The New York Yankees signed 17-year-old Frank Leja on Oct. 1, 1953 for a reported $45,000. He became, and still remains, the youngest player to appear in a game in a Yankees uniform.
In those days, there was a “bonus rule” in effect, which required that players signed in excess of $4,000 had to remain with the major league team for two seasons. The rule was created in order to discourage teams from paying untried youngsters large sums of money. If a team violated the rule, the player could be lost on waivers. The rule existed from 1947 to ’65.
Some bonus babies became outstanding major leaguers. Sandy Koufax and Harmon Killebrew head the list. Paul Krichell, who discovered Lou Gehrig, believed that Leja had a chance to become the next Lou Gehrig. Even Krichell could be wrong.
The Yankees were always involved in a pennant race, which meant that there was no way Leja was going to play very much. In 1954, Leja appeared in 12 games, batted five times and hit safely once. The following season, he played in seven games and was hitless in his only two at-bats.
The Yankees sent Leja to the minors to learn his trade after he completed his two seasons with the club in 1955. He never batted more than .269 or hit more than 29 home runs in any season. In his minor league career, Leja batted .248/.317/.445.
On Oct. 4, 1961, in a minor league transaction, the Yankees sent Leja to the St. Louis Cardinals.
It will never be known how missing two seasons so early in his career affected Leja. His development had to be affected negatively.
Leja never came close to Krichell’s predictions in his minor league career, which leads one to speculate that he might have become a serviceable major league first baseman if he had gone directly to the minors when he was 17. But one good thing did happen, because Leja was forced to stay with the Yankees for two seasons after signing.
The Yankees lost the 1955 World Series in seven games to the Brooklyn Dodgers, but in the past, players on the losing World Series team received a ring for winning the pennant. Leja received a ring, but instead of “NY” on the front, the Yankees’ hat-and-bat logo was inscribed.
Yankees players were accustomed to their rings having “NY” on the front for winning the World Series. In 1956, things returned to normal for the Yankees.