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Baseball’s bonus rule

I’m not sure if you get into baseball minutinae as much as I do, so this may have minimal interest to you. But if you’re a serious baseball fan, you probably have heard of baseball’s bonus rule. Further, seeing that Dave McNally didn’t seem to be affected by it puzzled me.

Essentially, from 1947-1965, the bonus rule in place in major-league baseball said if a team signed a young hotshot to a contract with a bonus of $4,000 or more, the team had to put the player on its roster for two years (later changed to one year). The reasoning was that cash- and talent-rich teams, in those days clubs like the New York Yankees and the St. Louis Cardinals, could sign up oodles of prospects and then stockpile them in the minor leagues.

This tactic, if left unchecked, or so the thinking went, meant that good young players might stay for years in the minors, enduring bus trips between places like Billings and Salt Lake City (both members of the Class C Pioneer League in the late 1940s and early 1950s). It wasn’t fair to these players nor to other less fortunate major league teams who wouldn’t get a shot at the services of possible stars.

Bring ’em up to the bigs and see if they can earn a spot on the roster. And if not, send them back down to the minors for more reasoning. Or maybe trade them to another club.

One of the best examples of the bonus rule’s effect involves Sandy Koufax, the legendary star lefthander for first the Brooklyn Dodgers and then the Los Angeles Dodgers after the Bums moved west in 1958. The Dodgers signed Sandy, a Brooklyn native then studying architecure at the University of Cincinnati, in 1955 for $20,000 ($218,000 in today’s dollars). Koufax immediately made the Dodgers’ roster, one of a a number of baseball players over the years who never played an inning of minor league ball but who got their start in the majors.

As I learned more about the bonus rule and researched it, I found lists of bonus rule players. And Dave McNally was nowhere to be found on those lists, in spite of the fact that he signed with the Baltimore Orioles for at least $85,000 in September 1960. (Ed Bayne, Jr., a son of the late, legendary coach of the Billings Legion Post 4 team, Ed Bayne, and a teammate of Dave’s on the 1960 Billings team that lost to New Orleans in the national Legion championship game, gave me a higher figure in a conversation today. He said Dave signed for $89,000 plus a $1,300 per month salary. That was good money 63 years ago.)

Furthermore, in 1958, another Billings Legion pitcher, Jerry Walters, caught the eye of big-league scouts. He signed with the Cleveland Indians. Walters, too, is not on the list of bonus players.

Why? Well, it turns out that because of the machinations of baseball team owners, the bonus rule was rescinded from 1958-1961. That’s precisely the time when first Walters and then McNally signed big-league contracts with bonuses. Baseball reinstituted the bonus rule in 1962, and it stayed in force until 1965 when the current baseball draft rule took effect. It requires a drafted player to negotiate with the team that selected him, rather than being the focus of a bidding war by major league scouts, the likes of which centered on McNally after he returned to Billings following the 1960 Legion World Series in Hastings, Nebraska.

Now I know … and so do you. Or maybe you’re a more astute baseball fan than I am and already knew.

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Jamie Larson