As we mentioned in So… what is Minor League Baseball, anyway?, you may have heard that the Minor League Baseball system is often called the farm or even the farm system – but have you ever heard why it is called the farm?
The nickname “the farm” came from Branch Rickey, a general manager for the St. Louis Cardinals. When baseball began, minor league teams did not have a Player Development Contract (which makes them affiliated with a Major League ball club), but they would instead sign and develop their players, which, when ready, they would sell/draft to Major League Baseball teams. In 1921, the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues allowed for Major League teams to own their own Minor League clubs.
This spurred an idea for Branch Rickey, who, according to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, decided to purchase multiple minor league baseball teams to create a system where the Cardinals could develop the young players themselves and get them ready to play Major League Baseball. Even when other minor league teams believed leaving recruitment to teams that were independent of their own was most cost effective. However, Rickey’s idea paid off. By the early 1930s, the Cardinals won three pennants and two World Series from 1930 to 1934.
He was quoted as saying, “The farm system, which I have been given credit for developing, originated from a purely selfish motive: saving money. The money part aside, the system offered a selection of better players. We knew our own material; we had followed it for several years. We brought it along to each level…. We controlled the instruction and discipline, and we had a much better idea of a player’s major-league ability than if we had gone blindly into the open market.”
According to Sports in America from Colonial Times to the Twenty-First Century, by 1928, the Cardinals owned seven teams, which increased to 32 by 1940, along with eight “working agreements” with other teams. In total, the Cardinals had about 600 minor league players. With this surplus, since they had three times as many players than needed, they were able to sell for them and were able to recoup $2 million for these players in 1942.
Their success convinced other teams to set up farm systems, which gives the ability for Major League Baseball teams to know much more about their players than previous to 1921, when they would purchase contracts from Minor League teams that weren’t affiliated with them.