Editor’s note: This article was published in the Spring 2021 edition of “Beating the Bushes,” the SABR Minor Leagues Committee newsletter.
When major league baseball announced it had formed agreements with the Atlantic League, the Frontier League, and the American Association in 2020, it was introduced as a new partnership with independent minor league baseball, the next step towards MLB’s plan of “One Baseball”. But independent teams have had a long history of working alongside organized baseball. Up until 1991 teams not affiliated with major league clubs played in established minor leagues, and they worked with affiliated teams to borrow, loan, and trade players as needed. And for a stretch of time, independent teams even took part in the First-year player draft.
When the Rule 4 (a.k.a first year player) draft began in 1965, it was originally set up as a way for both major and minor league teams to restock their rosters with the top available amateur talent, while moving away from the high-priced “bonus baby” system that was in place. The original draft process was set so that major league teams would add players in the first round, then minor league teams would add players in the following rounds. The rules were tweaked from year to year, but by 1970 the draft was arranged so that after the major league team round was complete, the Triple A teams chose players in the second round, Double A teams made choices in round three, then Single A teams made picks for the remaining rounds. Included in this procedure in the Professional Baseball Rulebook was a rule 15, where in section 16 it was stipulated that “Class A clubs without Major League affiliations shall have priority in order of each draft selection over Class A clubs with Major League affiliations”. This rule meant that the independent teams in Class A could join in the draft starting in the fourth round and would get priority over the affiliated Class A teams. The rules of the draft continued to evolve, but this section that allowed independent teams to take part quietly stayed in place for twenty-five years. Several independent minor league teams came and went during this time, but in that period the rule was taken advantage of by only four of them.
BEND RAINBOWS (1970-71)
Hawaii first fielded a team in Organized Baseball in 1961, so they weren’t really in consideration when the major leagues looked to expand during the 1960s. In 1969 they were members of the AAA Pacific Coast League as the top affiliate for the California Angels. But Hawaii Islanders general manager Jack Quinn had a vision for the team, a dream that someday in the not-too-distant future the Hawaii Islanders would be ready to move up and become a major league club. The Islanders had set a team attendance record of 280,477 in 1969, the most in the league overall since 1957. When the short-season Class-A Northwest League was looking at their own expansion plans late in 1969, they couldn’t drum up enough interest in affiliation from major league teams, so the Islanders stepped in and took the unusual step of adding their own affiliate. From the beginning, Quinn planned to use the draft rule. “My primary reason, originally, for owning our own farm club was to be able to participate in the free agent draft”. Quinn figured that by the time the Islanders moved up to the majors, he would already have a group of near major-league ready players set to go. Plus, with the military draft still in place, the team could have additional players on standby in case they ran into issues with players being called to service, as they had during the previous season. Two Oregon cities had already been selected for expansion of the Northwest League, Bend and Coos Bay-North Bend. Hawaii partnered with Bend, and in February the team was named the Rainbows, a tribute to the abundant trout fishing of the area, and also a nod to their partner team in Hawaii.
The Islanders were technically an affiliated team, but because they were not affiliated with a major league team, they qualified for the draft. Bend got started right away, taking part in the January 1970 draft and selecting native Hawaiian pitcher Kenneth Suzawa out of Fresno City College in the fourth round (the January portion of the draft was discontinued after the 1986 session). Suzawa had at one time been considered a legitimate prospect, he was drafted twice before but had promised his parents he would work towards earning a college degree. Before he joined Bend he was drafted a fourth time, this time by the military, and never played professional baseball. The Rainbows made two more selections in the January Secondary round, then in the June draft they participated in rounds 4 through 10. Only four of the draftees suited up with the Rainbows. Bend took part in both the January and June drafts again in 1971 and signed five of their picks. In two years of taking part in the draft the Bend Rainbows had little success with the twenty selections they made. None of the picks ever progressed to Hawaii, let alone to the majors. The most notable of Bend’s draftees was Portland State catcher Tom Trebelhorn, who was selected in the sixth round of the June 1970 draft. After five years of playing in the minors he started a managerial career that eventually led to stints managing the Brewers and the Cubs. He was nowhere near being the most famous player to put on a Rainbows uniform, though. That honor goes to actor Kurt Russell, who signed on with Bend in 1971 to start off a brief professional baseball career.
After two seasons of financial losses (even with a movie star on the roster) the Bend Rainbows were sold and moved to Seattle. The Hawaii Islanders continued with their affiliation strategy and partnered with the Walla Walla club for 1972, but scrapped the plan following the season. Other Independent teams came and went over the coming years, but it would be almost two decades before another one participated in the amateur draft.
BOISE HAWKS (1989)
The city of Boise, Idaho, had been the home to minor league teams on and off again going back to the beginning of the 1900s, but never was able to keep a team for an extended time (1946 to 1963 being the longest stretch).
In late 1986 the Northwest League’s Tri-City Triplets were purchased from George Brett and his two brothers by a group headed by Mal Fichman. Fichman was a jack-of-all-trades in independent minor league baseball, having spent time as a manager, general manager, part-owner, and scout with a number of different unaffiliated teams. At the time Fichman was in the middle of what would become an almost legendary career in independent minor league baseball. Much of his renown comes from his work as a manager, and later as a talent evaluator, helping major league teams scout the independent leagues. But his most well-known achievement might be when he managed a team incognito in a mascot outfit after being ejected from a game in 1989. The new ownership group moved the team from Richland, Washington, to Idaho, where they were rebranded as the Boise Hawks. The Triplets had been a shared co-op club, receiving players from more than one major-league organization, but the Hawks would be unaffiliated.
In 1989, with additional owners in place, the team built a $1.7 million dollar stadium in hopes of someday moving up to AA or even AAA classification, and they were looking to put together a winning team to help bring in fans to the new location. Over his years in the minors Fichman had become familiar with baseball draft rule 15.16 and knew it could be a quick way to add talent to the team. The team surprised major league clubs by announcing they would take part in the 1989 draft, as many major league officials had completely forgotten that was even an option. In an effort to not rock the boat and ruin a chance of a future affiliation, Hawks majority owner Bill Pereira put some guidelines in place. Although the team would start drafting at the top of the fourth round, they would not compete with the major league teams for what would be considered fourth-round talent.
“We’ll take what’s probably the equivalent of a 20th round pick. But it will still be someone that can help us immensely.” Fichman stated. Pereira also had the team contact possible draft choices ahead of time and explain the offer being made, and the Hawks would not draft any player who would refuse to play for them. With these stipulations in place Boise ended up making selections in only the fourth and fifth rounds of the draft. Paul Cluff, a second baseman from Brigham Young University, and Darrell MacMillan, a catcher from Kennesaw State University in Georgia, each played only one season in Boise, and both were out of organized baseball within two years.
The draft plans for the Hawks may not have worked out, but the new stadium still paid off as hoped. The Hawks drew over 127,000 fans that year, and next season became a Class-A affiliate for the California Angels, eliminating the need to join in any future drafts.
MIAMI MIRACLE (1990)
Mike Veeck joined the Miami Miracle of the Class-A Florida State League as their president in 1990, working with an ownership group that was headed by Marv Goldklang, and also included celebrities Bill Murray and Jimmy Buffet. Like his father, famed major league owner Bill Veeck, Mike had a knack for coming up with new and innovative ways to keep crowds coming to games. Promotions for Miracle games included Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle night, in-game haircuts, and Jericho the Wonder Dog, one of the earliest “ball dogs” (though Veeck swore off any more Disco Demolition Nights like the infamous one he came up with in 1979 for the Chicago White Sox). Also like his father, Mike Veeck wasn’t afraid to ruffle some feathers with other owners if it meant bringing a better product to the fans. Whereas the Boise Hawks stated their intentions to find lower-level minor leaguers that they could use to improve their club, Goldklang and Veeck intended to go all out for the best talent that was available, and they had set aside $250,000 to do so.
Goldklang was an attorney by trade and had spotted the verbiage in the current Major League/Minor League agreement that would allow the Miracle to take part in the draft. After much discussion with the major league offices, it was agreed that the team would be allowed to join in the draft that June. The Miracle were looking to use the draft to improve upon their 17-61 record, but they also knew that a team filled with prospects would draw interest from major league teams who could either purchase players for their organizations, or possibly even partner up with the Miracle as a minor league affiliate. Without a scouting department in place to rely on like the major league teams had, Goldklang enlisted the help of his son, Jeff, in tirelessly tracking down video footage of players, talking to college coaches, and traveling to college tournaments around the country in order to evaluate possible draft targets and create a player board to use in the draft.
The Miracle owned the first pick in the fourth round of the draft and made some waves by selecting Stanford University star outfielder Paul Carey. The Most Outstanding Player of the 1987 College World Series, and Stanford’s all-time home run leader, Carey had been drafted twice before and was on the radar of several teams to be drafted again in the June 1990 draft. Stanford was in the midst of the College World Series when Carey learned he had been drafted – not by a major league club but by the independent Miracle. After Carey found out who the Miracle even were, he then had trouble contacting anyone in the team’s office to verify his selection. But after the uneven introduction to the Miami team Carey came around to the idea of starting his pro career with the unaffiliated Single-A level club. The team could offer him a signing bonus that was competitive with what major league teams were offering for fourth-round picks, but the Miracle also offered him a chance to start right away at a higher level of pro ball, versus taking part in a rookie league. And as Carey stated, “Fort Lauderdale isn’t such a bad place to be. I could be stuck in the Midwest or someplace.”
Many of the Miracle’s other draftees must have felt the same way, as 13 of Miami’s 16 draft picks signed (though a few of them were sent on option to play with another independent team, the Salt Lake City Trappers in the Pioneer League). Also joining the Miracle that season were 1st team All-American third baseman Greg D’Alexander from Arkansas, and West Coast Conference player of the year Miah Bradbury, a catcher from Loyola Marymount. Miracle owner Goldklang later relayed a story to baseball researcher Stew Thornley regarding their picks from that draft day:
The draft was completed by conference call, and apparently one team forgot to place their phone on mute. After the Miracle made another attention-grabbing pick an executive from another team was heard to mutter “The Miracle is having a better f***ing draft than the Mets!”
Veeck seemed very pleased with the roster additions as well when speaking to reporters after the draft. “I can talk about the ball club now,” Veeck said. “I’ve got a big mouth and now I have something to flap about.” Carey was considered to be the prize catch of Miami’s draft at the time, but the real jewel ended up being their selection in the sixth round, shortstop Mike Lansing, a four-year starter from Wichita State. After two seasons playing for the Miracle, Lansing was sold to the Montreal Expos and was on his way to a nine-year major league career, playing with Montreal, Colorado, and Boston. Top pick Paul Carey ended up being the only other player from Miami’s draft haul to appear in the majors, eventually playing in 18 games for the Baltimore Orioles in 1993.
ERIE SAILORS (1990)
While the Miami Miracle drew quite a bit of attention at the 1990 draft, the news that the New York-Penn League’s Erie Sailors also took part in the draft flew in under the radar. Erie had been a Class-A affiliate for Baltimore in 1989, but the Orioles declined to keep a team in the short-season league the following season. Erie continued on as an independent team and brought on none other than Mal Fichman to be their manager, the same man who spearheaded Boise’s involvement in the draft just the year before. Fichman had moved on after Boise became affiliated with the Angels, and he brought his interest in rule 15.16 with him to Erie.
The Sailors didn’t make nearly the same splash in the draft as the Miracle had, they made only one selection compared to Miami’s sixteen picks. After the Miracle picked Carey, the Sailors chose next and selected Brigham Young outfielder Gary Daniels. Daniels had just completed an outstanding season for the Cougars which included winning the WAC conference triple crown, setting a team record for hits, being named WAC player of the year, and being named Third Team All American by Baseball America. But after playing one season for the Sailors, Daniels was out of professional baseball.
Following the 1990 season the major and minor leagues settled on a working agreement that considerably altered the relationship between the two sides. The agreement changed the number of minor league teams that would be affiliated, how players would be paid, requirements for minor league facilities, and other facets of player-development contracts. Barely noticed among the sweeping changes of the new agreement was the removal of baseball draft rule 15, section 16, from the baseball rulebook. Independent minor league teams would no longer be able to take part in the amateur draft, a decision undoubtedly influenced by the Miami Miracle’s participation in the 1990 edition. Thus, a relatively trivial, but interesting, chapter in the draft’s history was closed.