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It must have been the Dallas locale. As Bowie Kuhn addressed the annual winter meeting in December, baseball's reserved and formal commissioner was suddenly transformed into a country-music singer belting out a familiar tale of woe. His dirge sounded something like this:
Well, it's cry in' time again (the year's end).
Don't ask Bowie where he's been (through the books).
Oh, the stories never end (salaries are too high, losses ever-mounting).
'Cause it's cryin' time again.
"The percent of increase in player compensation has been running nearly double that of operating revenues," the commissioner lamented. "During 1979 only 11 of our clubs operated in the black.... Operating revenues simply will not grow fast enough to keep even close to the vaulting cost of doing business. We are projecting player compensation by 1984 at $320,000 per player."
Kuhn didn't come across very well as Wailin' Waylon Jennings. Even as he outlined a grim financial picture, the commissioner was admitting to record television ratings and rousing attendance figures. Baseball had just completed the first season under a national television package yielding a whopping $190 million over four years—double the previous one. After four straight record-breaking seasons, attendance had dropped slightly but passed 43 million for just the second time in history. The average ticket price ($4.53) was holding firm as the best buy in sport. So what was Bowie complaining about? Baseball has never opened its books; by citing but not releasing, detailing or documenting an accounting survey made exclusively for his office, Kuhn invited skepticism.
But the commissioner did have a point about salaries. Even according to Player Association figures that discount deferred payments, in 1979 salaries and player-pension contributions increased 14.1% over the previous year's, while estimated general revenues were up 9.4%. In just three seasons the average salary has nearly doubled—from $76,066 in 1977 to an estimated $130,592 in 1980. In 1976, the first year of open market bidding, the top five free-agent contracts totaled $11,131,000. This year, not counting Dave Winfield's cost-of-living increases, the top five totaled $27,275,000. Of equal importance, owners have had to pay multiyear, multimillion-dollar contracts to keep other players from becoming free agents. These numbers are also astronomical: $800,000 per season to L.A.'s Dusty Baker, $900,000 to California's Rod Carew, and $850,000 to Pittsburgh's Dave Parker. There have been far more of these signings than free-agent contracts. Four years ago Pitcher Jim Palmer signed Baltimore's first multiyear deal. Now more than half the Orioles have them.
So it makes sense to consider the question of salaries. Will they spiral ever upward? Will they bankrupt teams? And if they're so potentially lethal, why are owners paying them?
To Marvin Miller, executive director of the Players Association, the importance of salaries is overrated. According to his figures, player salaries and pension contributions accounted for just 27.6% of total revenues in 1978 and 28.7% in 1979. "Players costs amount to a smaller percentage of revenues in baseball than in any major sport except football," he says. "To put the blame for all baseball's financial problems on salaries is ridiculous."