'Bonus Babies': Interesting History Surrounds Them
When Dillon Maples picked up a $2.5 million bonus for signing with the Chicago Cubs earlier this month, the lanky 19-year-old pitcher from Pinecrest High School proved that much of life’s good fortune comes from being in the right place at the right time in history.
Imagine if he was a high school senior 55 to 60 years ago with the pitching skills he has today. He might have become one of the “bonus babies” of the 1950s when the bonuses were mere pocket change compared with what Maples got from the Cubs.
He would also have been forced to join his big league team immediately upon signing the bonus contract without any chance to work his way up through the minor leagues that serve as an important training ground under the tutelage of experienced coaches. And he would have to spend a minimum of two years on his team’s roster before he could be sent to the minors unless he was one of the very rare “bonus babies” capable of playing in the majors right from the start.
Although some “bonus babies” did achieve considerable success in MLB, the majority of them were soon forgotten.
Nobody was even thinking in terms of million dollar bonuses for inexperienced youngsters immediately after World War II. But a majority of the Major League Baseball teams made a move back then that they thought might protect themselves from the greedy practices of the richest clubs, such as the New York Yankees, Brooklyn Dodgers, Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals.
Many club owners felt these rich teams were capable of signing all the players they wanted and sequestering them in their vast minor league systems for years.
There was no MLB draft in those days. As was the case at the outset of the 20th century, when the National and American leagues formed the current Major League Baseball structure, each team got its players by signing any eligible amateur baseball player it could afford.
This led to the rich teams outbidding the poorer teams for the best young players and signing as many as they wished to put down in the minor leagues. And since there was no free agency then, once a player signed with a club he was virtually stuck with that team for life or until the team decided to get rid of him by trade, sale or release.
So MLB put through a bonus rule that lasted, with numerous changes and interruptions, from 1947 until 1965. The harshest version of this bonus rule ran for five seasons, 1953 – 1957.
The minimum amount of a bonus that caused a player to be subject to these rules was $4,000.
During those five years, a “bonus baby” who took $4,000 or more for signing with an MLB team had to be put on the major league team’s active roster immediately upon signing and remain there for at least two years. This is the 25-man squad that makes up the bulk of the working team for the duration of a season, starting on opening day.
Maples got $2.5 million for signing and will get five weeks of work at the Chicago Cubs’ training base in Mesa, Ariz., this fall and then probably be assigned to a minor league or rookie league team by the Cubs early next year. If all goes well, he won’t reach the major leagues until he is ready.
By contrast, about 60 years ago, a young man coming out of high school who signed for $4,000 or more went straight away to the MLB team bench, where most of them got many more splinters than times at bat.
There were still only 16 MLB teams with eight in each league back in the 1940s and early 1950s. That means there were only 400 MLB players. Many of the established players in MLB resented these “bonus babies” sitting on the bench without contributing anything to a team’s efforts.
Notable ‘Bonus Babies’
The three most notable “bonus babies” of the 1950s were Sandy Koufax, who signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers for $14,000 in 1955; Al Kaline, who got a $35,000 bonus to sign with the Detroit Tigers in 1953; and Harmon Killebrew, who received $30,000 to sign with the Washington Senators in 1954. Each of these players eventually made the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Killebrew is the only one of those three who was sent down to the minor leagues after sitting out his first two years on the MLB bench. Koufax, who was a wild southpaw for the first two or three years of his career, and Kaline, who was an immediate slugging success, never played a day in the minors.
Another outstanding “bonus baby” success was Mike McCormick, currently a 72-year-old resident of Pinehurst at the Country Club of North Carolina.
McCormick was one of the very youngest of these “babies” as he signed with the New York Giants for $50,000 on Aug. 31, 1956, 29 days before his 18th birthday. He had to report to the Giants immediately and made his major league debut pitching for the Giants on Sept. 3, 1956, just three days after signing that contract.
McCormick went on to considerable success pitching for five MLB clubs during a 16-season career. He won the National League’s Cy Young Award in 1967 while pitching for the Giants.
Speaking of going immediately to the New York Giants at age 17 to pitch MLB, McCormick said, “It was not a bad experience for me. But for 98 percent of those bonus players it was a wasted two years. It did hamper most of those guys who signed in those days.
“I got $50,000 and Dillon Maples gets what? Is it 2 1/2 million? I can’t comprehend that signing. But I sure wish him the best.”
Playing With the Rules
MLB and its two leagues were hard pressed to enforce the old bonus rule. Teams had many ways to circumvent it. Feigned injuries were common, enabling teams to put the “bonus babies” on lengthy disabled lists. Also, under-the-table bonuses hidden from MLB were common, so a young player never came under the “bonus baby” rule.
There were also some ways the big boys hid bonus players. Although it was never proved beyond a reasonable doubt, the biggest “bonus baby” scandal involved Clete Boyer, who signed a bonus contract with the Kansas City Athletics in May 1955 so the Athletics could keep Boyer on hold for the Yankees. The infielder spent the mandatory two years on the Kansas City roster while contributing little to the team’s fortunes.
Then, in June 1957, instead of sending Boyer to the minors for further training, the Athletics sent him to the Yankees as “the player to be named later” that completed a 13-player deal made four months earlier in February 1957.
Everyone in baseball suspected the rich New York Yankees paid Kansas City for part or all of Boyer’s bonus so that the Athletics would keep him on ice for the Bronx Bombers, who then called upon him when needed.
Such shenanigans led to MLB ending the bonus rule after the 1957 season. But it was reinstituted in 1962 in yet a different form. This new rule lasted until June 1965, when the first MLB draft was introduced. The draft is now the way a team gets to select its players, who can bargain for big signing bonuses as Maples did.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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