On March 23, 1938, the commissioner of baseball, Kenesaw Mountain Landis declared 91 of the players in the Cardinals minor league system free agents. With Branch Rickey leading the way, the Cardinals were the pioneers in minor league development. This began in 1919, and turned the Cardinals into one of the most competitive teams in all of baseball. The commissioner's opinion about the farm system was that it would destroy minor league baseball, and he sought to bring it to an end. (The picture was published in The Evening Independent out of St. Petersburg, Florida two days before the ruling was made)
The issues with the commissioner began long before this day in 1938. Landis had a low opinion of Rickey, and we already know how he felt about the farm system. The pot began to boil in the mid 20's. Being the team that introduced the farms system to Major League Baseball, the Cardinals were ahead of the curve. By the end of the 20's every team had a minor league team, the Cardinals had several. In the eyes of Landis a team should be restricted to one minor league team and that was it. Keep in mind this was a different era in baseball, and he did have valid points to be made.
At the annual banquet of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues held in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1929, the commissioner denounced the system. During his speech at that banquet Landis said "Already the seeds of disintegration have sprung into life." Landis saw that both the major league owners and the men who owned the minor league clubs were spreading themselves thin. Those who had multiple farm systems could bury players to where they would never get a shot at the big leagues. He had owners as well as many minor league ballplayers on his side. At the end of that banquet Landis said "I will keep hammering at this thing until something is done about it."
There was a key figure missing from that banquet and his name was Branch Rickey. In fact, there was no one there who represented the St. Louis Cardinals who Landis had seemed to have formed an agenda against. Throughout the next ten years, Landis proposed several ideas in an effort to revamp the minor league system altogether. One proposal had a player eligible for a draft after four years in an organization. This would at least give the player a chance to make a major league club rather than toil away in the minors It was a battle that Landis fought diligently, but just could not win.
By the Spring of '38, Landis had found the information that he had been looking for. He had launched a full-scale investigation into the Cardinals minor league system. In the years that led up to the investigation the organization had entered into an agreement with a minor league club out of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, but they failed to tell the commissioner about this agreement. Over a three year period players in the Cardinals system were shuffled through Cedar Rapids who then shuffled them through other leagues while still under control of the Cardinals. Once it came to the attention of the commissioner he finally possessed the ammunition he needed to deal a heavy blow to Rickey and company.
Rickey denied any wrongdoing. He acknowledged the organization stocked the Cedar Rapids organization, but claimed that the players could be signed by any other club if they so desired. Landis wasn't buying what Rickey was selling and the decision was made the 91 players would hit the open market. The ruling did not have the desired effect that Landis had in mind. He thought it would cripple the Cardinals, however, the club won more games than any other team throughout the 1940's.
Of the 91 players who hit the open market, only second baseman Skeeter Webb and outfielder Pete Reiser made it to the majors. Webb bounced around for 12 years at the major league level. In two of those years he started more than 100 games, but spent most of his career as a utility man with very limited playing time. On the other hand, Reiser, a native St. Louisan was signed by the Dodgers. While wearing Dodger blue, Reiser was selected to the All Star game three times and helped them win the National League pennant in 1941 as they beat out the Cardinals by 2 1/2 games. Unfortunately for Reiser he injured himself the next year in game against the Cardinals in St. Louis when he ran into the wall at Sportsman's Park trying to field a ball that turned out to be a game winning inside the park homerun for Enos Slaughter. After that injury his career went into decline.
Landis continued his battle against the farm systems following the ruling against the Cardinals. On January 15th of 1940, the commissioner dropped a bomb on the Detroit Tigers organization by freeing 92 of their minor leaguers for infractions against baseball policy. If Landis continued on the same path it was estimated that at least 10 different minor league teams would fold. A month after the ruling against the Tigers the commissioner met with 5 owners and reached a mutual agreement when it came to the minor league systems. It was a long war between the commissioner and the owners. While Landis had some of them on his side it was not enough to make the changes that he believed should happen. The owner of the Cardinals, Sam Breadon attended that meeting and for the first time in more than two years the owner and the commish were refraining from throwing verbal punches at each other through the media. It had been a long battle. In the end the Cardinals won the war.