Image credit: Representative Alexander Pirnie (Rep., NY) reaches into the bowl to draw the first date in the draft lottery held at Selective Service Headquarters for the war in Vietnam, Washington, D.C., December 2, 1969. (Photo by Agence France Presse/Getty Images)
MLB’s reorganization of the minor leagues means that in 2021, there will no longer be short-season leagues in affiliated baseball. There will be games played at the MLB teams’ complexes in Arizona and Florida, but otherwise, the minors will only consist of full-season baseball, whether that means 120, 130 or 140 games.
That will be a massive change after more than 50 years of short-season baseball, but it is worth noting that short-season affiliated professional leagues are still a relatively new invention in the 150-year run of minor league baseball.
And the creation of short-season leagues had a lot to do with external factors far from baseball in addition to some structural changes to the game that came together in the mid-1960s.
From the start of professional minor league baseball in the 1870s until the late 1950s, every minor league played full-season baseball. What a league called a full season differed from region to region, largely because of the weather. The season’s start date would be in April or May (cold-weather leagues started later) and the season would end in August or September.
In 1956 the Class D Nebraska State League changed that by founding a league that played a 63-game season from July 1 to Sept. 3. The Appalachian League followed suit a year later with a 70-game season.
The Nebraska State League folded after the 1959 season and for a few years, the Appalachian League was the sole short-season league in professional baseball. If the Appy League had remained the lone short-season league it would have been an interesting novelty and likely nothing else.
But as the U.S. involvement in Vietnam grew, the number of young men selected in the draft each year began to grow significantly. In 1962, the selective service inducted 82,060 young men into the armed forces. By 1965, that number had grown to 230,991 and by 1966 it climbed to 382,210.
At the time, any draft-eligible male could temporarily defer military service by being enrolled in college. MLB teams found that they were having trouble signing amateur players, as opting to leave school (or forgo college) brought with it the risk of being drafted.
As the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball explained, MLB teams began to encourage minor league players to head to or remain in college and then play pro ball in the summer between semesters.
To do that, MLB needed leagues set up to cater to these players who needed to play a shorter season. The Pioneer League went from playing full-season baseball to a 66-game June through August season in 1964. The first Florida complex leagues (the Cocoa Rookie and Sarasota Rookie) leagues sprung up the same year. Those two leagues merged into the Florida Rookie League in 1965. In 1966 they took on the Gulf Coast League moniker that is used to this day.
The Northern League shifted from full-season to short-season in 1965 and the Northwest League followed in 1966. The New York-Penn League was the last to switch over in 1967.
The arrival of the MLB draft in 1965 also played into these shifts as a June draft helped provide a steady stream of players to fill leagues that began in June.
By the 1970s, short-season ball had become an entrenched part of the pro baseball landscape. But it’s origins came about in part because of factors far from the baseball field.