Monday, February 4, 2008

the bonus babies

obrien twins
Eddie and Johnny O'Brien
from Bill Crider's Pop Culture Magazine

For most of the 1950s, the Pittsburgh Pirates were doormats in the NL. From 1949-1957 they strung together nothing but losing records, and lost 100 or more games three consecutive years, from 1952 to 1954 - and it was a lot tougher to reach those depths playing a 154 game schedule than it is today. They desperately needed some help. But the system was rigged against the cash poor Bucs (sound familiar?), with amateur ballplayers being free to sign with the highest bidder.

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, teams had found themselves in bidding wars for young blood. These battles ended when a real war, World War II, broke out. But when the shooting overseas ended, the competition for new talent resumed even more fiercely.

This feeding frenzy resulted in skyrocketing signing bonuses. In 1947, baseball implemented the Bonus Rule. The rule prevented the wealthier teams from signing the lion's share of the better players and stashing them in their farm systems by setting a limit on signing bonuses, generally around $4,000. If a team exceeded the bonus limit, the player had to go on the major league roster, much like Rule 5 players today. But the haves challenged it, and in 1950 it was dumped.

Branch Rickey, who had taken over the reins as the Pirate GM in 1950, pushed for a revival of the "bonus baby" rule. His goal was to keep the well heeled Yankees (yes, they were the evil empire even back then), Dodgers, Cardinals, and others from stockpiling minor league talent by opening their wallets wide, and hopefully level the playing field a bit for the rest of the teams.

He rammed "Bonus Baby the Sequel" through in late 1952, to take effect the next season. The Pirates became the biggest player in the Bonus Baby battle. Until it was again dropped in 1957, the Bucs signed 8 players that went straight from school ball to the major leagues, the most in baseball. So this influx of talent shot the Pirates right to the top, right? Well, no.

Who'd we sign? One noted player was Vic Janowicz, All-America halfback from Ohio State. He and Pittsburgh would have both been better served if he had signed with the Steelers instead. The 1950 Heismann Trophy winner hit .214 in his two years with the Bucs before deciding he was more suited to shoulder pads than the tools of ignorance.

Pitcher Paul Martin only lasted a year, ringing up an awe inspiring 14.14 ERA. Infielder Billy Pritchard also spent but one season in baseball, hitting .091. Pitcher Red Swanson was on the Pirate roster for 3 years, compiling a 4-4 record and 4.90 ERA. Another pitcher, Laurin Pepper, toiled off the mound for four years, ending his career at 2-8 with a 7.06 ERA. Catcher Nick Koback appeared in 16 games over three years, batting .121. None of them played MLB after the Pirates cut them loose.

Oh, they did sign a couple of major league players, the O'Brien twins. They were terrific basketball players at Seattle University, even though they were 5'9" (they were known as the "Shrimps of Seattle," although Johhny could supposedly dunk a ball.) Eddie played shortstop for a couple of seasons, batting .236, and then was converted to a pitcher. He didn't get much work but was 1-0 with a 3.31 ERA before he hung up the spikes in 1958 after 5 years as a Buc. Johnny was the only one of the eight bonus babies to play ball outside of Pittsburgh when he went to St. Louis in 1958-59. He spent 6 years in the bigs as a reserve infielder, hitting .250. Oddly enough, he pitched in 25 games while in the majors, going 1-3 with a 5.61 ERA. The Pirates tried to convert him, too.

The O'Briens did reach a couple of milestones, though. They were the first twin combination to play for the same team. They were also one of only four brother combos to play the middle of the infield for the same team in a game. Cal and Billy Ripken were the last pair back in the 1980s.

One famed bonus baby wasn't one by definition, having signed while the bonus rules were on hiatus, but he sure fit the description. The Pirates inked Paul Pettit, a big lefty, in 1950 for the lordly sum of $100,000. In two years, he won 1 game and had an ERA of 7.34. He also blew his arm out. He went on to spend several solid seasons as an outfielder in the minors and Mexican League, showing some good power, but not quite enough to get another shot in the bigs.

One terrific signing was made in the 1952 dead period, though. Rickey inked Dick Groat two days after the Wilkinsburg native, an All-America hoopster, graduated from Duke, giving him a $25,000 bonus. He joined the Bucs in June and hit .284 before marching off to the Army. He came back to form a lethal DP combo with Maz and earn a MVP, batting title, and five All-Star nods during his 14 year career. So the Bucs collected 10 bonus babies, and Groat was the only keeper in the bunch.

Did the bonus rules help level the playing field? It took some promising talent that could and should have spent time in the minors honing their craft and in effect ran them out of the league by rushing them into play rather than polishing their skills (the O'Brien twins come to mind.) The other players resented them, too, because of the big money they were making without having proven themselves. The teams with better scouting systems still won at the talent game, bonuses or not. And like baseball in the 1950s, the system was terribly biased - not one black or Latino player ever became a bonus baby, partially because of prejudice and partially because of their economic background.

But it did help teams that could scout well enough to build up their minor league teams. Even the Pirates made out on that deal, with several of their 1960 players like Maz being brought up through their farm system. By guaranteeing that the entry level minor league contracts would be somewhat equitable, other teams were able to garner their fair share of players rather than having them all gravitate to a handful of big spending franchises. And though the bonus rules made yet another comeback, they were finally scrapped in 1965 and the amateur draft took its' place.

Still, the more things are different, the more they end up the same.

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