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!

(Baseball) Diamonds Are Not Forever

When it comes to showing off new baseball stadiums, the Texas Rangers can’t catch a break.

In 1994, Globe Life Park (cost $191 Million) opened for business in Arlington, Texas.  Sadly, after only 113 games, the players went on strike, and the remainder of the season (including the World Series) was cancelled.  

As luck would have it, the Texas Rangers were preparing to open their brand-spanking-new Globe Life Field (cost $1.1 Billion) to kick off the 2020 season when the Coronavirus brought everything to a halt.  

Talk about bad luck!

The abrupt ending of the 1994 season was accompanied by much wailing and gnashing of teeth from team owners, television broadcasters and advertisers.  But there was one other less-well-known bit of fallout … I stopped going to Major League Baseball (MLB) games once and for all.  The way I look at it is simple … when MLB gave up on me by cancelling the World Series, I gave up on them.

I know my decision did not cause panic in board rooms across the MLB community, but it is a position that I have held to … pretty much.  Yes, I have fallen off the wagon a time or two over the years …for example, I simply could not resist a first-time visit to historic Wrigley Field on a trip to Chicago.  But if pressed about other MLB games I might have attended during my boycott, my defense would be simple … I was there only for the purposes of research and, as a former President once argued, I didn’t inhale.

Full disclosure, I have not entirely forsworn professional baseball … far from it.  Every winter, my wife and I count the days until we can begin our annual ritual of travel to minor league games across the United States.  The quality of play by the aspiring major leaguers we watch is always high, and the memories we collect are vivid.  For example, we won’t soon forget attending a game called in the fifth inning because of snow while watching the Casper (WY) Ghosts.  And we learned that if you arrive early enough at a Roswell (NM) Invaders game, you can watch the home team raking the infield and chalking the baselines.

For us, minor league parks always provide a delightful experience at a reasonable price.  In Pensacola, Florida, for example, the ridiculously low cost of a seat directly behind home plate provides an up-close look at the game as well as a lovely view of the Gulf of Mexico just over the center field wall.  An added bonus, of course, is the opportunity to pose for a picture with Kazoo, the team mascot.  And for a genuine “bucket list” experience, I had the good fortune in 2019, to throw out the first pitch at a Hyannis Harbor Hawks game in the fabled Cape Cod League.

Kokernot Field in Alpine, Texas

If you are a true baseball enthusiast, though, few experiences can compare with a ball game at Kokernot Field in Alpine, Texas.  Constructed in 1947 by Big Bend rancher Herb Kokernot, this beautiful park was built from native stone quarried on the Kokernot Ranch, with red clay for the infield brought in by boxcar from Georgia.  With a seating capacity of 1,400, fans in this idyllic setting are often treated to the sight of a homerun ball disappearing over the outfield wall in the general direction of the majestic Chisos Mountains just beyond.  Called the “Yankee Stadium of Texas,” Kokernot field is home to the Sul Ross University Lobos, and the Alpine Cowboys of the Pecos League.  

In 2020, Covid-19 has affected broad swaths of life and, no surprise, discussions about any possible start to the MLB season remain deadlocked.  What this means, of course, is that this year, instead of heading to the ballpark for an evening of Crackerjack, cold beer and yelling at umpires, we are left to contemplate the sorry spectacle of billionaires feuding with millionaires over the fate of an enterprise we used to know as “The American Pastime.”  

While disappointing, there is one distinct “up” side to this debacle … my 1994 decision to avoid MLB games has been renewed and strengthened.  The unbridled avarice of owners and players alike has reminded me, once again, of how completely out of touch these folks are with the world of the ordinary citizen and baseball fan.

During his tenure as manager of the New York Yankees, Casey Stengel became known for his sage witticisms.  One of his observations about baseball seems especially appropriate today: “There are three things you can do in a baseball game. You can win, or you can lose, or it can rain.”

There is not much doubt … the 2020 season has been postponed because of rain.