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Adjusted for inflation, Babe Ruth’s highest salary was $1.4 million

Apr 2, 2013, 9:37 AM EDT

Ruth Called Shot Baseball

Graham Womack has a fun post over at The Hardball Times today: adjusting Hall of Famers’ top annual salary for inflation. The upshot: until extremely recently, most ballplayers made peanuts. Indeed, that inflation-adjusted $1.4 million for Ruth was actually the most anyone made for decades afterwards. The Sultan of Swat was pretty well-paid based on purchasing power of the time. Those who followed, not so much:

Many baseball greats had to play in the minors for years after they left the majors. It’s unheard of today for Hall of Famers, but players did it regularly in the first half of the 20th century whether it was 42-year-old Nap Lajoie hitting .380 in the International League in 1917 or Iron Man Joe McGinnity (who earned his nickname working in a steel foundry) pitching in the bushes until age 54. Others like Chief Bender and Wagner needed coaching jobs in retirement to escape the realities of the Depression. Grover Cleveland Alexander died alone in a rented room in 1950. While surely his alcoholism impoverished and isolated him, his top salary of $236,860 in 2012 dollars couldn’t have helped matters much.

It’s a fascinating post, not just for the list, but for the many references Womack cites which give a glimpse into the financial realities for even the best players on up through the 1970s.

There was a reason why Marvin Miller was given carte blanche by the players to go after the owners for a bigger piece of the pie. They had been getting crumbs for a century prior.

  1. Glenn - Apr 2, 2013 at 9:46 AM

    Yes, the owners had the upper hand then, but there was no TV money. I imagine today’s players would be making a lot less if the profits in baseball were limited to tickets and concessions, with some paltry radio money thrown in.

    • heyblueyoustink - Apr 2, 2013 at 9:53 AM

      Or if the owners had to build their own grand ball parks with their own grand money.

    • historiophiliac - Apr 2, 2013 at 10:00 AM

      Oh, if the owners could screw them out of TV money today, they would. It isn’t a matter of how much you have — the owners could have paid more back then, but they got away with not doing so. They may not have been able to pay as much as today, but they could’ve paid more than they did.

      Which makes me think, what would the owners do if players showed up w/ an MM patch on their gear?

      • heyblueyoustink - Apr 2, 2013 at 10:13 AM

        Peanut M&M’s?

      • historiophiliac - Apr 2, 2013 at 10:16 AM

        Absolutely, Mr. Selig. That’s definitely what we meant.

      • heyblueyoustink - Apr 2, 2013 at 10:28 AM

        Small undisclosed fine then, you rapscallion you.

      • historiophiliac - Apr 2, 2013 at 10:31 AM

        Oh, my. Such language.

        /fans herself

    • kopy - Apr 2, 2013 at 10:05 AM

      A lot of it boils down to the population of the United States being less than half of what it is now. The market size of everything was smaller.

      • mrfloydpink - Apr 2, 2013 at 10:20 AM

        No, it really doesn’t. There were also half as many teams back in the 1930s or 1940s.

      • kopy - Apr 2, 2013 at 10:59 AM

        In the National and American League, sure, but there were more leagues than those.

    • pandebailey - Apr 2, 2013 at 2:34 PM

      Sorry, I don’t buy the whole premise of “$1.4 million based on inflation”. Where did that come from? That’s only 17 times Babe’s highest salary of $80K – most reports say we are 30 times 1927 dollars. Average car, gas and house prices ($1K, 15 cents and $7K) are now 30 times what they were in 1927, not 17x.

      Try $2.4 million as a salary for Babe – still a bargain for greedy owners, but more accurate.

  2. chacochicken - Apr 2, 2013 at 9:50 AM

    How about Seabiscut? That horse didn’t see a dime.

    • bigharold - Apr 2, 2013 at 11:50 AM

      Yeah but he did get buckets of oats!

      Besides, horses don’t have fingers so what are they going to do with dimes?

  3. blacksables - Apr 2, 2013 at 9:56 AM

    “his top salary of $236,860 in 2012 dollars couldn’t have helped matters much”

    That’s over 4x what I made in 2012. I’m not rich, but I’m far from destitute.

    And I don’t get endorsement fees, and per diem while I work.

    If the salary wasn’t good enough for them, they could have always quit and got real jobs. Which is exactly what most of them did. Went to play baseball for higher wages than the farms, factories and mines were paying.

    • historiophiliac - Apr 2, 2013 at 10:09 AM

      Ok, it wasn’t just for higher salaries. The jobs you cited were much more dangerous than an office job (or even the same jobs today — although they are still more dangerous than office jobs now). If you didn’t have the background to get a job that wasn’t manual labor (and perhaps you have 10 kids to support like my grandpa) you took a low paying dangerous job — unless you were lucky enough to play baseball (or box or some other sport). (And, if you were black, Hispanic, Chinese, etc it was even worse for you.) Plus, if you were disabled on any of those jobs, there wasn’t SSD to fall back on (and if you go back far enough, workers’ comp either). It wasn’t just the money.

      • blacksables - Apr 2, 2013 at 10:37 AM

        Well, in 1986, I went into the Army to stay out of the factories and off the farms, as did many of the people (men and women) I served with, so the situation hasn’t changed a lot.

        And I agree, it wasn’t just for the higher salaries. But the fact remains that ball players have always been paid more than the average wage (minor leaguers back in the day made a lot more than the average wage).

        Tris Speaker and Ty Cobb invested and became millionaires. Jimmie Foxx and Pete Alexander choose to drink it and die destitute. Point is, they had the money to do it, because they were very well paid.

        Whether or not the players deserve a bigger share of the pie is obviously an open discussion, but the fact remains that none of those guys were underpaid, regardless of what year it was.

      • historiophiliac - Apr 2, 2013 at 10:44 AM

        And my point is: they didn’t have an easy fallback either — where they could just get a job that was safe and allow them to support their families well. My grandfather was a barber after playing (and during). They didn’t live large. Not everyone made that kind of money.

        And that’s not even getting into whether they should have to live on $200K in today’s dollars when they were making more than that for their teams.

      • historiophiliac - Apr 2, 2013 at 10:51 AM

        Also, nice with the moralism on the drinking. Would you be so snarky if their money was eaten up by cancer, etc?

      • blacksables - Apr 2, 2013 at 11:44 AM

        They didn’t die of cancer, they died from drinking.

      • historiophiliac - Apr 2, 2013 at 12:24 PM

        Alcoholism is a disease. Move past that outdated thinking. That’s part of the problem.

    • carbydrash - Apr 2, 2013 at 12:08 PM

      “That’s over 4x what I made in 2012. I’m not rich, but I’m far from destitute.”

      Yeah, but everyone can do what you do (probably). Very few people can play baseball at an elite level.

      • historiophiliac - Apr 2, 2013 at 1:39 PM

        Exactly, it’s like being mad at Einstein for wanting a cushy research position at Princeton and telling him if he doesn’t like it, he can teach math at PS 163.

  4. yahmule - Apr 2, 2013 at 10:01 AM

    In 1921, Babe Ruth outhomered half the teams in MLB by himself. I wonder what that would be worth today.

    • Glenn - Apr 2, 2013 at 10:17 AM

      Exactly what the top player gets today. The player doesn’t set the market, the market is set and the players fall in line by ability and drawing power.

      • yahmule - Apr 2, 2013 at 10:36 AM

        That seems to contradict history because Ruth completely blew away the market for baseball salaries. Certainly no athlete in the history of the country could equal his popularity or drawing power at his peak.

      • historiophiliac - Apr 2, 2013 at 10:48 AM

        But that was before baseball was dying.

      • yahmule - Apr 2, 2013 at 11:34 AM

        Babe Ruth saved baseball after the Black Sox scandal.

      • historiophiliac - Apr 2, 2013 at 12:37 PM

        But it was only mostly dead then.

    • Glenn - Apr 2, 2013 at 9:39 PM

      The media market then was not set up for multiple stars as it is today. Charles Lindbergh, Clara Bow, Rudolph Valentino, etc., could not exist today as they did back then. Ruth’s star power would be diminished in today’s media landscape. You can’t be larger than life in today’s story-a-minute atmosphere.

  5. Francisco (FC) - Apr 2, 2013 at 10:02 AM

    They had been getting crumbs for a century prior.

    I’d love to earn “crumbs” of 230,000/year.

    It’s not that ballplayers don’t deserve to earn a bigger piece of the baseball pie. Of course they do. But let’s not pretend they were making factory wages or miners wages or some such. At least not the good players.

    • yahmule - Apr 2, 2013 at 10:09 AM

      Most of the good players had to hold jobs in the off season to make ends meet.

      • blacksables - Apr 2, 2013 at 10:40 AM

        The poor babies, having to actually work the entire year instead of just six months of it.

      • yahmule - Apr 2, 2013 at 11:47 AM

        See, when almost anyone can perform a job, wages for that job are low. Jobs requiring highly specialized skills, such as professional athlete, tend to be compensated commensurate to their talents. This simple fact has always generated a certain degree of resentment and jealousy, even, apparently, for a bunch of dead guys.

    • turdfurgerson68 - Apr 2, 2013 at 10:15 AM

      Agreed. Top players like ‘Old Hoss’ Rathburn made small fortunes compared to the average Joe.

      Unfortunately many of the old time players weren’t too thrifty with their $$…or were boozehounds like Grover Cleveland Alexander.

      • historiophiliac - Apr 2, 2013 at 10:20 AM

        Rathburn? Didn’t he play Sherlock Holmes?

  6. turdfurgerson68 - Apr 2, 2013 at 10:10 AM

    Graham Womack wishes he earned 237k…what a busher!

  7. ezthinking - Apr 2, 2013 at 10:24 AM

    “For a hundred years the owners screwed the players. For 25 years
    the players have screwed the owners – they’ve got 75 years to go.”
    – Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton

    That quote is about 15 years old, but you get the idea. Doesn’t hurt that the average team still makes way more than the league average. And when they sell the team, better back up the Brinks truck. Couple hundred million on the positive side every time.

  8. downinbungleland - Apr 2, 2013 at 12:09 PM

    Players today can thank Marvin Miller of the MLBPA and Andy Messersmith of the LA Dodgers for successfully challenging MLB’s “reserve clause” in player contracts that kept players bound to the team that signed them. This brought about the era of free agency. The reserve clause significantly depressed player salaries. Catfish Hunter was the first big name player to sign a free agent contract when he signed a five year deal with the Yankees for more than $3 million in 1974. That was an unheard of amount at the time; $100,000 per year would have been a rich contract.

  9. normcash - Apr 2, 2013 at 3:06 PM

    There was a fascinating article in 1946 in Fortune magazine that analyzed the business of baseball,
    using the Yankees as the case study. Fortune posted it on its website last year. What was amazing
    was how small a business it was, even by 1946 standards. There was no TV revenue and radio
    revenue was tiny. Virtually all the Yankees revenue was generated at the turnstiles and through
    concessions. The article said the Yankees expected to draw over 1,000,000 fans and pointed out
    that few teams drew that well. These days, every team draws well over 1,000,000. And how many of
    us oldsters can recall in the late 50s/early 60s when it was a staple of a radio broadcast for the announcers to tell us what job this or that player held in the off-season? Or consider the World Series
    telecast of Don Larsen’s perfect game, which is available on DVD. Between-innings commercials
    lasted 30 seconds and between half-innings at one point, NBC broadcast a public service announcement about home fire safety! Can you imagine? A game which was a small cottage industry is now a huge multi-billion dollar business. The fact the player salaries reflect that fact should surprise no one.

  10. dubblelznhell - Apr 2, 2013 at 10:38 PM

    So is the writer of this article making bank? Anything north of 100,000 is pretty damn good. I have yet to attain even half of that in a year…..lol. Yet…..

  11. jcmeyer10 - Apr 3, 2013 at 8:02 AM

    My Dad and I were having this exact conversation in regards to a guy like Stephen Drew making 7 million a year.

  12. dinkydow - Apr 3, 2013 at 1:09 PM

    I’m not sure what year it was but Ruth signed a $100,000 contract and when reporters asked him did he think he deserved to make more money than the president of the United States he famously answered: “I had a better year than he did.”

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