February 7 – Happy Birthday Frank Leja
They were called “Bonus Rules” and before salary caps and luxury taxes existed, they were used to prevent Baseball’s richest teams from signing up all the best amateur talent around the country so their competition could not. Teams like the Yankees would then stock the rosters of their minor league affiliates with these outstanding prospects and keep them down on the farm until they were needed at the big league level or could be sold at hefty profits to other talent-starved organizations.
Major League Baseball’s first Bonus Rule went into effect in 1947. It stated that any amateur player signed by a big league team for a bonus of $4,000 or more had to remain on that team’s 40-man big league roster for a minimum of two full years. If the prospect was removed from the roster before his two years were up, the team lost its contract rights to the player and he was automatically placed on waivers. This rule was repeatedly challenged, put on temporary moratorium and frequently modified but some version of it remained in force right up until Baseball’s Amateur Draft began in 1965. The Bonus Rule is partially credited with destroying the big league career of today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant.
His name was Frank Leja. When he was signed by legendary Yankee scout Paul Krichell, this powerful 6’4″ native of Holyoke, MA was being favorably compared with another first baseman signed by Krichell who was known by the nickname “the Iron Horse.” Leja’s first workout at Yankee Stadium became part of franchise legend. At one point, the young left-handed slugger hit nine of the ten pitches he was thrown into the Stadium’s stands in fair territory. This helps explain why the Yankees paid this kid a $100,000 bonus to sign with them in 1953 and the Bonus Rule helps explain why New York then let this kid spend his first two seasons under contract rotting on their big league bench instead of developing his skills in live-game action as a member of one of their minor league ball clubs.
When the two-year time period expired, Leja was finally sent down. He was still just 20-years-old and the Yankees were hoping that he would simply turn his game-playing switch back on and get his career going. That didn’t happen. He spent the next four seasons hitting a decent number of home runs for Yankee affiliates in Binghamton, New Orleans and Richmond but by the time he might have been really ready for a big league trial, Moose Skowren had a solid hold on the parent club’s first base position. Perhaps if he had been able to spend those first two wasted years after his signing playing instead of sitting, Leja would have been ready to challenge Skowren before big Moose had locked up the job.
The Yankees ended up trading Leja to the Cardinal organization in 1960. His entire Yankee career consisted of nineteen games, eighteen plate appearances and just one hit, all of which took place during his 1954 and ’55 Bonus Rule sit-the-bench mandated seasons. He would eventually get another shot at the big leagues in 1962 as a member of the Los Angeles Angels but that didn’t work out either. Leja passed away at the very young age of 55, in 1991. He shares his February 7th birthday with this one-time Yankee infield prospect.