and the league’s other representatives were concerned about the Eastern League damaged by the ongoing conflict between the two warring leagues. So a meeting between Powers and all league representatives ensued at the Leland Hotel in Chicago on September 5th, 1901.
The result was that minor league baseball was born 105 years ago at that hotel conference table. At that time, I don’t think that newly elected league President Patrick T. Powers had any inkling as to the impact on the future of minor league ball. Suffice it to say, the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues (NAPBL) as it was called in the beginning, began operating with 14 leagues and 96 teams at the start of the 1902 season. Eight years later, when Powers left office the league had exploded to 35 leagues and 246 ball clubs — impressive growth to say the least.
For the sake of definition, minor league baseball (according to Wikipedia) “refers to professional baseball leagues in North America that compete at levels below that of Major League Baseball.” Just like in Major League Baseball, minor league franchises are run as a business, being independently owned and operated in similar fashion. The teams in minor league baseball are basically divided into two different categories — affiliates and independents.
Affiliation refers to the agreement that a minor league team has with a major league team for purposes of being a source of future talent at the big league level. It is a system in which talent is developed and made available to play on demand in the majors. On some occasions, the minor league club even uses the same team name as the major league affiliate. There are currently 20 leagues and 246 teams that operate in various cities throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Independent leagues operate without major league affiliation, and are not members of the Minor League Baseball Organization. The most prominent one of these is the Atlantic League, which is comprised of eight teams and has its headquarters in Camden, NJ. Its teams play in larger metropolitan areas such as Baltimore, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.
On a humorous note, the minor leagues have endured less complimentary nicknames such as “farm clubs”, “farm system”, or “farm teams” for the better part of 70 years since the 1930’s. The inception of the term has actually been credited to Branch Rickey, then GM of the Cardinals, because these small town minor league teams were said to be “growing players down on the farm like corn.” But humorous or not, Rickey was the genius who not only developed the system, but perfected it so as to be a benefit to every major league team.
When Michael Sexton took over the NAPBL in 1910 as President, it was during the time of constant wars between the outlaw Federal League and the majors, and it witnessed the minor league system being caught in the middle, oftentimes raided of all their top talent. In 1914, Sexton led a fight against the Federal League radicals who were trying to get the minor leagues to support them and desert any and all major league affiliation. Despite the ongoing struggles and then later having to endure the rigors of the Great Depression, Sexton remained focused and unmoving in his convictions for nearly 22 years all the while nurturing the system and watching it flourish.
William G. Bramham was elected league President in 1932, and served for 15 years. The NAPBL office was moved to Durham, NC and added another 14 leagues and 102 ball clubs to the organization, but turned over 52 leagues and 388 clubs to George M. Trautman in 1947. Trautman then moved the main office to Columbus, OH and began a 16 year term as President. By 1949, only two years after taking over as President, the organization had grown to 59 leagues and 448 ball clubs. Attendance at games set a record that year when over 39,640,000 fans went to the ball parks to see their favorite team play. The attendance records lasted for 54 years, but the onset of television and the expansion era in the majors witnessed a decline in minor league attendance numbers during the ensuing seasons.
In March of 1963, Trautman died and Frank Shaughnessy was elected interim President. That December, when Trautman’s assistant Philip Piton became President, the organization had shrunk to 20 leagues and 132 ball clubs. To make matters worse financially, attendance had diminished to fewer than 10 million. But Piton dug in, and by the time he vacated the Presidency only eight years later in 1971, there were 23 more clubs in the organization than when he took over the office.
Henry Peters took over as President in December of 1971, moved the headquarters to its fourth location (St. Petersburg, FL) in 1973, and then left two years later, taking over as GM of the Baltimore Orioles in 1975. In January of 1976, Robert R. “Bobby” Bragan was elected President and saw the league expand to 158 clubs. In March of 1978, he moved the office one final time to its current location on Bayshore Drive in St. Petersburg five blocks from where it had been located adjacent to Al Lang Stadium.
John H. Johnson took over in January of 1979 and though the number of clubs in the league hovered between 160 and 170 in number, attendance skyrocketed to over 20 million fans by 1987. Johnson died unexpectedly on January 12th, 1988 and Sal B. Artiaga was elected President in April of the same year. His first year saw attendance balloon to 21,659,000 plus fans and 188 ball clubs. During the 1991 Winter Meetings, Mike Moore was elected President and assumed the reigns in January of 1992.
Moore’s first accomplishment as leader of the league was rewriting the original National Association Agreement which had never been changed in nearly a century of existence. The Agreement is basically the by-laws that define and govern all operations between the NAPBL and the members of the league. According to the website at http://web.minorleaguebaseball.com, the single most important change was the conversion of the National Association to more of a “corporate” structure rather than a “political “one. Additionally, the President of the league shall be elected at annual meetings for a term of four years.
Moore was elected to his fourth term as President in December of 2003 and during his tenure in office, the league has experienced tremendous growth, partially resulting from his business savvy as well as his economic genius as well. Prior to being elected President in 1991, Moore was responsible for developing a partnership agreement between the Professional Baseball Promotion Corporation (an NAPBL subsidiary) and Major League Baseball Properties to license merchandise internationally. Since 1993, this has resulted in merchandise sales exceeding $40 million per year on average. Also, the branching out onto the national marketing scene now accounts for nearly $20 million in sponsorship revenues.
Some of the biggest achievements to the league’s credit occurred in 1998, specifically the realigning of Triple-A from three leagues into two, and the establishing of the Triple-A World Series in Las Vegas from 1998-2000. The NAPBL celebrated its 100th Anniversary with a phenomenal attendance factor of over 38,800,000 fans in 2001. The league then saw the long standing attendance record of 39,640,443 in 1949 broken in 2004 when 39,887,755 fans passed through the minor league gates. The record had stood for 55 years.
Before moving from the economic and historical part of the article into more of the aspects and functions of the minor leagues, I should make mention of the fact that whoever you refer to as your favorite team, remember that most of those players on that field that you love and cheer for got started with a minor league franchise before being called up to “The Show.” In addition to the players, those persons that perpetually endure our wrath at every game when a called third strike is really a ball or a home run gets called foul — you know — the ones we refer to as “hey blue” or “c’mon ump”, they also earned that right to be in the bigs exactly the same way. They spent time on that “farm” before packing their bags and moving up to the big city.
As I mentioned before, there are two types of teams in the minor leagues — major league affiliates and independents. As a generalization regarding affiliation, the major league affiliate club typically has some sort of an agreement with minor league clubs at four different levels to the following extent. Usually, there is one team playing at the AAA level, one at AA, at least two at the A level, and at least two in a US-based Rookie League.
At one time there was a minor league level classified as an “Open” level which occurred briefly between the years of 1952 and 1957. The extent of the minor league system to the South and West at that time was St. Louis and Washington, D.C. respectively. Rumors of the PCL becoming a third major league ran rampant nationwide due to the restrictions that an Open league classification imposed on major league baseball. These restrictions prevented players from the PCL getting drafted into the majors.
Here’s something of an interesting side note concerning affiliate contracts, player salaries, operations, and related expenses. Contracts drawn up between MLB clubs and minor league clubs can be from one to five years in duration, with the most common contracts running from two to four years and expiring at the end of even numbered years. The major league club assumes all responsibility for a player’s salary, while the minor league club handles all operational aspects and all related expenses incurred at the minor league level.
Triple-A franchises are normally found in the larger, more densely populated areas of the country that do not have a major league franchise. These areas include cities such as Buffalo, Las Vegas, Nashville and Portland just to mention a handful so you get the general idea. The AAA clubs also hold onto those remaining 15 players of the 40-man roster when they are not eligible to be on the club.
Double-A franchises are usually comprised of your faster moving players when they are on the way up. These teams can be found in medium sized cities such as Portland, Maine as an example. Oftentimes, there is more of a frequency for a player to jump from the AA level up to the pros rather than at the AAA level, since some players having major league experience spend time intermittently at the higher level. Unlike in the majors and at the AAA level, two of the three Class AA leagues have their seasons split into two parts — the Eastern League being the one exception.
Class A teams are currently divided into two talent brackets called High-A and Low-A. The division dates back prior to the start of the 2002 season. Since then the California, Carolina, and Florida State Leagues have been considered High-A, while the Midwest and South Atlantic Leagues fall into the classification of Low-A. Regardless of High-A or Low-A classification, they play a full season like the AA and AAA levels.
Of the 30 major league teams, 21 teams now have what they refer to as Short-Season A and/or Rookie affiliates. Those teams that do not have a Short-Season affiliate usually have two affiliates at the Rookie level. Normally, there is one Rookie League team always kept by major league clubs either in the Arizona or Gulf Coast Rookie Leagues.
There are a couple of things worth mentioning regarding the Class A level where location and purpose are the topics of discussion. Most Class A ball clubs are located in smaller to mid-sized cities, or in the suburbs of larger ones. Towns like Asheville, NC and Myrtle Beach, SC immediately come to mind when I think of some A level teams. More often than not, players having issues to work on like a batter that has developed an inconsistent level of performance at the plate or a pitcher that has suddenly developed control problems will usually be found at the Class A level.
Short-season leagues are exactly what their name indicates. These leagues play characteristically shorter seasons between June and early September. The schedule is usually more rigorous for the players in that they get fewer days off. The New York-Penn and Northwest leagues are the highest level of the short-season organizations and hold affiliates for 22 of the 30 MLB teams. The other eight clubs have affiliates in the Appalachian and Pioneer Rookie Leagues.
The reason for a later start to the season was purposely done to afford college ballplayers the chance to participate in the NCAA World Series should the opportunity present itself. Remember that the players in this league are mostly comprised of second-year players that are not quite ready to move up as well as new draftees. The second-year personnel oftentimes participate in extended spring training periods until the shorter season gets underway. The shorter season is also designed to help the recently drafted players to get used to certain aspects of the pro game such as the use of wooden bats versus aluminum, or playing every day compared to the lighter schedules in the college ranks where they play maybe two or three times during a week.
The actual rookie leagues are subdivided into an Advanced as well as a Beginner classification. You can find advanced teams in cities such as Danville, VA or Casper, WY or characteristically smaller cities. The lowest level of Minor League Baseball is found amidst the rosters of the Arizona and Gulf Coast Leagues. These leagues are populated mostly by newly signed draftees and a handful of players brought in from both the Dominican and Venezuelan Summer Leagues and the Mexican Academy League. This league provides draftees with less pressure due to lower attendance figures. Also, the influx of the Hispanic players has been greatly reduced because of changes in the immigration laws that ensued after the attacks of September 11th, 2001.
On a closing note, I should mention those former minor leagues that are now defunct since they were a part of the minor league system at one time. Up until 1963, there was a B, C, D, and even an E league. The last of the four, the E league, only functioned for a half season, and the D league was actually the same as today’s Rookie level. Most of these leagues were disbanded and the minor league system as we now know it underwent some revamping because of the financial impact caused by the advent of television in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
As Always, should you have any comments or questions you’d like for me to address, please feel free to e-mail them to me at email@example.com and I will respond to them as quickly as possible.
Minor League Baseball http://web.minorleaguebaseball.com