A ribbon from the 1954 NAPBL convention.

The Draft That Changed Everything

January 31st, 1931 is not a date that is ingrained into the brains of most baseball fans. The average baseball fan didn’t know there was baseball being played in Latin American countries on that date, nor did they really care. It’s hard to get modern fans to care about modern unaffiliated baseball being played in January and there’s little chance of them caring about unaffiliated ball from over eighty years ago. What if instead, I told you that the specific date in question is important to the very future of baseball as you and I know it? 

The Latin leagues playing in January of 1931 pale next to the importance of a small bit of affiliated news that happened on that day. The International League finally capitulated and the affiliated baseball landscape as we know it came to pass. What exactly did the IL capitulate to? They agreed to participate in a Major League Baseball draft. Not the “hey, I’m a new player out of college” regular draft, but a draft of already playing professional ball minor leaguers. The IL was the last vestige of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues (over the years they would become known as Minor League Baseball) to want to remain truly and honestly independent of MLB. When they gave up and agreed to what has today become known as the Rule 5 draft it signaled the end of the minor leagues as an independent body outside of MLB’s purview.

On this particular Friday MLB took the reigns of the NAPBL and made them completely subservient to MLB and MLB owners. Prior to the IL agreeing to the draft minor league ballclubs could hold the rights to their players and sell them to MLB clubs. This system allowed minor league teams to cultivate their own talent and to only sell that talent to MLB teams when they needed the money or felt that the player wasn’t helping their club any longer. This was unfair to the players as no matter what they were locked into contracts with clubs and could not get out of said contracts. For the NAPBL teams, it was the best way to do business. They created their own stars, won because of their own talent (unlike the present day MiLB teams minor league teams used to want to win and not care about developing prospects), and became fixtures of their cities because of the way the system operated.

The new system slowly but surely led to MLB taking over the minor leagues. There are still minor league teams that are owned by individuals, but MLB and MLB clubs have spent years buying up minor league teams so that they own them wholesale. Even the teams that they don’t own are subservient to the whims of MLB and beholden to the Professional Baseball Agreement that governs the relationship between MLB and MiLB. The independent leagues of today are more akin to the minor leagues prior to the IL agreeing to take part in the soon to be called Rule 5 draft.

It’s hard for anyone to think of MiLB teams as anything more than fun, discretionary baseball. The leagues that make up the MiLB today exist to provide cheap baseball to the communities they serve and to develop prospects for their MLB team affiliates. It is an arrangement that has worked for over eighty years and could work for over eighty more. Except for no one at the time, including the IL, could have foreseen that MLB teams would become so money hungry that they would propose a plan to gut the minor leagues and eliminate forty-two teams plus a few leagues wholesale.

I say the above somewhat tongue in cheek, what is happening now has always been the goal of MLB. They were willing to allow the NAPBL, then MiLB, to have their little place in the affiliated baseball stratosphere. The entire time MLB was working towards the destruction of the minor leagues, albeit slowed by a series of owners and commissioners who actually liked the game of baseball. As soon as affiliated baseball became the charge of Rob Manfred and a combination of private equity and corporate owners the writing was on the wall even if MiLB, and everyone really, refused to recognize the writing was present.

With Manfred’s indifference towards the actual game of baseball and a bevy of MLB owners who only care about making money and don’t care about making money while actually enjoying the game, the perfect constellation had been formed to seal the fate of the minor leagues. Even as I type this there are pleas to stop MLB from enacting The Houston Plan. They are valid pleas, I have made them myself, but they are ultimately futile pleas. MLB has all the power, they’ve had all the power since the moment the International League said a draft of minor league players was okay. The minor leagues as an independent organization have been gone for some time. Thanks to Manfred and his fellow ghouls minor league baseball is heading towards elimination altogether. If only the IL and other NAPBL leagues had fought to retain their independence perhaps the MiLB of today would not find themselves staring down the barrel of extinction.

Lead photo courtesy of Unknown – Unknown

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Bill Thompson
Father (human/feline/canine), husband, Paramedic, Socialist, writer Internet Baseball Writers Association of America and Off the Bench Baseball; freelance writer at various online and print publications. Member Internet Baseball Writers Association of America & Society for American Baseball Research.

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