1919- Cardinals Start First Farm System

Branch Rickey Changes the Culture

The 1919 season sees some changes that will eventually be beneficial for the Cardinals future. In December, Sam Breadon, one of the largest stockholders of the team and owner of his own Automobile Company, accepts the position as club president. He convinces Branch Rickey to be vice president and general manager and he will be allowed to continue as the field manager of the team.

Rickey begins to toy with the concept of a team owned minor league farm system when he buys some shares of the Texas League team in Houston. So he starts the first farm system. Then he decides to fire Hendricks as manager and named himself to lead the team. Rickey claimed this move was made to save money. But the truth was probably closer to the fact that Rickey loved being in uniform and on-the-field.

Charlie Barrett began as a part-time scout with the St. Louis Browns. He became a full-timer with the Cardinals in 1918, when Branch Rickey took over as president, general manager, and field manager. Barrett, Rickey said, “could assay the gold content in a handful of ore.” Moreover, Barrett understood Rickey’s master plan and was more responsible than anyone for its masterly execution.

When Rickey himself had worked for the Browns, from 1913 to 1917, he experimented briefly with the idea of a farm system—direct control of minor-league teams by the major-league parent organization, creating a production line of talent. The farm system was a strategy for saving money: instead of bidding against other major-league teams for minor-league players, Rickey wanted to grow his own. After World War I, when the minors were in a financial slump, Rickey put his strategy into effect. In 1919 the Cardinals acquired controlling interest in teams at Houston and Fort Smith; by 1939 the Cardinal empire included 32 minor-league teams and about 650 players.

The Cardinals bought pitcher Jess Haines in 1920, and then purchased no more players until 1945. The system did save money. But it made money, too. Rickey was able to generate such a steady supply of young talent that he could sell off the excess at a nice profit, while providing the Cardinals with enough manpower to win nine pennants by 1946. The competition among so many young players in the system operated as a kind of natural selection, and it kept constant pressure on the veterans at the top. Rickey, as Enos Slaughter once said, “would go into the vault to get you a nickel change.” He was able to bully and bluff major-leaguers, bound by the reserve clause, into absurd salaries. The minor-leaguers could be left on the farms until, as Rickey liked to say, they “ripened into money.”

Rickey’s fundamental principle, “quality out of quantity,” had direct implications for scouting. Since the Cardinals would be signing droves of amateurs instead of buying a few polished minor-leaguers, Barrett and Rickey needed to project players further into the future. Scouting would now require a clear analysis of a youngster’s total athletic talents, his “tools.” For the Cardinals the most important tool, even in the new age of home runs, was running speed: Rickey called it the only common denominator of offense and defense, and he believed it to be the best single indicator of major-league potential. The least important tool was fielding: “We can teach them to field,” Barrett said. In fact, the system depended on teaching. In his larger vision of “player development,” Rickey applied scouting insights to teaching and vice versa, and he winnowed prospects by erecting some hypotheses into laws: “The overstriding hitter cannot be corrected.”

The principle of quality out of quantity also led Rickey and Barrett to devise tryout camps (they ran baseball’s first ever in 1919, at Robison Field in St. Louis) and to hire more scouts: Pop Kelchner, Jack Ryan, Joe Mathes, Carl Lundgren, Fred Hunter, and Rickey’s brother Frank. It remains unclear just how many of these were full-timers. Their salaries were so low that some of them may have been unsure about it, too, and Ryan continued to work for Rickey even after the Cardinals cut him from the payroll. Frank Rickey was his brother’s right hand: when Branch was asked to write a letter of recommendation for him in 1942, he simply drew up a list of “Frank’s players”—77 names in all, including Enos Slaughter, Marty Marion, and Preacher Roe—and noted that the Cardinals had sold off twenty-five of them for $428,500 in cash and fourteen new players.

The New York Yankees, even without a farm system, began to invest in scouting after the war by hiring Bob Connery and Paul Krichell. Connery had made his reputation in 1915 when he discovered Rogers Hornsby in the low minors and talked the Cardinals into buying the 18-year-old shortstop for $600; Hornsby was in the majors by the end of that season. Krichell, like Rickey, was a former catcher, sturdy and bowlegged. Lefty Gomez once remarked: “Paul would be seven feet tall if it wasn’t for the two-foot bend in his legs.” In the spring of 1922 Krichell attended a college game in New York and watched the Columbia pitcher, Lou Gehrig, hit a ball over the right field fence, across the street, and onto the steps of the library. When Connery heard Krichell’s report on “the new Babe Ruth,” he immediately offered Gehrig’s coach, Andy Coakley, $500 to talk his player into quitting school and signing a Yankee contract.

Hornsby misses Batting Title

Rogers Hornsby played in every game and just missed the batting title with a .318 average. Milt Stock, a no defense player, is second on the team with a .307 average. Stock spent about 9 seasons with the Cardinals and average over 25 errors per season. Stock would later become the father-in-law of future player and manager Eddie Stanky.

Sam Breadon becomes President

In December, Sam Breadon, one of the largest stockholders of the team and owner of his own Automobile Company, accepts the position as club president. He convinces Branch Rickey to be vice president and general manager and he will be allowed to continue as the field manager of the team.

The first farm system will become wildly popular with other teams.