Minor league baseball is a hierarchy of professional baseball leagues in North America that compete at levels below that of Major League Baseball. All of the minor leagues are operated as independent businesses, and many are members of Minor League Baseball, an umbrella organization for leagues that have agreements to operate as affiliates of Major League Baseball. Several leagues, known as independent leagues, do not have any links to Major League Baseball, and thus are not members of "organized baseball." Many alumni of independent baseball, however, have worked their way to the Major Leagues and many former MLBers play in independent baseball.
Each league affiliated with Minor League Baseball comprises teams that generally are independently owned and operated, but always, with the exception of the Mexican League, directly "affiliated" with (and occasionally named after) one Major League team through a standardized Player Development Contract (PDC). Major and Minor League teams may enter into a PDC for a two- or four-year term and may reaffiliate at the expiration of a PDC term, though many relationships are renewed and endure for extended time periods. For example, the Omaha Royals (briefly renamed the Omaha Golden Spikes from 1999-2001, but changed back to Royals in 2002) have been the Triple-A affiliate of the Kansas City Royals since the Royals joined the American League in 1969, but the Columbus Clippers changed affiliations for the 2007 season from the New York Yankees to the Washington Nationals. A small number of minor league teams are directly owned by their Major League parent club, such as the Springfield Cardinals, owned by the St. Louis Cardinals, and all of the Atlanta Braves' affiliates except for the Myrtle Beach Pelicans. Minor League teams that are owned directly by the Major League Club do not have PDCs with each other and are not part of the reaffiliation shuffles that occur every other year.
The purpose of the system is to develop players available to play in the Major Leagues on demand.
Minor league baseball also goes by the nicknames the "farm system," "farm club," or "farm team(s)," because of a joke passed around by Major League players in the 1930s when St. Louis Cardinals general manager Branch Rickey formalized the system, and teams in small towns were "growing players down on the farm like corn."
Fully and openly professional baseball teams arose in 1869. The earliest professional association, the National Association of 1871 to 1875, comprised all fully professional teams. This proved unworkable. There was no way to ensure competitive balance, and financially unsound clubs often failed midseason. This problem was solved in 1876 with the formation of the National League, with a limited membership which excluded less competitive and financially weaker teams.
Professional clubs outside the National League responded by forming regional associations of their own. There was a series of ad hoc groupings, such as the New England Association of 1877 and the Eastern Championship Association of 1881. These were loose groups of independent clubs which agreed to play a series of games for a championship pennant.
The first minor league is traditionally considered to be the Northwest League of 1883 to 1884. Unlike the earlier minor associations, it was conceived as a permanent organization. It also, along with the National League and the American Association, was a party to the National Agreement of 1883. Included in this was the agreement to respect the reserve lists of clubs in each league. Teams in the National League and the American Association could only reserve players who had been paid at least $1000. Northwest League teams could reserve players paid merely $750. This implicitly established the division into major and minor leagues.
Over the next two decades many more minor leagues signed various versions of the National Agreement. Eventually the minor league joined together to negotiate jointly.
In the late 1890s, the Western League run by the fiery Ban Johnson decided to challenge the National League's position. In 1900, he changed the name of the league to the American League and vowed to make deals to sign contracts with players who were dissatisfied with the pay and terms of their deals with the National League. This led to a nasty turf war that heated up in 1901 enough to concern Patrick T. Powers, president of the Eastern League, and many other minor league owners.
They worried about the conflict spilling over into their operations. Representatives met at the Leland Hotel in Chicago on September 5, 1901. In response to the National-American battle, they agreed to form the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, called the NABPL, or "NA" for short. (The "NA" uses the name Minor League Baseball today.) Powers was made the first president of the NABPL, whose offices were established in Auburn, New York.
The purpose of the NA at the time was to maintain the independence of the leagues involved. Several did not sign the agreement, and continued to work independently.
In 1903 the dog fight between the American and National Leagues ended in the National Agreement of 1903 The NABPL became involved in the later stages of the negotiations to develop rules for the acquisition of players from their leagues by the National and the American.
The NA was signed because players were being pilfered from clubs in other leagues with little or no compensation to the teams. The 1903 agreement ensured that teams would be compensated for the players that they had taken the time and effort to scout and develop.
No NA team was required to sell their players, although most did because the cash became an important source of revenue for most teams.
These leagues were still fiercely independent, and the term "minor" was seldom used in reference to them, save by the major-market sports writers. News did not travel far in the days before heavy television and radio, so, while the leagues often bristled at the major market writers descriptions, their viewpoint of the situation in that day was that they were independent sports businesses, no more and no less.
Many baseball writers of that time regarded the greatest of the leagues in the NA, such as Buzz Arlett, Jigger Statz, Ike Boone, Buddy Ryan, Earl Rapp and Frank Shellenback, as equal to some major league stars.
In 1922 the United States Supreme Court decision which grants baseball a special immunity from antitrust laws had a major effect on the minor leagues. The special immunity meant that the American and National leagues could dictate terms under which every independent league did business.
By 1925 major league baseball crammed down a flat-fee purchase of $5,000 for the contract of any player from an NA league team. This power was leveled primarily at the Baltimore Orioles, then a Triple-A team that had dominated the minors with stars.
Leagues in the NA would not be truly called "minor" until Branch Rickey developed the first modern "farm system" in the 1930s. The Commissioner of Baseball, Kenesaw Mountain Landis fought Rickey's scheme, but ultimately the Great Depression drove teams to establish systems like Rickey's to ensure a steady supply of players, because many NA and independent teams could not afford to keep their doors open without the patronage of major league baseball.
The leagues of the NA became subordinate to the major leagues, the first "minor" leagues. Other than the Pacific Coast League, which under its president Pants Rowland tried to become a third major league in the Western states, the other leagues maintained autonomy in name, with total dependence upon the American and National league in economic and political fact.
Even though minor league players are paid considerably less than their major league counterparts, they are still nevertheless paid for their services and are thus considered professional athletes. Baseball cards refer to "pro record" and "pro seasons" as including both major and minor leagues. For this reason, minor league players generally consider it an insult when someone asks when they're going to "get to the pros". More accurately, a player's aim is to reach "The Show" or the "big leagues."
Class A is sub-divided into two subclassifications: Class A Advanced and Class A (incorrectly called "high A" and "low A"). The Rookie classification is further sub-divided into two subclassifications: Rookie-Advanced and Rookie. Different roster limits and service restrictions apply to the various classifications and subclassifications.
Major League clubs in the modern farm system will enter into PDCs with several teams to develop players at various classifications. Each Major League team is required to have one Triple-A and one Double-A affiliate. In addition, each Major League team typically has a PDC with one Class A Advanced team, one Full-Season Class A team, two teams from among the Class A Short-Season and domestic Rookie leagues and a Rookie team in the Dominican Summer League.
Current Triple-A leagues are the International League and the Pacific Coast League, the champions of which meet annually in a single-game Triple-A championship game in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, called the Bricktown Showdown. Current Double-A leagues are the Eastern League, the Southern League and the Texas League. Current Class A Advanced Leagues are the California League, the Carolina League and the Florida State League. Current Full-Season Class A leagues are the Midwest League and the South Atlantic League. Current Short-Season Class A leagues are the New York-Penn League and the Northwest League. Current Rookie-Advanced leagues are the Appalachian League and the Pioneer League. Current Rookie leagues (that are not in the Rookie-Advanced subclassification) are the Arizona League, the Gulf Coast League, the Dominican Summer League and the Venezuelan Summer League.
Major League teams may share a PDC in an arrangement called a "co-op," though no Major League teams currently do so.
Major League Rule 56 governs the standard terms of a PDC. Generally, the parent Major League club pays the salaries and benefits of uniformed personnel (players and coaches) and bats and balls, while the minor league club pays for in-season travel and other operational expenses.
Affiliations between teams can change for a variety of reasons. Sometimes Major or Minor League Clubs wish to affiliate with a partner that is geographically closer. Sometimes a Minor League Club wishes to improve the caliber of players its Major League affiliate sends to play there. Sometimes a Major League Club wishes to improve the facility where it will send its developing players. In even-numbered years, any Major or Minor League club with an expiring PDC may notify Major League Baseball or Minor League Baseball, respectively, of its desire to explore a reaffiliation with a different PDC partner. The Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball offices then send a list of the corresponding Major and Minor League Clubs seeking new affiliations, and there is a limited period of time in September within which clubs may agree upon new PDCs. If any are left over after this process, the Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball offices are empowered to assign Major and Minor League clubs to each other.
As an example, the New Orleans Zephyrs of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League were affiliated with the Houston Astros through 2004. When the Edmonton Trappers moved from Canada to Round Rock, Texas, the Astros declined to extend their PDC with the New Orleans Club and instead reaffiliated with the new Triple-A Round Rock club. The Washington Nationals, which had had a PDC with the Edmonton club, then reaffiliated with the New Orleans Club.
The longest continuous link between Major League and Minor League clubs is the link between the Orioles and their Rookie-level Appalachian League affiliate, the Bluefield Orioles. The 2008 season marked the 50th anniversary of the start of this link (1958).
Players at this level from the 40-man roster of a Major League team can be invited to come up to the Major League club once the Major League roster expands on September 1, although teams will usually wait until their affiliates' playoff runs are over, should they qualify. For teams in contention for a pennant, it gives them fresh players. For those not in contention, it gives them an opportunity to evaluate their second-tier players for the next season under game conditions.
In addition to the two "affiliated" Triple-A leagues, the Mexican League is considered a Triple-A league, though its clubs do not have PDCs with Major League clubs.
Unlike the Major League and the Triple-A level, two of the three Double-A leagues have their season divided in to two parts, the Eastern League being the exception. One team may clinch a spot in the playoffs by winning the division in first half of the season, then the teams' records are cleared and another team will also clinch a playoff slot during the second half. Wild cards are used to fill out the remaining teams; usually, four teams qualify for the league playoffs. This system is used at the Class A level as well.
The class has been divided into two levels since Minor League Baseball made an adjustment in 2002, although most experts still recognize three because players are promoted by major clubs as they always have been:
Short-season ball consists of the New York-Penn League and Northwest League and is the highest level short-season affiliate for 22 MLB organizations. The remaining eight clubs have their highest level short-season affiliate in either the Appalachian or Pioneer Leagues. In many instances players drafted out of college will begin their careers at this level, while high-school draftees will begin their careers in either an Advanced-Rookie or Rookie League.
The late start to the season is designed to allow college players to complete the College World Series, which runs through late-June, before turning professional, give major-league teams time to sign their newest draftees, and immediately place them in a competitive league. Players in these leagues are a mixture of newly-signed draftees and second-year pros who weren't ready to move on, or for whom there was not space at a higher level to move up. Second-year pros tend to be assigned to Low A affiliates or extended spring training until the short-season leagues begin.
For many players, this is the first time they have ever used wooden baseball bats, since aluminum bats are most common in the amateur game, as well as the first time they have played every day for a prolonged basis, as amateur competitions typically regulate the number of games played in a week.
The Director and the General Manager usually determine the initial assignments for new draftees, who typically begin playing professionally in June after they have been signed to contracts.
The farm system is ever-changing: Evaluations of players are ongoing. The Director of Player Development and his managers will meet or teleconference regularly to discuss how players are performing at each level. In addition to personal achievement, injuries, and high levels of achievement by players in the classes above and below all steer a player's movement up and down in the class system.
Players will play for the team to which they are assigned for the duration of that season unless they are "called up," promoted to a higher level; "sent down," demoted to a lower class team in the major league club's farm system; or "released" from the farm system entirely. A release from minor-league level used to spell the end of a minor league player's career. In more modern times, with a more powerful independent baseball system, many players will "park" a career for a season or two in the independent leagues, which are scouted much more heavily. Many will get a second or third look from the major league scouts if they turn their career around in the indies.
Minor League Baseball, formerly the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues and also known in the past as NAPBL, National Baseball Association, and NA, is the organization which oversees the governing and organization of minor league baseball in North America.
The NAPBL formed in 1901 as a reaction to the warfare going on between the National League and the American League. The presidents of the other professional baseball leagues then in existence were concerned that the two "major leagues" and their continuing pirating of players and even whole teams were a threat to the existence of professional baseball in the United States and Canada.
At the time, the National and American Leagues were not seen as "major leagues", but only as leagues which existed in larger cities. Led by Patrick T. Powers, then-president of the Eastern League, the larger minor leagues then in existence banded together to control their own fates.
Powers' idea was that, instead of going head-to-head with the National and American Leagues, the other leagues should set standard rules for officiating, player drafts, contracts, and location of teams. Fourteen leagues (the Eastern League, Western League, New England League, New York State League, Pacific Northwest League, Southern Association, Three-I League, Carolina League, Connecticut League, Cotton States League, Iowa-South Dakota League, Michigan State League, Missouri Valley League and Texas League) signed the agreement to begin play under the new rules effective with the 1902 season.
Many leagues refused to join, fearing that the creation of the NA was just an attempt at forming another "major" league, and that its rules and territorial limits would interfere with their independence. When that fear failed to materialize, however, more and more leagues joined the NA until, within a few years, it consisted of thirty-five leagues.
Patrick Powers resigned his presidency of the NA in 1909 in order to concentrate on his private business interests. The Association managed to maintain its original purpose for about twenty years, but during the Great Depression, many leagues began to fold, and the Association needed to look for more funding in order to keep minor league baseball going.
This funding came from the same Major League teams which the NA had been created to protect itself from. Starting in 1931, Major League teams began affiliation agreements with minor league teams. Branch Rickey, president of the St. Louis Cardinals, was the architect of the system which exists today, in which most minor league teams are affiliates of Major League teams, supplying the Majors with development of younger players in exchange for financial support from the Major League teams with which they are affiliated.
Because so many professional players went to fight during World War II, the number of teams and leagues decreased even more until the end of the war. From 1945, when there were only twelve leagues left in the NA, there were fifty-nine in 1949. That number has decreased until, today, there are seventeen.
In 1999, the NAPBL formally changed its name to Minor League Baseball.
Minor League Baseball still governs the minor league system, although there are several independent leagues which do not fall under the group's aegis.
Leagues with a * are sublassified as Class A-Advanced leagues.
Leagues with a * are sublassified as Rookie-Advanced leagues.
These leagues are not affiliated with Major League Baseball or Minor League Baseball and operate as fully independent professional leagues