Baseball Bookshelf: Rebuilding Was Weird 60 Years Ago Too

Over the years, I have posted articles triggered by my off-season baseball withdrawal treatments -- reading books about the Orioles when I can't watch them. This year, I'm sticking a label on the result, ‘Baseball Bookshelf,' and pretending it was an occasional series all along. The MLB news drought is over, but if you need still more baseball content, the ‘previous installments' of this ‘series' are here: Cal Ripken, Rex Barney, Earl Weaver, Babe Ruth, the 1890s Orioles, and bad books about pitching.

This year, I read John Eisenberg's 2001 book From 33rd Street to Camden Yards: An Oral History of the Baltimore Orioles. The oral history format, arranging interviews quotes from 1950s figures like Billy Hunter, George Kell and Ernie Harwell down to the 90s superstars and Peter Angelos, makes for a light, fun read. Our guys included a lot of big personalities that shine through and make 500 pages whip by. The down side of the format, though, is you lose any sense of authorial point of view. Eisenberg just spackles between the cracks of the story told by the participants and his evaluation of performance (when he does any) keys on pitcher wins and RBI. I admire the enormous work of journalism and editing that goes into a book like this. But the result doesn't feel very substantial, though it is worth the time for simple pleasure.

The early history of the franchise in Baltimore was most interesting to me, not only because it was least familiar but because it resonates with our current rebuilding effort. The Browns franchise that showed up in Baltimore was a perennial loser, so when Paul Richards was hired in 1955 as both manager and GM, he tore it down to the foundation. Eisenberg notes Richards "used fifty-six players in the '55 season, ten at third base alone. By the middle of the '56 season, all remnants of the St. Louis Browns were gone. The roster changed so constantly that is was difficult to remember who was on the team." Sound familiar?

Back then there was no amateur draft to structure the rebuilding effort. Scouts were competing directly to get players and their families to sign and, predictably, bigger money teams got future stars. The answer to that was the bonus baby. Part luxury tax and part Rule 5 pick, this rule sought to penalize high price signings by requiring that if you gave a player more than $4000 in signing bonus they had to skip the minors and stay on the major league roster for two years. Like recent CBAs, teams didn't respond to the incentives as intended. GMs like Richards still paid whatever they needed to get the best young prospects, then sat them. Bad teams got worse (proto-tanking) as good-ish veterans were replaced with these place holders and churned back onto the roster a year or two later. Labor relations suffered, as the starters were making less money than the kids riding the bench and were not quiet about it.

There were even shenanigans reminiscent of Dan Duquette's tampering in Korea. Richards signed a bonus-baby lefty pitcher named Tom Borland and tried to get him some experience first by pitching him for the minor league York White Roses under the name of Moreland. Nobody will notice, right? Sure, Paul, who notices details in baseball? He was lucky to escape with a fine, as the league wanted to suspend him initially. Even when done properly, sitting prospects for two years was terrible for their development.

Fortunately, one prospect was too level-headed for the bad incentives. In 1956, the Orioles wanted to give $30,000 to Arkansas infielder Brooks Robinson. Brooks and his dad decided he wasn't ready for the majors and would do better if he signed for the $4000 cap amount and started at York on the level. This must be the best $26,000 a baseball team never spent.

We are also fortune that scouting was very different at the time. Ron Hansen, who became the Orioles first Rookie of the Year while playing alongside Brooks and went on to be a scout said "if I were scouting [Brooks] today, I'd say ‘below average arm, below average speed, not a great body, really a soft-body guy. But great hands and great instincts.' Nowadays a lot of people wouldn't sign a kid like that." Al Kubski, Orioles scout from the 60s described scouting Bobby Grich (who should also be in the Hall) on the 2-8 scale as "a lot of fives" and said "Brooks was a two runner and a three thrower, and he's in the Hall of Fame. There are a lot of guys with great natural ability who can't play." The criteria may be different, but the tune is familiar -- identifying the great prospects remains mysterious. Are today's tools evaluators turning some Hall of Famers into mute, inglorious Miltons?

While the bonus babies didn't pan out, the team regimented its farm system and properly developed Brooks and other early stars like Jerry Walker, Milt Pappas, Hansen and Boog. The specifics are different now, but rebuilding remains weird, difficult and years long. By 1960, there were signs of the Orioles competing. By 1964 they were solid contenders and would be for 20 years to follow. I hope this part soon feels familiar too.

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