top of page

The Bonus Rule - From the Cradle to the Bigtime

Dick Wakefield
1949 Bowman bubble gum card of Dick Wakefield (US Public Domain)

The infamous Bonus Rule came about after World War II because too many rich major league baseball franchises were cornering the market on talent by throwing around big dollars on highly-touted, fuzzy-cheeked kids in their late-teens coming right out of high school or first-year college then stock-piling them on their farm clubs. 

The first of the Bonus Babies -as they were soon called- was University of Michigan’s Dick Wakefield, who the Detroit Tigers signed in 1941 for a whopping $52,000 and a brand-new Cadillac thrown in for good measure. In his 1943 rookie season, a war year with depleted talent, the 6-foot-4, 210-pound outfielder hit .316 and led the American League with 200 hits and 38 doubles. Mid-1944, he was off to the US Navy, leaving behind a .355 batting average. But when he returned to the majors in 1946 (along with all the other players who had gone off to war), he never regained his swing and struggled along into the early Fifties before calling it quits after brief stints with the New York teams, the Giants and Yankees.

The bidding for players stopped during World War II, then picked up again in late-1945. Certain rules were put in place in 1947 to curb such larceny, such as restricting any player signing for more than $6,000 to be placed on an MLB roster before the end of the season or be declared a free agent. The top signing under these rulings was southpaw pitcher Johnny Antonelli when he inked a $65,000 bonus with the Boston Braves in 1948. Nothing seemed concrete on paper and amid squabbles around the majors, all previous rules were dropped in 1950. That same year, southpaw Paul “Wizard of Whiff” Pettit signed the first $100,000 bonus (equal to about $1 million today) with the Pittsburgh Pirates, right after graduating from high school. But, he injured his elbow pitching for New Orleans in the minors, and threw a whole 30 innings with Pittsburgh before retiring early. 

Over the next two years, bonus fever continued stronger than ever, enough for major league baseball to form a committee in 1952 chaired by Pittsburgh Pirates GM Branch Rickey. The new rule they adopted was the following: Disregarding a hard cap, any player signing a bonus for at least $4,000 had to be placed on the 25-man major league roster for a term of two calendar years from the signing date. If the player was sent to the minors during that time, the team no longer had rights to the player’s contract and would subsequently be exposed to the other teams. In other words: a free agent.

Al Kaline
1955 Bowman bubble gum card of Al Kaline (US Public Domain)

In most cases the situation did not work out well for the players. Some called it major league baseball’s worst blunder. One of the 1950’s Bonus Babies, Canadian Reno Bertoia, born in Italy in 1935 and raised in Windsor, Ontario, could relate to that. He signed with the local Detroit Tigers in 1953, the first year of the new stringent rule. In an interview with sportswriter Mary Appel in 1992, Bertoia said: “It was such a poor rule for baseball, forcing bonus players to stay in the majors. I was so shy at 18, just not ready for it all. Sitting on the bench as a kid and not playing and wondering whether you belong there, then being put into situations where you’re not comfortable, that was tough on a kid.” 

To add to Bertoia’s statements, the young Bonus Baby players should have been working their up through the minors, learning their craft as they went. Most of them had signed for more money than the regulars were receiving in any given season. In short, the situation caused a lot of resentment. 

Bertoia signed for $10,000 plus $1,000 for his mother to take a trip to Italy, in addition to the Tigers promising to pay for his college education at the University of Michigan, where he eventually received his teacher’s degree. Bertoia went on to play 10 years in the majors with various clubs, mostly at third base and batted .244 lifetime. For his first five years in the majors with Detroit, he roomed with another Bonus Baby, Al Kaline, the youngest player to win a batting crown in 1955 by hitting .340 at age 20, and who is enshrined in the Hall of Fame today. My wife’s family is from Windsor. Both her brother and sister were taught by Bertoia at Assumption High School. A super person and a very popular teacher, they both told me.

The Bonus Rule stayed in effect until 1957. During those five years, every one of the 16 major league teams carried at least one Bonus Baby on their roster. Most of them barely played, if at all, due to their inexperience, of course, and when they did there wasn’t much to write home to momma about. High-paid unknowns like Laurin Pepper, Jim Brady, George Thomas, Mel Roach, Ron Jackson, Paul Giel, Dave Hill, Frank Leja, Tom “Money Bags” Qualters, and twins Eddie and Johnny O’Brien, both signed together by the Pirates, to name some. A few players did have decent careers, however: Joey Jay, Dick Schofield, Mike McCormick, Lindy McDaniel, Billy O’Dell, Moe Drabowsky, and Clete Boyer. 

In the Fifties, many teams found sneaky ways to work around the rule by putting the players on the injury list, when they were perfectly healthy, to be replaced by a minor leaguer. There were even cases of teams slipping money to bonus players “under the table,” then sending the youngsters to the minors where they should have been in the first place. Therefore, with these reasons in mind, MLB decided to kill the Bonus Rule, even making it retroactive, thus freeing up every Bonus Baby who had signed previously. 

Roberto Clemente
Exhibit card of Roberto Clemente, Exhibit Supply Co of Chicago (US Public Domain)

In 1962, however, the rule came back, due to expansion in both leagues with four new teams. Now the Bonus Babies had to spend only one full season on the roster once they were signed. Future managing great Tony LaRussa was one such player. Then everything changed when a bidding war erupted for the services of slugger Rich Reichardt who eventually signed with the Los Angeles Angels in 1964 for $200,000, or about $1.5 million today. By 1965, the rule was dropped again, this time for good. The free agent amateur draft took over. Rick Monday was chosen No. 1 by the Kansas City Athletics and signed for $104,000. The Bonus Baby era had finally come to an abrupt end. Free agency would be right around the corner, a story in itself: where the big bucks came about.

Of the dozens of Bonus Babies signed during its more rigid time from 1953-1964, there were some true stars who made it to the Hall of Fame, besides Detroit’s Al Kaline: Harmon Killebrew, Catfish Hunter, Sandy Koufax and Roberto Clemente. Of these, only Killebrew spent any time in the minors once his so-called “probation period” was up. Koufax, in particular, would’ve rewritten the record book had he first spent a couple years in the minors with a decent pitching coach by his side. It’s unfortunate Koufax lingered half a dozen years before he turned his career around and finally starting winning. 

Clemente was a whole different matter altogether. Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Roberto Clemente signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers on February 19, 1954 for a reported $5,000 salary and a $10,000 bonus. Instead of keeping him on the big club, Brooklyn turned around and sent him to their AAA farm team, the International League Montreal Royals, knowing full well he’d be up for grabs in a draft the following spring. One story was that Brooklyn tried to hide Clemente’s talents from the other teams by playing him only sparingly, hoping that he wouldn’t be noticed. 

But Brooklyn GM Buzzy Bavasi insisted that wasn’t the case. He told his close associates that the only reason they signed Clemente was to keep him away from the cross-town rival New York Giants, who had been actively seeking him, wanting him to play in the outfield alongside Willie Mays. In November 1954, the last-place Pittsburgh, run by Branch Rickey, used the first pick in the ensuing draft to grab Clemente, and you know what happened after that...

The rest is history. 


bottom of page