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Great Rule 5 Pick

If you’re looking for the best Rule 5 draft pick of all time, the easy choice is Roberto Clemente.

As much as the Dodgers tried to hide him, the Pirates saw Clemente’s talent, plucked him in the 1954 draft and reaped the benefits of landing a Hall of Famer for a very modest $4,000 price.

But Clemente wasn’t the only Hall of Famer picked in the Rule 5 draft during that time period.

Just six years later, the only other Hall of Famer to be picked in the Rule 5 draft heard his name called. He finished his career with zero hits, zero wins, zero strikeouts, but near universal acclaim as one of the best who ever stepped onto the baseball diamond.

Tracy Ringolsby’s latest column tells the story of the late umpire Doug Harvey, but it does leave out one minor detail: he was the best, and also I believe the last, umpire to ever be picked in the Rule 5 draft.

In 2018, it’s very easy to forget why what we now know as the Rule 5 draft came into existence.

It actually dates back to 1903 and the forging of the modern era of baseball, with the National and American League meeting in a World Series and a codified agreement between the minor leagues and the major leagues to ensure that the minors and majors worked together in some form of harmony.

At the time long before free agency or major league run minor league teams, there was no such thing as a true farm system. Minor league teams played to win. Sometimes their best players stayed in town for years. Sometimes they were sold to higher-level clubs to help fund further operations (and give the player increased opportunities).

To help ensure a steady flow of talent up the minor league ladder to the big leagues, a draft was added. Higher level teams could draft and pay for players on lower-level rosters.

Even after the practice of farming out players to the minors went from being forbidden to being accepted, the Rule 5 draft (still known at this point only as “the draft”) continued. And since it was designed to help talent climb the ladder, there was also a provision that allowed leagues to draft umpires. 

That’s exactly what the Pacific Association did in 1960. Harvey’s work in the California League drew such attention that the PCL drafted him. It was an extremely astute bit of umpire scouting, but the league benefitted for only one year. Harvey went to the PCL for the 1961 season. In 1962 he went to the majors on his way to a Hall of Fame umpiring career.

The umpire draft was never used very often. In my research, the only other example I found occurred in 1955, when the Provincial League plucked Frank Cifrese from the Georgia-Florida League. Nowadays, Minor League Baseball evaluates and promotes umpires throughout the minor leagues, so umpires are no longer eligible to be drafted in the Rule 5 draft. But it is a great story to remember that one of the greatest umpires of all time was once plucked from one league to another by an obscure rule.

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