“Excerpted from THE LEAGUE OF OUTSIDER BASEBALL: An Illustrated History of Baseball’s Forgotten Heroes by Gary Cieradkowski. Copyright © 2015 by Gary Cieradkowski. Used by permission of Touchstone, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.”
The Bush Leaguers:
Everyone starts somewhere.
Since the earliest days of organized base- ball there has been a hierarchy of leagues, organized by their level of talent, all leading up to the major leagues. Today there is a very rigid and regulated system and each big league club has an allotted number of teams at each level that they can have con- trol over.
Up until the 1950s this was not the norm. Some teams like the Cardinals and Dodg- ers had vast farm systems with outposts in almost every state. There was even a say- ing that went something like “it ain’t a town unless it’s got a Cardinals farm team in it.” These forgotten little towns and the teams that once played there are where the term bush league comes from, meaning far away from the bright lights of the major league cities.
While the Cardinals and Dodgers had a continuous flow of new talent to fill their rosters, other teams were shortsighted or too cash-poor to have much of a farm sys- tem. The St. Louis Browns and Washington Senators fell into this category and their inability to develop fresh talent reflected in the two trading the position of last place in the American League year after year.
It’s always staggering to think that of the millions of players who pass through the ranks of the minor leagues, only a select few make it all the way to the big leagues. Take, for example, the year 1930: The National and American Leagues both consisted of eight teams each with 25 players on the roster. That’s just 400 jobs available at the top level of the game. Now consider that every summer day in 1930 an estimated 4,000 players were playing their hearts out on 160 minor league teams, trying to make the big leagues. For every Hank Greenberg making a name for himself that year there were thousands of guys named Buckshot May and Pinky Pittenger toiling in obscurity for teams like the Des Moines Demons and Jersey City Skeeters.
Everyone starts somewhere, and this chapter will show you how a few rose up from the anonymous thousands to become legends of the game
Sandy Koufax: The Coney Island Bonus Baby:
When Sandy Koufax enrolled at the University of Cincinnati in 1953 it was not to play college baseball for the Bearcats, but to become an architect.
At a time when a major league baseball player was the thing most kids wanted to be, the career of an architect was Koufax’s dream. Then as now, UC was one of the world’s finest architecture schools, and just being admit- ted to the program was considered an achievement
Back in Brooklyn Koufax had excelled at basketball, and he made the university’s varsity team as a freshman walk-on. After a successful season on the college boards, Koufax mentioned to coach Ed Junker that he could pitch.
Koufax made the varsity Bearcat baseball squad in the spring of 1954. He had a blazing fastball but was dangerously wild. The regular catcher refused to catch him, and legend has it the coach would have Sandy warm up on the sideline just to terrorize the opposing team with his 100-mile-per-hour fastball, which he had no control over.
In his only year of college competition he averaged one walk per inning but struck out at least two per frame, and by the end of the season the Brooklyn Dodgers had signed Sandy Koufax to a lucrative contract.
The Dodgers had apparently had their eye on him when he was in high school, but in what has to be one of the worst clerical errors in baseball history, the scouting report was misfiled. At the time he could have been signed for a song, but now other teams began to take notice and Koufax skill-fully negotiated a bonus large enough to cover the rest of his architecture school tuition if baseball did not pan out.
Due to the large bonus, Major League Baseball rules at the time dictated that he be sent directly to the majors and not farmed out to a minor league team for sea- soning. To make room for the young fire- baller, the Dodgers looked over their roster and sent their least effective pitcher down to the minors. That pitcher’s name was Tommy Lasorda.