The biggest myth about the modern baseball player

Joe DiMaggio signs his contract to end another one of his many holdouts, this one in 1938.

Joe DiMaggio signs his contract to end another one of his many holdouts, this one in 1938.

Once we get old enough we all yearn for “The Good Ol’ Days.”

Back when everything was in black-and-white, when kids could play outdoors without fear, and when Moby Dick was a minnow. Well, guess what? The Good Ol’ Days never existed.

Baseball fans are big on the the good ol’ days, they like to think that there was a time when the game was more innocent. That time usually coincides with whenever they happened to be between the ages of 8 and 16. “Back then,” they insist, “ballplayers didn’t play for the money.” Well, HAR HAR HARDEE HAR HAR. That’s a good one, but it’s poppycock, hogwash, and balderdash.

It’s the biggest myth about the modern baseball player: that he doesn’t play the game for the love it, he’s only interested in (gasp!) money.

For as long as their has been baseball and for as long as people have played baseball professionally, those people have wanted to get paid. “Show me the money!” was not invented for Cuba Gooding’s character in Jerry Maguire. Baseball players (and all pro athletes) have always displayed their appetite for the coin.

Consider this from about 100 years ago: Ty Cobb, star outfielder of the Detroit Tigers, having just hit .409 in 1912 to win his sixth straight batting title, asked for a raise. A really big raise considering the era he was living in. Actually I really can’t blame Ol’ Tyrus. For three straight seasons, from 1910-12 he earned the same salary of $9,000. He was obviously the best player in the game, and he wanted to be compensated for it. Just a few years earlier, his team had opened the most modern ballpark in the country, Navin Field. They were flush with money as thousands of people flocked to “Motor City” as it was becoming known for the fledgling automobile industry. Those people went to the baseball park and Detroit was an exciting team. Cobb was their biggest attraction. He asked for $15,000, and he wouldn’t report to spring training until he got it. This infuriated owner Frank Navin, a former accountant who prided himself on keeping a nifty ledger of every dollar he ever earned. Navin issued a sharp criticism of Cobb to the press:

“Cobb will not get what he is demanding. He will get no $15,000 a year, and if he refuses to sign a contract at what we consider a fair figure we will get along without him, as we have done before,” the Detroit owner wrote. “I intend to run the Detroit Base Ball Club for awhile yet. If Cobb buys it, then he can run it to suit himself, but as long as I am at its head I shall manage it as I believe best.”

At that time, ballplayers were tied to the team they were under contract with. They had very few rights, and if they didn’t sign a contract, the team could legally force them to play the next season under the terms of the previous season. This was known as the reserve clause and it bound players to their team like slaves to an owner. The only leverage a player had was to refuse to report to the club at all. But owners knew they essentially held all the power because players had nowhere else to go where they could earn such sums of money.

“It won’t break my heart if he [doesn’t sign his contract],” Navin said.

Did Ty Cobb put on his spikes and uniform and play the loyal baseball player? No, he didn’t, and he was only one of the many players who held out for more money each winter and spring. Cobb issued a press release of his own from his home in Georgia, written in the tone of a simple ballplayer hoping to be paid a fair wage.

“I have only asked for what I believe that I am worth, and it certainly does seem that a man should be able to do that without drawing such a statement from the club president as Mr. Navin is reported to have made. He certainly does not own me, body and soul.”

Eventually, the owner and player came to terms, and Cobb got a raise to $12,000. But Navin still squeezed a pound of flesh out of his star — he prorated the contract to $11,333 to reflect the time Cobb had missed!

As I mentioned above, Cobb’s holdout was not unusual, it was just more high-profile. Most ballplayers haggled over their contracts at one time or another. In fact, money directly led to Pittsburgh’s team being known as the “Pirates.” In the late 19th century, when a rival league offered more money, several professional players fled for the big payday. The following year, when that league folded, a new team in Pittsburg (there was no “H” at that time) bought up many players and earned the name “Pirates” because of their piracy of those ballplayers.

In 1918, when he was still with the Boston Red Sox, pitcher Babe Ruth balked when he was asked to play the outfield between his turns on the mound. He wanted to be paid more for his “extra work.” And this was before The Babe was an American hero. He ended up getting more money and soon was hitting more than he was pitching. Later with the New York Yankees, Babe held out for more money no fewer than six times. In fact, Ruth’s sale to the Yankees from Boston was nothing more than a money grab, it was all about the green. The Red Sox treated Ruth as a valuable asset, and the Yanks bought him just as clearly as someone might buy a thoroughbred horse.

The most infamous scandal in sports history stemmed from the animosity between ballplayers and their owner. The Chicago White Sox, the greatest team in baseball, heralded as a juggernaut and a dynasty in the making, were World Champions in 1917. Two seasons later they dominated the American League again, winning the pennant behind their great pitching, hitting, and defensive play. There was nothing the White Sox couldn’t do. Except agree on their salaries. Almost to a man, the two dozen or so members of the Chicago ballclub were irritated about the low pay and shabby work conditions imposed by skinflint owner Charles Comiskey, known throughout the sports world as “Commie.”

Commie sure made his ballplayers see red — he made them pay for their own spikes and broken bats, he refused to wash their uniforms between games, and he gave out raises like a miser parts with a penny. Because his players were interested quite a bit in the money they made (by now you realize this has always been the case, right?), they hated Comiskey. Prior to the 1919 World Series, key members of the team conspired to throw games to earn money from gamblers who would bet on the opposing Cincinnati Reds. The scheme didn’t work as planned and the ballplayers, as was normally the case, got gypped out of their money. Eight of them eventually were banned from the game for life for their part in the “Black Sox Scandal,” including Shoeless Joe Jackson and Eddie Cicotte, two of the best players in the game.

“We all hated that man [owner Comiskey] for how he treated us,” White Sox’ first baseman Chick Gandil said after he and the seven others were caught.

Even rookies, untested in the major leagues, have held out for money. In 1936, Joe DiMaggio, a heralded rookie from San Francisco, held out before reporting to the New York Yankees. And he did that during the heart of The Great Depression! DiMaggio, helped by his brother Tom, who served as his agent, signed for $8,500 (equal to about $140,000 in 2014 money) and reported to the Yankees. Then, after hitting .323 with 206 hits, a league-best 15 triples, 44 doubles, 29 homers and 125 RBI, the Yankees sent DiMaggio a contract in the off-season for the same amount of money. DiMag and brother Tom weren’t happy, of course, and held out for a $17,000 deal. Cha-ching!

Maybe you think that baseball’s “Golden Era,” that period after World War II to just before free agency in the 1970s, was different. Surely players back then were just happy to be on a major league roster, right? Wrong. Just on the Detroit Tigers alone, there were many instances of ballplayers demanding more money. The Tigers were notoriously cheap, but all teams had to deal with players who wanted to be paid a higher salary. Jim Bunning, Harvey Kuenn, Denny McLain, and Rusty Staub all had public battles with the Tigers’ front office over money. Not surprisingly, each of them was later sent packing.

Obviously players have been interested in money since, well…forever. Here’s a typical report from the sports pages:

“Gore will take his place among the Fall River club later than expected after asking for and receiving a $2,500 contract, double what the base ball club originally offered.”

This occurred in 1877, and the player was George Gore, a star outfielder whose lower limbs were so thin that he earned the nickname “Piano Legs.” Gore wasn’t playing the game of “base ball” because he loved the smell of grass and liked to hear the cheers. He played it because it paid well and (according to reports of Ol’ Piano Legs bawdy nighttime habits) it kept him flush in booze and ladies.

Sort of just like today.

3 replies on “The biggest myth about the modern baseball player

  • Denis the Tap Dancing Ukrainian

    Agreed. Professional sports have always been about the money. The only thing that kept longtime Tigers like Cobb and Kaline in Detroit for 22 years was the reserve clause. Had they been able to shop around on the open market, there’s a strong chance that they would’ve spent their careers with three, four, or more teams.

    Here in Ukraine, we professional tap dancers are anxiously awaiting the introduction of free agency. Personally, this would allow me to move out of my parents’ basement, where I unfortunately share space with many livestock.

  • Otto

    Ill never ever fault a player for earning as many guaranteed dollars as he can from his billionaire ownership. And ill never feeling sorry for the owner who makes a poor business decision.

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