History of Rule 5 Draft Features Hall of Famers

DiFranza_90By Lenny DiFranza

Today is minor league draft day, under baseball’s “Rule 5” – a major league club’s chance to pick the pocket of another franchise.

Though the rules are often changed slightly, in general a team can acquire an unprotected minor league player with a few years of professional experience for a relatively small amount. Draftees must stay with the new club at the major league level for the entire following season or be offered back.

Currently, players 19 and older on June 5 preceding the signing of their first contract are subject to the draft after three minor-league seasons unless they are protected on the club’s 40-man roster, while players who were 18 or younger must be protected after four seasons. The cost is now $50,000.

While many fans assume that this minor league draft is a relatively recent feature of organized ball, the rule was first enacted in the 1890s.

In 1883, the Major Leagues, and many minor leagues, agreed to limit a player’s ability to offer his services to the highest bidder by binding him to the team that held his contract for all-time, the reserve system. But after a decade of independent minor league club owners demanding high prices for the contracts of their best players, the majors instituted a minor league draft. Though the rule went through many changes over the years, the basics remained the same: Drafted players could be acquired for a fixed amount and must stay on the big league roster or be offered back to the original club.

Two time Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana was drafted under Rule 5.

Two-time Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana was drafted under Rule 5. (NBHOF Library)

The oldest draft records appear in the winter of 1894-1895. Within just a few years, a few of the era’s greatest stars were acquired by this method: Elmer Flick was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies from Dayton (Interstate League) in 1897; Rube Waddell was drafted by the Louisville Colonels from Detroit (Western) in 1898; and Christy Mathewson was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds from Norfolk (Virginia-North Carolina) in 1900.

The National Agreement of 1903 settled the battle between the venerable National League and the new American League. That document also included a minor league draft arrangement that remained in place through 1946. Minor league owners often argued that the established prices were too low and at times refused to cooperate, but the draft took place in most years, even though most independent minor league clubs were eventually gathered up into big league farm systems, a process that began in the 1920s.

Hall of Famers drafted in this period include: Ed Walsh, drafted by the Chicago White Sox from Newark (Eastern) in 1903; Hughie Jennings, drafted by the Detroit Tigers from Baltimore (Eastern) in 1906; Joe Kelley was drafted by the Boston Doves from Toronto (Eastern) in 1907; Red Faber, drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates from Dubuque (Three-I) in 1909; Pete Alexander, drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies from Syracuse (New York State) in 1910; Harry Heilmann, drafted by the Detroit Tigers from Portland (Northwestern) in 1913; and Hack Wilson, drafted by the Chicago Cubs from Toledo (American Association) in the 1925.

During the period of 1947-1965, the bonus rule encouraged teams to keep high-priced bonus recipients on major league rosters by making “bonus players” in the minor leagues subject to the annual draft. Roberto Clemente, who was given a bonus by the Brooklyn Dodgers, was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1954. Under the rules of this era, clubs were also able to draft players from major league rosters. These included: Hoyt Wilhelm, drafted by the New York Giants from the Boston Braves in 1947, the start of his career; and Monte Irvin, drafted by the Chicago Cubs from the New York Giants in 1955, the last year he played.

In 1959, a new rule required a club to keep high bonus signees on their 40-man roster to avoid exposure to the traditional minor league draft. With a new amateur draft that started in 1965, officially known as the Rule 4 Draft, the traditional minor league draft took on the name “Rule 5.”

Many stars have been drafted in this era, including MVPs Willie Hernandez, George Bell, and Josh Hamilton; and Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana.

The Rule 5 Draft is a common strategy that has rarely paid off with the acquisition of a memorable player. But the game’s most astute scouts are currently looking at thousands of player reports hoping to find one worth a chance.

Lenny DiFranza is the assistant curator of new media at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum


Interesting that Hughie Jennings was drafted after his playing career was pretty much over. He was the Tigers manager in 1907 – the first ever to win a pennant in his first three years in the league.

Holy cow! It’s the day before the HOF vote is announced and there’s no chatter about it on the Cooperstown Chatter blog – what’s up with that? My prediction is Biggio and Piazza will get in.

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