Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Baseball Economics 1971 Style

When writing about former professional baseball players, there is one topic that is unavoidable: money. It is a profession after all. The contrast between modern baseball economics and that of the past is stark. From Brooks Robinson making $10,000 in 1960 when he almost led the Orioles to a surprise pennant and finished 3rd in the MVP voting that year (as the third most valuable player in the entire league, according to voters, he was rewarded with a raise to $20,000), to Carlton Fisk making $12,000 in 1972 and then inciting criticism from writers when he had the audacity to ask for $30,000 after winning the Rookie of the Year Award, to Mark Fidrych drawing almost a million fans to ballparks in his 29 starts in 1976 while making $16,000, the numbers former players toiled for is at the same time pitiful and quaint.

Of course, it all changed in 1976 with the advent of free agency.

I recently came across the above issue of Baseball Digest (May, 1971) which listed the highest paid players in baseball at the time. I clearly remember when this issue arrived at our house. My father was a five-striper in the Air Force and we had recently celebrated a pay raise that put him at $800 a month—I used my 4th grade math skills to work that out neatly to $9,600 a year. My brother assured me that in the not-too-distant future we would be a family making 5 digits a year! We would be ten thousand-aires (while not having the charming ring of ‘millionaires,’ the phrase still made me feel important and proud).

And then I got a look at what guys made playing baseball. I guess I had probably always suspected that these men were well-compensated for their great feats on the baseball field, but I had never seen it laid out in such plain terms: Willie Mays made $150,000 a year! For playing baseball? Unbelievable. I immediately decided that I didn’t need to worry too much about homework anymore because, as a future professional baseball player, I would make enough money that trivial things like an education would not be important.

The article is illuminating about the feelings of baseball executives and writers at the time. One executive is quoted as saying that “if you put an actual value on a good player’s physical performance, it would be about $25,000. What you pay him above that is what he does for you at the gate.” And that was for the "good" players.

“Fans don’t resent the lofty salaries being paid to players who have earned them through long and meritorious service,” the article states. But the service must indeed be both long and meritorious. For example, Brooks Robinson worked for 16 years (and had ten Gold Gloves, one MVP, and one World Series MVP) before cracking the $100,000 barrier; Harmon Killebrew toiled 17 seasons (and hit 40 or more home runs 8 times).

The article acknowledges that 24-year-old Johnny Bench deserved a raise from his 1970 total of $42,500, but criticized him for asking for “too much too soon.” You see, although in 1970 Bench hit 45 home runs and 148 RBIs while winning a Gold Glove as a catcher, he had been a regular with the Reds for “only three seasons.” So he had to settle for $85,000.

Here's the list of the big-ticket players for 1971:

It's amazing to look at the names of the guys making the money back then. Virtually everyone making $100,000 or more was a certain Hall of Famer: Mays, Yaz, Gibson, Frank Robinson, Aaron, Marichal, Clemente, Brooks Robinson, Killebrew, Billy Williams. Not a slacker in the bunch. The only two men making $100,000 in 1971 who did not end up in the Hall of Fame were Pete Rose (who by virtue of his on-field play certainly should have been) and Frank Howard. In 1971, Howard was coming off three seasons of 44, 48 and 44 home runs.

Even the guys in the $60,000 to $80,000 category made the All-Star team regularly. There were absolutely no men making the big bucks who didn’t deserve it—a far cry from now, when one season slightly above mediocrity is outlandishly rewarded (check out Homer Bailey’s current contract with the Reds sometime). Probably the two weakest players from the list are Joe Pepitone, who was admittedly a big boxoffice draw, and Wes Parker, who had four Gold Gloves as a first baseman for the Dodgers and was coming off a .319 season with 111 RBIs. 

I think this article represents an important watershed moment in the history of baseball economics. Changes were brewing and all hell would break loose the next year with the first player strike, but in 1971, baseball players were, for the most part, like any other blue collar workers. They worried about paying bills and taking care of their families. Most of them had to work off-season jobs to make ends meet. The guys on the high end--the top 48 lucky guys making $60,000 or more--still were much closer to normal people than jet-set Fortune 500 CEOs. The 1970 World Series winners pocketed $18,000 and the losers $13,000. This, along with the car given to the Series MVP, was something special.

In 1971, baseball had never experienced a labor-related work stoppage which cancelled games. The players union, which had taken the ponderous step of hiring labor lawyer Marvin Miller in 1965, was beginning to rattle their sabers, however. Miller had negotiated his first Collective Bargaining Agreement for players in 1968. It achieved a raise in the minimum salary from $6,000 a year (a level it had been stuck at for almost two decades) to $10,000.

Owners still managed on a plantation-style philosophy. Players at the time had basically two rights: the right to come to the ball park each day and the right to get paid for it. These two rights were entirely contingent on a) the player signing the contract the owner offered him and b) the whim of management. A player with, say, twelve years of service to a team, could be traded somewhere he did not want to go, say Philadelphia, and his only recourse was to give up baseball.

Curt Flood had filed a lawsuit in January of 1970 over the above trade, but the Supreme Court would not issue the final say on the matter until June of 1972 (they would side with ownership). In the mean time, baseball owners did agree to the "10/5 Rule," a major break for players in which a player with ten years major league service, the last five with the same team, could veto a trade if he desired.

 In 1971, at the time of this article, the major league minimum salary had risen to $12,000--only slightly more than an Air Force Tech Sargent with 15 years service. There were few hints at the time that by 2012, the major league minimum salary would be $480,000 (as compared with the Air Force salary for a similar 15-year, five-striper which had risen to around $40,000).

Yes, changes were coming. But, in the spring of 1971, nobody knew it. 

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