It has frequently been pointed out by minor league executives that they could still, if given the chance, develop a young player and sell him to the majors at just about half ("I'd say a third," says O'Connor) of what it costs a big league team to do the job for itself. When one considers the financial drain of vast scouting staffs and sprawling farm systems, this undoubtedly is true. But the big league teams, particularly those with highly successful farm operations, are not about to return to the point where they must bid on the open market for seasoned minor league players. For one thing, it would leave too much to chance, and good businessmen like Walter O'Malley of the Dodgers, Lou Perini of the Braves and Del Webb of the Yankees are not going to buy very much of that. For another, a major league club does not mind spending a little more money if the result is a player who has been brought up in the system and indoctrinated thoroughly all his baseball life in the particular style of play and winning psychology of the parent organization.
The three ways in which the minors could conceivably break this stranglehold are by congressional action against the majors as a result of antitrust violations and restraint of trade; by some future concerted and dynamic uprising of their own; or through the good graces of the big leagues themselves. Although the majors shake in their boots whenever the first subject is mentioned, there is little or no indication to date that the government will act; baseball may be a business, but it is still a sport, and the laws of the land look upon it as such.
As for a revolution from below, the major leagues have even less to fear here. Minor league history is one long page of dissension and distrust. "The trouble with the minors," says Dick Butler, president of the Texas League, "always has been that there are too many divergent opinions instead of a united front." And Trautman, charged for years in some quarters with namby-pamby leadership, asks simply, "How can you give leadership when you have no followers?"
As for the big leagues suddenly getting bighearted and giving players away, Leslie O'Connor admits, "I can hardly visualize this happening." Neither can anyone else.
One may wonder why the majors, big brother as they are in this rather raucous family and definitely dependent upon little brother for the development of players under one system or another, do not extend the aid that is so evidently needed. The answer is that the majors will step in and help out—but not until it is absolutely necessary. In a cold-blooded business way, they will continue to take over minor league franchises, send television and radio into minor league territory and allow the independents to die until the critical point is reached. Quite frankly, they cannot afford to subsidize all of minor league baseball, nor do they intend to try. All that they need is just enough farm teams to handle the players they have under contract. Once this point is reached, the minor leagues will level off and survive.
The critical point is not too far away. Once it was believed that a booming farm system required as many as 20 teams to handle all the young talent. Now even heavily loaded farm systems like those of the Pirates, Braves, Dodgers and Yankees seem to operate most effectively with something like 10 minor league teams. "We think that eight or nine is about right," says Fresco Thompson of the Dodgers, " and there are certainly quite a few big league clubs, Washington, for example, that can get along with less." If one is to assume then that an alignment of 20 minor leagues with 160 teams would do the job, it may be seen that the present figure is fast approaching what the majors would consider an ideal state.
Down on the farm
If the major leagues sometimes appear to be the villain of the minor league story, it can also be argued that they are only realistic. No one would be happier than major league club owners if the minor league teams under their direction would produce not only players but dollar bills as well. But the time has long since passed when the function of the lower minors, at least, is entertainment. They exist only as a training ground for prospective major league ballplayers. And public apathy has become so strong that even should the majors stop televising into their territory, even should mosquitoes stop biting, even—heaven forbid—should Lassie die, it is doubtful that the fans would come back into the parks.
It is a difficult thing for the old minor leaguers to realize and accept, for they were raised on the game and they love it. Like a man who puts catsup on his beans, they are unable to figure out why everyone else doesn't like it, too.
But the minor leagues, at least in the form in which they have struggled along for years, are doomed. Maybe it won't be as much fun as it once was Maybe a lot of people who could have helped but didn't will be sorry when the day arrives. But it is coming. And the minor leaguers, despite their rose-colored glasses and whistling in the dark, know it, too.