The 10 most interesting Rule 5 draft picks, 1903-1940

One of professional baseball’s most venerable components is its annual Rule 5 player draft. But it’s a somewhat arcane procedure, and many fans are only dimly aware of it.

Perhaps the most common misconception regarding the Rule 5 draft is that it’s a recent development, something invoked in the modern era. Nothing could be further from the truth: The Rule 5 draft dates back to 1903. It was a key provision of the peace agreement reached that year between the National League, the American League, and the various minor leagues. (It’s formally documented in Roman numeral form as “Rule V” in the constitution of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues; this old-fashioned format has often led fans to the misunderstanding that it’s “Rule Vee,” as in the letter of the alphabet.)

The most fundamental element in that peace agreement was, of course, the full adoption of the Reserve Clause in the standard player contract, and the commitment of all National Association teams to honor it. But one of the concerns regarding the Reserve Clause was that it would enable wealthier teams to stockpile surplus players, inhibiting competitive balance. Thus Rule 5 was devised as a means of helping to free up talent, to redistribute players from the “have” teams to the “have nots,” in an orderly, regulated manner.

How it works

In its early years, the Rule 5 draft was held at the immediate conclusion of the regular season, at the end of September or the beginning of October. In the modern era, it takes place during the MLB winter meetings.

To be eligible for the draft in its current form, a player:

{exp:list_maker}Is not included on the 40-man roster of the organization holding his contract
Has been in the minors and/or majors for at least four years, if he was signed after his 19th birthday
Has been in the minors and/or majors for at least five years, if he was signed before his 19th birthday {/exp:list_maker}Rule 5 has always included a provision designed to encourage teams to draft carefully: For the entire first season after he’s drafted, the Rule 5 pick must remain on the drafting team’s 25-man active major league roster. If his team wishes to farm him out during that season, first it must offer him back to the club from which he was drafted, and that team has the right to take him back for the waiver price. Very often, however, the player’s original organization doesn’t have room for him, and declines the offer, and the drafting team then becomes free to handle the player as it would any other.

During that first season, Rule 5 draftees can be traded or sold to a new team, but the new team takes on the restriction of being unable to send him to the minors without first offering him back to the team that lost him in the draft.

Minor league teams also can participate in the Rule 5 draft (indeed in the early years of the arrangement, with minor league teams operating independently from parent major league organizations, this portion of the Rule 5 draft was a very big deal). As the draft currently is structured, Triple-A teams can draft any player eligible from Double-A, and Double-A teams can draft any players who are eligible from Single-A, in both cases for a nominal fee. Players chosen in the minor league part of the draft don’t need to be offered back to their original teams for any reason.

The drafted

Clearly, the manner in which the Rule 5 draft is set up means that first-tier players aren’t typically involved; teams rarely allow their stars and top prospects to be left unprotected off the 40-man roster. The great majority of players drafted under Rule 5, today and in the past, have been long-shot prospects (and in past decades many were major league-level role players as well, but the advent of free agency rendered that practice obsolete).

But not all Rule 5 draftees are destined for oblivion. Occasionally over the years—maybe more often than occasionally—a genuine star, even a superstar, has emerged from the Rule 5 process. In this series we’ll be identifying those cases, and examining as well those situations in which a Rule 5 draftee didn’t turn out to be much of a player, but his story is intriguing nonetheless.

Our first batch will be those involved in the first few decades of the Rule 5 draft.

10. George McQuinn

Oct. 5, 1937: Drafted by the St. Louis Browns from the New York Yankees.

This transaction represents a perfect illustration of the talent-redistribution ideal of the Rule 5 draft.

The Yankees and Browns occupied the polar opposite ends of the competitive balance spectrum. The 1937 Bronx Bombers cruised to the pennant by a margin of 13 games and then breezed through the World Series outscoring their opponent 28-12, while the Browns trudged to a miserable 46-108 dead-last finish, 56 games behind, drawing just 1,578 fans per game, an attendance barely over 10 per cent of the Yankees’.

Moreover, the Yankee organization contained a robust farm system whose crown jewel, the Newark Bears of the International League—one of two affiliates in the Yankee realm at the Double-A level, equivalent to today’s Triple-A—went a searing 109-43 and are to this day generally acclaimed as the best minor league team of all time. The Browns’ rudimentary farm system fielded no Double-A team at all. In such a circumstance, it would seem nothing less than fair to allow the talent-starved Browns to partake of some scraps from the Yankee feast.

In McQuinn, the Browns wisely chose more than an ordinary scrap. He was in 1937 the starting first baseman for that legendary Newark ball club, hitting .330 with 21 homers despite missing several weeks with a broken thumb. That was the fourth straight year at the Double-A level for the 27-year-old McQuinn, but with some guy named Gehrig on the big club roster the Yankees weren’t motivated to call him up. Upon arriving in St. Louis, McQuinn immediately would begin providing solid, consistent major league production and would sustain it for a decade.

9. Ace Adams

Oct. 1, 1940: Drafted by the New York Giants from the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Adams (whose actual first name was “Ace,” by the way; has there ever been a more aptly named baby?) had been knocking around the minors since 1935, and in semi-pro ball for who knows how long before that; he’d also done some professional boxing. He was passing himself off as having been born in 1914, but in truth he’d been born in 1910. Adams had torn up the Class D ranks, going 20-13 in 1936 and 26-13 (with a 2.31 ERA and 218 strikeouts) in ’37, but in 1939 and 1940 he’d performed as a so-so swingman for the Dodgers’ Nashville farm club in the Southern Association (Class A-1 at the time, equivalent to today’s Double-A). Still the Giants decided it was worth taking a chance on him.

Adams would deliver nothing more than journeyman-level mop-up reliever work for the Giants in 1941. But suddenly in ’42 he’d blossom as one of the best bullpen aces in the game, and he would be deployed by manager Mel Ott in a cutting-edge manner: In 1942 Adams tied the major league record with 61 relief appearances, and broke it the following season with 67, and then followed that up with 61 more in both 1944 and ’45. He was named to the National League All-Star team in 1943, and attracted some MVP votes in both ’43 and ’45.

His big league career would come to an abrupt end in the spring of 1946, when Adams was among many players blacklisted for jumping to the Mexican League.

Adams describing his repertoire: “The fastball and change, I threw them all, used everything. Fastball, curve, slow curve, that’s the way I pitched. And then when I got to the big leagues I started practicing up on a slider, and there weren’t many sliders in those days.”

8. Howie Camnitz

September 1903: Drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates from the Vicksburg Hill Billies of the Cotton States League (Class D).

So, what gives? What was a major league team (and not just any major league team, either; these were the 91-49 pennant-winning Pirates) doing drafting somebody from a Class D outfit? So much for redistributing talent from the “haves” to the “have nots.”

But remember that in 1903 the relationship between major league and minor league teams was nothing like what it would become in later decades. This was long before the invention of the farm system: Every team was independent. And when the leagues got together in 1903 to decide how they were going to play nice from now on, they didn’t see any reason to include a provision in Rule 5 preventing a big league team from taking a ballplayer from a minor league team if the minor league team hadn’t seen fit to protect him.

Thus it was that the first Rule 5 draft ever held would include an obscure prospect destined for stardom. The Pirates were patient with the 22-year-old kid they plucked from the bush league hinterlands, deploying Camnitz in just 10 games and 49 innings in the 1904 season in which they had to keep him, and then farming him out in 1905-06. (Though there was no farm “system” in place at that time, major league teams did customarily lend to cooperative minor league teams a handful of prospects they held under contract.) Then, in 1907, Camnitz was ready, and he’d perform as one of the league’s better pitchers through 1912.

7. Earl Webb

Oct. 7, 1929: Drafted by the Cincinnati Reds from the Chicago Cubs.

Webb was a type of player one finds in every era: a corner outfielder without particular speed, grace or defensive prowess who gets passed around from team to team, but who wields the kind of bat that keeps getting him jobs.

Like so many players in those days, Webb fibbed about his age, claiming to be born in 1899 when it had actually been 1897. He’d been a pitcher as well as an outfielder in his first few years in the minors, but by 1925 Webb was focusing on hitting. And by 1929, when the Reds were drafting him from the Cubs’ organization, Webb also had been the property of the Yankees and the Giants, as well as the independent Toledo and Louisville ball clubs in the American Association.

What attracted the Reds’ attention was a 1929 performance in the Pacific Coast League in which Webb hit .357 with 56 doubles and 37 home runs in 658 at-bats. But he wouldn’t last long in Cincinnati, being sold on waivers to the Senators before Opening Day of 1930, and then being traded by Washington to the Red Sox a few weeks later. In Boston Webb would emerge as a fleeting star, hitting his way into a starting role in 1930 and then delivering a great year in 1931, whacking 67 doubles to set the major league record which stands to this day.

6. Duffy Lewis

September 1909: Drafted by the Boston Red Sox from the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League (Class A).

Rare indeed is the player after whom a prominent feature of a ballpark is nicknamed, but before “The Green Monster” in Boston’s Fenway Park there was “Duffy’s Cliff,” a steep incline in front of the left field fence as it was configured when brand-new in 1912. And it was so named for the expert manner in which George “Duffy” Lewis mastered its slopes and caroms as the Red Sox’ star left fielder.

Yet the Red Sox had plucked this durable and consistent all-around performer from the Oakland Oaks, who unaccountably left him unprotected in 1909. The raw stats the 21-year-old Lewis compiled with the Oaks during that supersized PCL season may not seem imposing—in 200 games and 748 at-bats, a .279 average and nine homers—until one accounts for the fact that in the extreme low-scoring conditions that prevailed, the league’s batting champion hit .298, and its home run leader produced 13.

Following his major league career, Lewis spent nearly a decade as a player-manager in the minors. He was then a coach for the Braves for five years before settling into the job of traveling secretary for that organization, a role Lewis would fulfill for 30 years, finally retiring in 1965 at the age of 77.

5. Urban Shocker

September 1915: Drafted by the New York Yankees from the Guelph Maple Leafs of the Canadian League (Class B).

At the time he played, Shocker claimed to have been born on Nov. 22, 1892, in Detroit. But subsequent research has revealed that he was actually born on Sept. 22, 1890 (or perhaps Aug. 22; sources conflict on this detail), in Cleveland. Born Urbain Jacques Shockcor, he Americanized his name to Urban James Shocker.

In any case, he began his professional baseball career in Canada in 1913, pitching for Windsor, Ont., in the Class D Border League. Shocker then spent two seasons in the Canadian League, in which he was terrific, leading the league in wins both years at 20-8 and 19-10, and in the latter season also leading in innings pitched (303) and strikeouts (186).

The Yankees shrewdly picked him up, but would fail to exercise the patience to keep Shocker, trading him to the Browns in early 1918. In St. Louis, Shocker would develop into a major star, one of the game’s elite aces in the early 1920s. His signature pitch was the spitball, so much so that Shocker was among the 17 major league pitchers allowed to continue using the pitch in the grandfather clause included in the spitball’s prohibition. But some sources suggest that Shocker actually rarely threw the spitball, relying on the value of its threat more than its reality.

He was still pitching effectively when in 1928 he was struck ill by a congenital heart condition, to which he would succumb that September.

4. Urban “Red” Faber

Sepember 1909: Drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates from the Dubuque Dubs of the Three-I League (Class B).

You know what you don’t see much anymore? Guys named “Urban.” Yet here we had Messrs. Shocker and Faber, who shared not only that peculiar first name, but also the status of being prospects drafted in the Rule 5 process, the status of developing into star right-handed pitchers in the American League in the late 1910s/early 1920s, and the status of being exempted from the spitball ban imposed upon the great majority of major league pitchers in 1921.

And, like Shocker, Faber didn’t in truth rely on the spitball as his primary pitch, instead “showing” it to hitters and taking advantage of their expectation of its sharp break as he mostly threw a sinking fastball and curve.

And, also like Shocker, Faber wouldn’t provide his peak performance to the team that drafted him. The Pirates declined to hold onto Faber, offering him, for the 1910 season, back to Dubuque, where he would win 18 games. It would be the White Sox who finally brought Faber to the majors, purchasing him from the Des Moines Boosters of the Class A Western League late in 1913, a season in which Faber went 20-17 in 373 league-leading innings, with 265 league-leading strikeouts.

3. Hal Chase

Oct. 4, 1904: Drafted by the New York Highlanders from the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League (Class A).

Ah yes, the notorious Mr. Chase, that most reviled of all game-fixers, came to the major leagues via the Rule 5 route. The Highlanders (who wouldn’t become known as the Yankees until 1913) selected Chase from Los Angeles, where he’d hit .279 with 33 doubles and two home runs in 702 at-bats—batting stats that were good but hardly great, as that league wasn’t nearly as low-scoring an environment in 1904 as it would become later in the decade.

But Chase always would be regarded as a good-but-not-great hitter; it was his fielding at first base that dazzled everyone and earned him the reputation as a major star. Before arriving in the PCL, Chase had been a semi-pro legend in his native San Francisco Bay area. Among the teams for whom he’d starred was that of my undergraduate alma mater, Santa Clara University (then known as Santa Clara College), where the 10th-grade dropout Chase was undoubtedly a paid-under-the-table ringer.

Finally banished from professional baseball in 1920, Chase’s high-wire act of a life soon fell apart, and he wound up a down-and-out alcoholic drifter. Yet for all his vile deeds and bleak outcomes, to the end there was something about Chase that attracted interest and loyalty. When he died in rural northern California in 1947, his funeral was attended by, among others, PCL titans Casey Stengel and Lefty O’Doul.

2. Bobo Newsom

Sept. 30, 1931: Drafted by the Chicago Cubs from the Little Rock Travelers of the Southern Association (Class A).

Oct. 2, 1933: Drafted by the St. Louis Browns from the Chicago Cubs.

So, why not? Why shouldn’t Newsom, who would go on to be traded or sold between major league organizations 10 separate times (as well as being signed as a free agent four more times after having been released four times, on top of having been purchased twice in the minors), be Rule 5 drafted not once, but twice?

The Cubs chose Newsom following a 1931 season for Little Rock which was the sort of middling-effective, tireless-workhorse performance that would become his signature in the majors: Newsom led the league in appearances (51), strikeouts (152), and walks (150) while going 16-14 with a 5.05 ERA in 271 innings.

But Chicago would decline to keep Newsom in the majors or protect him on its roster. What would attract the Browns to draft him two years later was a brilliant MVP-winning season with the PCL’s pennant-winning Los Angeles Angels (by this time the Cubs’ top farm team) in which Newsom was 30-11 (the second-most wins in the league was 25) with a 3.18 ERA in 56 league-leading games and 320 league-leading innings, tossing in 212 league-leading strikeouts.

1. Hack Wilson

Oct. 9, 1925: Drafted by the Chicago Cubs from the Toledo Mud Hens of the American Association (Double-A).

As we’ve recounted before, when Wilson blossomed into a superstar for the Cubs, the Giants’ John McGraw took to the explanation that he’d never intended to let Wilson go, but had inadvertently lost him due to an underling’s clerical error. This was nonsense, of course; the truth was that McGraw had lost patience with Wilson in the summer of 1925 and traded him to Toledo (in exchange for, interestingly enough, Earl Webb).

If it was a case of McGraw becoming exasperated with Wilson’s, well, less-than-certain grasp on sobriety, then The Little Napoleon can be excused. But on the basis of pure on-the-field performance, Wilson’s batting average slump in 1925 (he was hitting .239 in 180 at-bats when McGraw sent him packing) was the only blemish on an otherwise glittering professional record.

He’d spent three years in the minors (the first two as a catcher, a position more typical of those with his 5-foot-6, 190-pound physique than the center field he would mostly play thereafter) before the Giants purchased him in September of 1923, and all Wilson had done in those three seasons was hit .356, .366 and .388, leading the Blue Ridge League with 30 home runs in 84 games in 1922, and leading the Virginia League with 19 homers, 15 triples and 101 RBIs in 115 games in 1923.

Wilson hit a ton for the Giants in a semi-regular role in 1924, and after joining Toledo in August 1925, over the remainder of that season he hit .343 with 25 extra-base hits in 210 at-bats. It seems likely that the Cubs had heard about Wilson’s extreme fondness for speakeasies, but nonetheless with that kind of thundering bat, especially when combined with the range and arm to handle center field, it isn’t surprising that they exercised their advantageous Rule 5 draft position (the Cubs finished last in the NL in 1925) to snap him up.

Wilson’s election to the Hall of Fame is certainly debatable; the Hall of Merit declined to follow suit. But he was a tremendous player during his five-season run of success in Chicago.

Next installment

The most interesting Rule 5 picks of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s.

References & Resources
The references to pitchers’ stuff repertoires are from Bill James and Rob Neyer, The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers, New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004.

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