Thursday, 15 September 2016


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 larcenysuch 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 everenough for major league baseball to form a committee in 1952 chaired by Pittsburgh Pirates GM Branch RickeyThe 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.
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 ruleIn 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, t
he 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.  

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 todayMy 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. 

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 playedif at all, due to their inexperience, of course, and when they did there wasn’t much to write home to momma aboutHigh-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 someA 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, m
any 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.  
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 playerThen 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 Bon
us 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. 

Friday, 2 September 2016


Cornish Palms in Cornwall,
County, England (UK Public Domain)
I love palm trees. Who doesn’t? They are symbols of sunshine, holidays, and the tropics, along with deep-brown suntans (and sometimes serious burns when you’re not careful). Places like California, Florida, and Arizona have countless palms. When many of us vacation in these southern states, and/or dozens of other tropical spots around the globe for that matter, we are always in awe of these creations, besides enjoying the weather that is associated with such floral beauty. By the way, the average lifespan of a palm tree is 150 years, and there’s at least 3,000 species of them. The scientific name for palms is Arecaceare: a botanical family of perennials that includes shrubs, flowering plants, as well as palms.

In case you didn’t know, the southwest coast of the British Isles--yes, the British Isles!--has palm trees. However, they are not native to the country: They were brought in from New Zealand in 1820 and have flourished ever since. Thanks to the constant mild weather brought up from the North American Gulf Stream, palms survive quite nicely in a large resort plot of land filled with sandy beaches known as the “English Riviera.” The main tourist attraction is the city of Torquay--population 65,000--which takes up one-third of the borough of Torbay tucked inside Devon County. The palms here are often referred to as Cornish Palms or Torbay Palms, thousands of them and many different species. One such specie is the Windmill Palm, a hardy palm that is making quite a name for itself in northern reaches of the globe.

According to one source, Windmill Palms were brought to Europe from Japan in 1830 and have spread worldwide after that. For example, they now grow in southern parts of Germany, Russia, Ireland, the Alaskan Panhandle, Michigan, Oregon, Washington state, Vancouver, in the Canadian province of British Columbia, and southern New Jersey believe it or not, giving all these areas a tropical feel to their cold winter climates: a dream come true for those living outside the common tropical zones.

They’re called Windmill Palms because their fronds are shaped like a windmill or a garden fan rake and they extend almost 360 degrees. They also have a layer of furry vegetation on its trunk that protects it from the harsh sun and the freezing cold in the northern climate zones. They can tolerate some snow layers and winter temperatures down to -20 Celsius for short periods of time, making them one of the best cold hardy palms in the world. They are also fast-growing and low maintenance; and pest and pollution resistant, ideal for town and city boulevards where you see constant traffic. 

Windmill Palms come in two scientific names: trachycarpus forteunei and trachycarpus wagnerianus. The former can grow as tall as 50 feet, while the latter can reach around 25 feet. A particular New Jersey-based nursery, Tucked Away Farms, specializes in selling palm trees and other tropical plants, with customers in their state and as far away as Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Long Island, New York. These northern palms make a perfect addition to the ground cover surrounding the dazzling, blue waters of any pool, especially when you invite family and friends over and watch their reactions to setting their eyes on real palm trees.

Windmill Palm (US Public Domain)
But the palms don’t come cheap in bringing the tropics to Eastern Seaboard neighborhoods. Tucked Away Farms charge $150 per foot plus delivery and installation, resulting in some homeowners paying as much as $2,000 or more for their large, ready-made, cold hardy palms. The potted plants are considerably less, but need some tender loving care once they are placed in the ground. The younger trees have to be protected by leaves packed inside a wire cage for the first few winters until the roots get established and the plants mature. Once they grow a few feet in height, they can take the cold, heat, rain and dry periods. Soil with good drainage is the best and they can be planted in either part-shade to full sun.

Twenty years ago, about 60 Windmill Palms were planted on boulevards along the water at English Bay in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada despite some uppity, tight-ass locals very opposed to the undertaking: They felt that it was sacrilegious to see palm trees in Vancouver because they were never native to the region. While two of the original trees have died off, the rest are flourishing today and look absolutely gorgeous.

My sister-in-law in Jacksonville, Florida has two Windmill Palms in her back yard just a few feet from her pool. She also has other varieties spread over the property, ones that are less tolerant to the drop in temperatures to the freezing point and less. Keep in mind that Jacksonville is in northern Florida and is prone to the occasional frost in the winter months that has killed or severely burned many other palm varieties. “I wish all the palms in my yard were Windmill Palms,” she told me recently. “They can take the cold a lot better than the others and they are easy to maintain.”

And they look great, too, I have to add.