Straight to the Majors: Frank Leja
Over the extended weekend of the Field of Dream series the Yankees played against Garrett Crotchet, a relief pitcher for the Chicago White Sox who throws hard, pitches well, and has yet to ever play a game in the minor leagues. After getting drafted 15th Overall in the 2020 MLB Draft, he signed, and went straight to the majors.
This got me wondering about what other players were who went straight to the MLB, of which there have been 22 since the MLB Draft was implemented in 1965. Over the next few weeks there are 11 players who have played for the Yankees while making their professional debut at the MLB level.
Today’s player is: Frank Leja.
Road to the Show:
Before the MLB draft was implemented in 1965 there was a system in place to sign amateur free agents to play professional baseball. This system required that if a player was signed to a contract larger than $4,000 then they had to spend 2 years on the MLB roster, and if not the signing team would lose their rights to the player. This system was called the bonus rule and the players who came to the MLB through it were known as “bonus babies”. Frank Leja is not only one of those players, but he is one of two players to do so while going straight to playing for the New York Yankees. The other is Tom Carroll (discussed yesterday).
Frank Leja, born in Holyoke, MA grew up with the right support and determination to make himself known. Starting in his early teen years he was coached under former MLB player Ed Moriarty who encouraged Leja to move away from a switch-hitting profile and stick to his left-handed approach at the plate. Leja would soon go to Holyoke High School- a school that won 5 of 10 state championships from 1944 to 1953- where he would letter as a football, basketball, and baseball player. Leja would focus on baseball his junior year after a football injury, understanding the extra pressure he was putting on his body.
Leja’s baseball stock would boom in his senior year of high school as he collected a hit in each of the 21 games his team played while showcasing ability to collect extra-base hits (5 HR’s, 5 triple, 1 double). It helps that he stood 6’4” and 205 pounds as a senior. Leja had the eye of major league scouts and though he was given an offer to attend Dartmouth College, their coach (and former Yankee All-Star) Red Rolfe encouraged Leja to showcase his skills directly to MLB teams as a 17-year-old that summer in 1953.
This worked out well for Leja on one end as he had many teams clamoring for his talents…even up to the point which required Leja to meet with Commissioner Ford Frick who learned about and fined the Cleveland Indians, Milwaukee Braves, and New York Giants for tampering and prevented Leja from signing with any MLB team until that September. Ultimately, Leja would narrow down to offers from three teams: the Cleveland Indians, Chicago White Sox, and New York Yankees. The Indians would reject an offer of a $85,000 signing demand from Leja and he would agree to play for the Yankees. His deal is speculated to be either $25,000 or $45,000 which is far below the $100,000 figure that was speculated. Regardless, Leja was soon to be a member of the New York Yankees.
However, being a Yankee was not everything it was thought up to be for Leja. Before he became a major leaguer, legendary Yankees scout Paul Krichell stated that Frank Leja was going to be the “next Lou Gehrig”. After he became a professional ball player he became a victim to the “bonus baby” rule, of which absolutely destroyed his confidence. Going into his rookie 1954 season Leja was told by Casey Stengel that he was going to be a consistent player as they lost their old back-up first baseman. The reality was much different.
In 1954, Leja made it into just 12 games, had 5 at-bats, and collected just 1 hit. That season, the following interaction was most common for Leja:
In a game against the Red Sox that season Ted Williams remarked to Leja, “Hey Leej! They’re really screwing you, ain’t they?”. It goes to show just how well the baseball world knew the potential of Leja, but he never got his shot. There are lots of reasons for this, but the common story goes back to his first paycheck with the Yankees. Leja was told he’d be making $7,000 and instead got a $6,000 check. After complaining all the way up to Commissioner Frick. This earned him the ire of the Yankees front office.
The story of not playing was much the same for Leja in 1955 as well. He made it into just 7 more games (19 total over the two seasons) and had just 2 more at-bats without any more MLB hits. He never so much as started a game for the New York Yankees. After that season and serving his required 2 years in the MLB, Leja was sent down to the minor leagues.
For the 1956 season it was expected that the Yankees would allow Leja to develop in the minor leagues before making his return to the MLB. It was not expected that a Triple-A assignment quickly became an assignment to Single-A ball. However, that season was soon forgotten as Leja was to become a solid minor leaguer.
In 1957 he led the Eastern League with 22 Home Runs and 117 RBI’s while helping to lead the Binghamton Triplets to the pennant. In 1958 Leja hit another 29 Home Runs, this time for the New Orleans Pelicans (Southern League), and in 1959 Leja would hit 30 Home Runs and lead the International League in RBI’s for the Richmond Virginian’s.
In 1960, Leja spent time between the Yankees, Cincinnati Reds, and Chicago White Sox minor league systems. In 1961 it was between the Yankees and Twins systems. And, in 1962 and 1963 it was in the Milwaukee Braves system. However, Leja did make another MLB appearance.
Before the 1962 season the Los Angeles Angels signed Leja and put him right onto the MLB roster. He would play in 7 games, get 18 at-bats, and he still only had that one career hit from 1954. The Angles then traded him to the Milwaukee Braves for Bob Botz.
After the 1963 minor league season, Leja called it a career. He went on to sell insurance and became a lobster fisherman. In interviews after his career he considered himself a “marked man” in the Yankees organization for his rebelling and contract dispute as a rookie.
Leja passed away in 1991 at the early age of 55 from a heart attack.