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DOOM around the CORNER
Roy Terrell
December 16, 1957
Alas, independent minor league baseball is dying on its feet
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December 16, 1957

Doom Around The Corner

Alas, independent minor league baseball is dying on its feet

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Losing fight all the way

Most minor leaguers do not delude themselves, of course, that a chicken in a fan's hand is going to save the game. But they cannot do much about the weather or the price index, and in the fight for the entertainment dollar they realize themselves to be hopelessly overmatched against Perry Como and Lassie. So they start out by fighting for better promotion and usually wind up fighting with the major leagues. They are overmatched here, too.

Today the minors and the majors are one big unhappy family. "We live in the same house," says NAPBL President George Trautman, looking a bit like a worried turtle over the top of his horn-rimmed glasses and bulbous nose, "but there is an unfortunate cleavage between us." Perhaps most unfortunate of all, while the minor leagues are fighting mad, the majors couldn't care less. The deck is stacked heavily in their favor. They are making money and getting the players they want, and that is all that they ask.

The minors kick hardest about three things: major league franchise shifts which take over lucrative minor league territory ( Milwaukee, Kansas City, Baltimore, Los Angeles, San Francisco); radio and television transmission of major league games into minor league cities; and major league control of the player supply. The first is not so bad, since the minors hardly dare oppose progress and because they are able to relocate quite comfortably with the indemnities the big league clubs have to pay to the invaded cities and leagues. But the very thought of the other two makes the minors sizzle.

The biggest hassle to come out of the joint meetings at Colorado Springs (the majors were there, too, living at the plusher Broadmoor Hotel some five miles away) occurred when several big league teams announced that they were going to televise Sunday games in addition to the double-barreled Saturday "games of the week" already flowing out across the country over two major networks. "Sunday," snarled Shag Shaughnessy, who has directed the fortunes of the International League for 21 years, "is the only day we have left to draw any crowds. Back off or we sue." And next day the minors not only reaffirmed their intention of taking legal action but dispatched a resolution to a congressional committee asking that this entire business of major league television be subjected to a thorough scrutiny. The minors, although enraged, did not necessarily feel that blocking this move would solve all their problems. It was simply that the very idea of major league television on Sunday was the last straw the long-suffering old camel could bear.

Neither usurpation of prized franchises nor satiation of prospective customers by major league television hurts the minors so badly, however, as the almost complete loss of the player market over the past 25 years. In the original structure of the game, the majors and minors were separate entities, functioning virtually independent of each other. Those players who could not step right out of high school or off the sandlots into the major leagues—and almost none of them could—were signed to contracts by independently owned minor league teams. There they were developed and eventually, if good enough, sold to the major leagues. The minors assumed the responsibility, did the work and collected.

Landis opposed farm system

But in the Depression years, the minors were hit so hard that some major league owners felt it absolutely necessary to take over in order to keep the young players coming up the ladder. " Judge Landis was never in favor of the farm system," says O'Connor, who is generally considered the smartest baseball man west of Branch Rickey, "and neither was I. But Frank Navin and Barney Dreyfuss convinced him it was the only solution and that there would be no ill effects afterwards."

As far as the major leagues are concerned, there are still no ill effects. They find the players, sign them, farm them out to teams which they control either by outright ownership or through working agreements and eventually still reap the finished product. But what it has meant to the independently operated minor league teams is slow death. Unable to compete in the player market against the big league clubs, they are unable to compete on the field against minor league opponents who, by virtue of major league affiliations, possess all the good young players.

Unable to beat the system, the minor league team has been forced either to quit or join 'em. Hundreds have quit; most of the remainder have joined them. There were 158 independent minor league teams in 1947; a decade later the number was down to 48. The biggest drop came in poor little old struggling Class D, from 69 independents to a total of three. And most of the teams which gave up the ghost during the convention last week did so for one primary reason; they were unable to obtain a working agreement with a major league team.

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