The Evolution of Baseball's Amateur Draft

By Staudohar, Paul D.; Lowenthal, Franklin et al. | Nine, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

The Evolution of Baseball's Amateur Draft


Staudohar, Paul D., Lowenthal, Franklin, Lima, Anthony K., Nine


The player draft in Major League Baseball began in 1965. This paper examines the reasons for the draft and how it has changed over the years. With the advent of free agency in 1975 and the growing strength of the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA), the draft has played an important part in compensating teams for the loss of a free agent, and the players' union has become a participant in the determination of draft rules. There is also an interesting legal overplay to consider because the draft is anticompetitive and restricts player movement in the labor market.

Of special interest in this paper is team preference in drafting players who have participated in college baseball. In the past, a large percentage of players chosen in the draft have come out of high school. In recent years, however, clubs have come to place a higher value on college players because of the seasoning and maturity they possess. Of course, more men attend college today than ever before, so it is only natural that a greater proportion of the draft would come from the collegiate ranks. We take this into account in our analysis of draft preference. The problems in the operation of the draft and proposed changes to it are also reviewed in this paper.

ORIGINS OF THE DRAFT

The first professional draft in team sports was in the NFL. In 1935 two of its teams, the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Philadelphia Eagles, got into a bidding war for the services of Stan Kostka, an All-American fullback from the University of Minnesota. (1) The result of this competition was that Brooklyn paid Kostka a salary of $5,000, which was the same as that of the highest paid player in the league, the legendary fullback for the Chicago Bears, Bronco Nagurski. Ironically, Kostka played only one season in the NFL.

As a result of this incident, Bert Bell, who was the Eagles' owner and later NFL commissioner, proposed a draft system in which teams would select amateur players in reverse order of their record in the previous season, with the worst team getting the top choice. The NFL draft went into effect in 1936. The top draft pick in the first draft was running back Jay Berwanger, who had won the inaugural Heisman trophy at the University of Chicago. Berwanger chose to pursue a business career and never played in the NFL.

Today, all of the major team sports have amateur drafts that operate on the same principle of allowing weaker teams higher choices. The NBA'S draft went into effect in 1949, and the NHL'S in 1963. The biggest difference in the various drafts today is that the NBA and NHL have lottery systems in which several teams with the poorest records have a chance at the number one pick. This was done to prevent teams from intentionally losing games late in the season in order to get the highest choices.

Beginning in 1954, Major League team owners established a system that required any player who received a signing bonus of more than $4,000 to be kept on the team's Major League roster for two years. The problem with this rule was that the "bonus babies" were young players who were often not ready to perform well at the big-league level. Yet they could not be sent to the Minor Leagues for necessary seasoning.

A case in point is Sandy Koufax. In 1954 Koufax signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers for $20,000, including $6,000 as his first year's salary and a $14,000 bonus. (2) Because of the bonus rule, the Dodgers had to keep Koufax on their Major League roster for the 1955 and 1956 seasons. Koufax was a great prospect and became one of the finest left-handed pitchers ever, but he had problems throwing strikes early in his career. With a veteran pitching staff and fighting to win pennants, Dodger manager Walter Alston seldom allowed Koufax to pitch. He appeared in only 12 games as a rookie and 16 games in 1956, pitching a total of only one hundred innings.

At least Koufax later became a success. …

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