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Yankees history: The Bombers’ “bonus babies”

The bonus baby system produced some Hall of Famers, but the ones who came through with the Yankees became cautionary tales.

Portrait of New York Yankees Nineteen Fifty Five

In retrospect, the MLB policy of “bonus babies” was thoroughly weird and unproductive. For those unaware, from 1947-65 — years prior to the first draft — if a team signed an amateur player to a deal with a bonus greater than $4,000, that player had to go straight to the majors and spend two years there. Otherwise, the team risked losing them.

Five bonus babies went on to Hall of Fame careers: Roberto Clemente, Catfish Hunter, Al Kaline, Harmon Killebrew, and Sandy Koufax. However countless others embarked on undistinguished MLB careers, likely in part because they spent a lot of time on big league benches instead of developing in the minors.

The Yankees only ever had two bonus babies that they signed themselves over the existence of the rule. They were such a dominant force over so many of those years that it probably didn’t make sense to use a bench spot on a player who might not be able to actually contribute for a couple years. Yet, they seemingly found it worthwhile on two occasions, and neither worked out great.

Frank Leja had been on the radar of major league teams since he was 15. Multiple teams were fined for trying to negotiate him before he was eligible to sign, while Yankees’ scout Paul Krichell called him the “next Lou Gehrig.” That’s especially high praise when you consider that Krichell also signed literally Lou Gehrig.

Leja impressed at a workout at Yankee Stadium, getting high praise from Yankees’ manager Casey Stengel. Eventually, the Yankees got him to sign a $40,000 deal, and Leja would be headed for the big for the start of the 1954 season. During that spring training, he worked with hitting coach Bill Dickey, who tried to revamp his swing. According to Leja, he lost his swing at that point and never found it again.

Leja would appear in just 12 games in 1954, making five plate appearances. Even though Stengel wanted him, he understandably didn’t use the 18-year old very often as the Yankees spent so much of the season chasing, and then losing out to Cleveland in a pennant race. Carrying a player who they were unlikely to use created some animosity for Leja with Stengel and the rest of the team.

In one particular incident, Leja went to higher-ups to mention that his paycheck was for the 1953 minimum salary instead of the updated ‘54 one. The incident got him a meeting with commissioner Ford Frick, during which he was yelled out of, and ended with him in bad standing with several members of the front office.

The next season, Leja appeared even less, going 0-for-2 while appearing in just seven games. After 1955, he was finally eligible to go down to the minors, but he didn’t exactly light things up down there. He remained with the franchise through 1961, when he was eventually traded to the Cardinals. Leja never played a game with them, and was sold to the expansion Angels before the 1962 season. He went 0-for-16 with a walk in seven games with them and never played in the majors again.

Back in that 1955 season, Leja gained another “bonus baby” teammate in Tom Carroll.

Carroll had a little more experience when the Yankees signed him for $30,000 in January 1955, as he had played a season in college at Notre Dame. They beat out several teams for his signature as he had grown up a fan of the team. The Yankees initially had asked him to wait to sign until after Leja’s two years were up and he could be sent down, but they eventually did after Carroll told them he was going to sign elsewhere.

Carroll did not get quite as much animus as Leja, but he also saw the field slightly more. Across his two years, Carroll appeared in 50 games and made 24 plate appearances. Stengel was also gun shy on using him as the Yankees were again in another tight pennant race in ‘55.

He would also be sent down at the conclusion of his two years and spend the next couple seasons in the minors. He also didn’t set the world on fire there, and was included in a 1959 trade with the Kansas City Athletics. He appeared in 14 games with them that season and then never played again.

They are the only two players to be bonus babies with the Yankees, although they and the Athletics — who the Bombers essentially used as an alternate farm system — did famously engage in some shenanigans with each another around that time.

Clete Boyer signed as a bonus baby with Kansas City in 1955, and spent part of three seasons in the bigs with the team. Only, he was always destined for pinstripes. The two teams decided that once Boyer had reached his two years, he would be traded to New York. That came to fruition when Boyer was the player to be named later in a June 1957 trade. That’s quite shady but arguably not the shadiest trade the two teams made in that era. Boyer went on to a solid 16-year major league career, but wasn’t quite the star his bonus baby price tag would’ve predicted.

Some success stories came out of the bonus baby system, but the ones associated with the Yankees show the pitfalls that existed within in. The draft isn’t perfect, but it’s probably better than the bonus babies that came before it.

Sources

https://www.baseball-almanac.com/legendary/Bonus_Babies.shtml

https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/l/lejafr01.shtml

https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/c/carroto01.shtml

https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/b/boyercl02.shtml

“Baseball’s Biggest Blunder: The Bonus Rule of 1953-57” by Brent P. Kelley