How did the New York Yankees, New York Giants, and Chicago Cubs achieve winning records year after year? Why did other teams, such as the St. Louis Browns, Philadelphia Phillies, and Boston Braves, seem to flounder forever? Did winning teams succeed because they had some prescient ability to sign the best rookie players, or did they buy and trade for stars from downtrodden clubs? What was the pattern of player movement in an era without formal free agency and without a draft of amateur players?
Baseball players toiled under the reserve clause during the Great Depression. Once a player signed a professional contract the team could sell, trade, or terminate him almost at will. While owners may have desired a completely controlled labor market, amateur players still faced a relatively free market for their services. Highly desired youngsters sometimes received modest bonuses or higher monthly pay in the Minor Leagues. In Donald Honig’s Baseball When the Grass Was Real, players described how they were signed by teams. Baseball commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis occasionally released Minor League players from their contracts upon finding that a Major League team had broken a rule, sometimes by signing players before they turned eighteen years old. In these cases we can see free agency roughly similar to the modern version, albeit with untried players. The National Football League introduced the reverse