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Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The Wiz Kids, Part X: Focus on the Farm System 

I thought I might focus, briefly, on the development system that gave birth to the Wiz Kids, the Phillies farm system of the 1940s.

As many people are aware, the elaborate farm system, the minor leagues, that support the thirty MLB franchises by developing and nurturing players is fairly unique to professional sports. The NFL doesn’t have such a system, although some teams dump players on the NFL Europe for experience, relying instead on college to train and equip players for the rigors of the NFL season. The NBA likewise does the same. Hockey has a farm system for developing players, but it isn’t quite as elaborate or well-defined as the MLB and rookies oftentimes go from amateur status to the pros very quickly.

The farm system began largely by Cardinals General Manager Branch Rickey, the genius who shattered the color barrier in 1947 by bringing Jackie Robinson to the National League with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Rickey, the G.M. of the Cardinals in the Roaring Twenties and the Depression-Era Thirties, took minor league teams and utilized them as a training ground for emerging Cardinals stars. Prior to Rickey, minor league teams had loose alliances with MLB teams and earned most of their money by selling stars to big league teams.

Rickey turned that all on its head by stashing talented players on minor league affiliates to groom them and prepare them for professional baseball. The Cardinals success under Rickey convinced teams like the New York Yankees to counter with their own farm system, which soon led other teams to follow suit. By the mid-1940s, nearly every team in the majors had a farm system. The Phillies were forced to follow suit under the leadership of General Manager Herb Pennock.

Pennock, who actually holds the distinction of being the Phillies first General Manager, was hired in 1943 when Robert Carpenter, Jr., the team’s new (and young) President, was drafted into the Army to serve in World War II. Carpenter turned operations traditionally conducted by the team President over to Pennock. At the time Pennock took over the Phillies had a meager relationship with a minor league team in Trenton and had just one scout. Pennock and Carpenter formulated a five year plan to return the Phillies to respectability. The cornerstone of their strategy was to expand the Phillies farm system and develop talent internally.

In the ensuing seasons the Phillies dramatically improved. First they shed their old roster. The only player who remained on the 1947 team from the previous regime’s squad in 1943 was catcher Andy Seminick (who actually joined the Phillies that season). Pennock expanded the Phillies minor league network from one team to eleven and hired eight more scouts to give the team a total of nine. Carpenter, a wealthy businessman and a distant member of the du Pont family, wasn’t afraid to spend money and handed out signing bonuses, including $25,000 for Robin Roberts and $65,000 for Curt Simmons. Between 1944 and 1948 the Phillies spent $1.25 million dollars in signing bonuses, quite a turn-around from a team that had been skinflints until then.

The farm system actually developed the Wiz Kids much more rapidly than expected. The 1950 team hadn’t been expected to compete under the team’s Five Year Plan until 1951 or 1952. It is remarkable how successful the Phillies farm system, and principally its affiliate in Toronto, which had been led by future Manager Eddie Sawyer, had been in developing talent for the Phillies. Of the eight everyday regulars on the Wiz Kids roster just one – Seminick – predated the Pennock / Carpenter regime and of those seven, five were developed by the Phillies farm system: Outfielders Richie Ashburn and Del Ennis, as well as second baseman Mike Goliat, third baseman Willie Jones and shortstop Granny Hamner. Outfielder Dick Sisler and first baseman Eddie Waitkus were acquired in trades in 1948. Backup catcher Stan Lopata and reserve outfielder Jackie Mayo were also players signed by the team and brought up via the farm system.

In addition to Roberts and Simmons, the Phillies also developed pitcher Bob Miller, the team’s third starter in 1950, on the farm along with Bubba Church. Of the six pitchers who constituted the Phillies starting rotation in 1950, just two – Ken Heintzelman and Russ Meyer – were acquired from other teams.

Jim Konstanty is a special case – a player acquired as a cast-off from a rival organization, specifically the Boston Braves – and brought to Toronto to develop his skills before being brought to Philadelphia. But here again, the Phillies farm system laid the groundwork for Konstanty’s MVP season in 1950. Konstanty has to be seen as a product of the farm system that Pennock and Carpenter built in the 1940’s.

Here are the dates when the critical parts of the Wiz Kids came together:

Andy Seminick – traded from Pittsburgh Pirates
Del Ennis – signed as a free agent

Granny Hamner – signed as a free agent

Richie Ashburn – signed as a free agent

Stan Lopata – signed as a free agent

Curt Simmons – signed as a free agent
Mike Goliat – signed as a free agent
Willie Jones – signed as a free agent
Bubba Church – signed as a free agent
Jackie Mayo – signed as a free agent
Ken Heintzelman – purchased from Pittsburgh Pirates for cash

Robin Roberts – signed as a free agent
Bob Miller – signed as a free agent
Russ Meyer – bought from Chicago Cubs for cash
Dick Sisler – traded from St. Louis Cardinals
Eddie Waitkus – traded from Chicago Cubs

This was an almost entirely home-grown operation, which goes to show the wisdom of developing a vast, deep minor league operation to develop and produce quality players.

Unfortunately for Herb Pennock, he passed away in 1948, two years before the Wiz Kids would take the field. The team was run from 1948 to 1953 by Carpenter. As you can see, the team turned unlucky in the years after Pennock in terms of developing talent. Unwilling to bring in African-American players, the Wiz Kids quickly atrophied as a team. Carpenter’s eye wasn’t as savvy as former big leaguer Pennock and the team failed to sign players to succeed the Wiz Kids as they grew older. Carpenter and the Phillies failed to sign a black player until 1957, a full decade after Jackie Robinson shattered the color barrier, costing the Phillies the opportunity to sign players like Roy Campanella and Hank Aaron. While it is tempting to assign the blame for the team’s reluctance to sign black players on Carpenter, it must be noted that Pennock was a virulent racist who attempted to intimidate Branch Rickey from bringing Jackie Robinson to Philadelphia for a regular season game in 1947. The racial issues that plagued the Phillies in the 1950s and 1960s stem from the otherwise brilliant Herb Pennock’s stewardship of the team.

Roy Hamey took over as General Manager from 1954 through 1959 and attempted to rebuild the Wiz Kids via trades, but ended up frittering the last bits of talent that remained from the ’50 team away until he was replaced in 1959 by John Quinn, the man who would build the ’64 team and then pry Steve Carlton away from the Cardinals. Carpenter would remain the Phillies President until 1972, when he retired and was replaced by his son, who helped oversee the team’s sole World Series triumph.

Associated Reading: check out this (click for Part I, click for Part II, and click for Part III) excellant series written by The Hardball Times Steve Treder concerning the farm system from 1946 to 1960. Treder talks a little about the Wiz Kids, although his primary area of focus is on the Yankees and Cardinals.

Tomorrow, Richie Ashburn. Friday, we will talk a little about the free agency market.

Previous Installments of the Wiz Kids:
Part IX: The second half of the 1950 season.
Part VIII: The Braves, Cardinals, Pirates, Cubs & Reds.
Part VII: The Giants and Dodgers.
Part VI: Curt Simmons.
Part V: Robin Roberts.
Part IV: The first half of the 1950 season.
Part III: Jim Konstanty.
Part II: Eddie Sawyer.
Part I: The Path to 1950.

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