The Business of Baseball

As a dyed-in-the-wool baseball fan, I have long admired the accomplishments of Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer.  A career-long member of the Baltimore Orioles, he is the only hurler to have won World Series games in three different decades, and was but twenty years old when he pitched a complete-game shutout to beat Sandy Koufax in the 1966 World Series.

That year, Palmer’s season salary was $7,500.  And even with his World Series bonus of $11,000, providing support for his family meant taking an off-season job selling suits for $150 per week at Hamburgers Clothing in downtown Baltimore.

In that era, Palmer was not the only ballplayer struggling to make ends meet … New York area baseball stars who supplemented their income with side jobs included Yogi Berra (hardware sales at Sears and Roebuck), Carl Furillo (owner of a deli), and Jackie Robinson (who sold television sets for Sunset Appliances).  Elsewhere, Cardinals icon Stan Musial sold Christmas trees in St. Louis, while Willie Mays was a car salesman in San Francisco.

Fast forward to today’s baseball world, and the blizzard of dollars being thrown at players is almost incomprehensible.

One of the most recent (and most breathtaking) examples of baseball contract munificence has to be that of twenty-three year old Washington Nationals star Juan Soto who turned down the most lucrative salary offer in baseball history … $440 million over 15 years.  Had he accepted, his take-home pay would have eclipsed that of Mike Trout who, in 2019, signed a $426.5 million contract with the California Angels.

Seemingly limitless contracts like the ones just mentioned bring to mind the difficulties earlier players faced in negotiating with their teams.  Even Babe Ruth, considered by many to be one of the all-time greats in the sport, had to threaten to hold out in his quest for $80,000, after the 1932 season.  When a sports writer pointed out that with that salary he would be earning more than the President of the United States, Ruth said: “I had a better year!”

Keeping in mind Babe Ruth’s contract struggle, it is interesting to note that the minimum salary for a professional baseball player in the Major Leagues in 2022, is $700,000, with an average salary across the sport of $4,414,184.

When I think of the vast sums of money paid to professional baseball players, I tend to become a bit wistful … especially when I reflect upon how close I came to making it to the Major Leagues myself.  Looking back, if my fastball had been a mere 50 mph faster … and my high school batting average had been just 120 points higher … and my time from home to first was only 10 seconds faster … well, the rest would have been history.

I was that close to earning the big bucks myself!