Chicago Cubs were slow to develop a strong farm system
To see how this mediocrity doom-loop could have happened, let’s turn for a moment to the Cubs’ arch rivals, the St. Louis Cardinals. In baseball’s early modern period, the Cards were a sorry lot; from 1901-19 they lost about as many games as the mighty Cubs won. In 1919, Branch Rickey took over the club; it was one of the most important developments in baseball history.
Rickey is famously credited for developing the concept of the minor league farm system. Up to that point, the standard way major league teams acquired young talent was by buying it from minor league clubs, not dissimilar to how many soccer leagues around the world still function today. Rickey realized that he could achieve economies of scale by buying entire clubs rather than just individual players.
When Capitalism 1.0 crashed in 1929, Rickey was ready to loot the graves. By 1932 he had acquired 11 farm teams. From 1936 to 1958 the Cardinals would never have fewer than 15, except during World War II. During the Cubs’ Era of Despair, the Cardinals would always have at least as many minor league teams as the Cubs, and usually more.
Perhaps the Cubs were numbed by their pre-war success. In any case, neither P.K. Wrigley, owner from 1932-61, nor his son William III (no, not this guy) would ever fully embrace Rickey’s concept. The Cubs would first achieve double-digit franchise totals only in 1941, and they only had 15 or more during 1946-49. Moreover, P.K. Wrigley was generally more interested in manufacturing money than victories; for him the minors were a source of player sale revenue, not baseball talent. This culminated in the club’s generally abysmal production of young talent, especially young hitting talent.
Today MLB teams are moving away from the idea that more minor league teams in a system necessarily results in more major league players. But Rickey had not read The MVP Machine and the tools to develop individual players outside the game environment were rudimentary (though Rickey made some intriguing efforts in this direction as well). He built a substantial lead back when a farm system’s production was often proportional to the number of planted fields, or as Rickey himself put it, “quality out of quantity.”
Chicago’s farm would eventually produce the homegrown stars that would power the Durocher-era Cubs. Yet Billy Williams, Ron Santo, and their fellow farmhands didn’t put the Cubs over the top in part because they didn’t have enough help.