- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
My wife and I will be married 50 years in March this year," Paul Krichell said. "That gives you an idea how old I am. I been all my life in baseball." The chief scout of the Yankees sat at his neat little desk in the backstage catacomb of Yankee Stadium and remembered: "When I was a punk kid catching semipro ball in the Bronx, one day a stranger was waiting for me outside the gate. He says to me, 'How would you like to go to Hartford?' I didn't wait, not in those days. I said, 'When does the next train leave?' Hell, this was my chance to move up, my chance for opportunity, and nobody had to offer me anything to make my mind up. But now...."
He waved his hands in a gesture that took in what was too much to be put into words. "Now with the clubs it's win, win, win! And with the players, it's nothing but 'How much?' "
If one had to engrave a summary of modern baseball on the head of a pin, these two sentences would serve to condense the most in the least. As described in SI last week, big league baseball has become a big industry, with the average team and its supporting organization representing a capital commitment of around $9 or $10 million. That amount of money demands a commensurately big income if there is to be any profit. And income, although stadium location, concessions, TV arrangements and several other factors are important, depends finally on the win-loss record. Except in exceptional and temporary cases, a losing team loses money. Therefore, as Krichell says, it's win, win, win!
Since the only way anyone has thought of so far to win games is to put good players on the field (baseball has its own "gamesmanship," but that's another matter) and since players good enough for big league competition are never plentiful, competition to possess them has grown fiercer in scale with the growing investments that have to be protected. The players' response is a perfectly natural one. However well they may like the sport as such, the commercial emphasis that surrounds it—with breweries fighting fang and claw to sign TV sponsorship contracts, circus stunts in the infield and all the rest of it—has made them serious students of the baseball business. "Most of them know the business facts of life well—too damn well," says one disenchanted general manager. Another official adds, "If there's been one big change in the majors in the last 20 years, it's been the ballplayer's ability to take care of himself in the business world." To alter Philip Wrigley's well-known aphorism slightly from the players' point of view, baseball is not too much of a sport to be a business.
THE FOUR HUNDRED OF 5,000
At a given time in the major leagues, there are 400 of these players, 25 to a club, the aristocracy of a social, professional and financial pecking order reaching from Open Classification to D and encompassing nearly 5,000 players. These 400 share a payroll of around $5 million, which means average pay of about $12,500 for seven months' work a year. Taking a comparable group of similar age and intellectual attainments, it would be hard to find any trade or profession that pays so well. And the opportunities for advancement are splendid. A rookie brought on to a team for as little as $6,000, the minimum wage standard in the majors, can shoot up to $20,000 or $30,000 in no time if he has the ability; and if he is a genius, like Ted Williams, he will move on into the area of $100,000.
Owners are in a constant fret about these high rates of pay. Every year, especially around contract-signing time, there are mutterings that the avarice of the modern players is insupportable and will send the clubs into bankruptcy. What did Larry Lajoie get? $3,000. How about Christy Mathewson and Honus Wagner? $10,000 at their peaks. After seven consecutive batting championships, what did Ty Cobb earn? $15,000. Who does Ted Williams think he is?
The sympathy, however, would be entirely misplaced. For the fact is that the salaries of the players, upon whom everything depends, are far smaller in relation to total baseball income and expense than they used to be, and the decline has been consistent through the years. Toward the beginning of the century, team salaries accounted for some 50% of major league expenses. By 1929 they were at 35.3%; by 1939 at 32.4%; by 1950 they were approaching 20%; and they are in that area today. How can this be? The answer is that club income has increased vastly, and that expenses necessary to the swelling scope of business operations have increased too. A certain small fraction of the bigger expense reflects the growth of owners' not entirely selfless interest in the comfort and psychological equipoise of the players. The teams now stay in fine hotels, for instance, and instead of doubling up in Pullman berths (imagine two ballplayers in an upper!), ride in roomettes and compartments. A very big share of it is accounted for by the growth of scouting, school, training, coaching and managerial functions, all designed to field a team that will win, win, win. At any rate, the player's position has become subordinate to the complex mechanism that manufactures and merchandises him.
Thus, while big league players are remarkably well paid, it is equally remarkable that they aren't paid better. No doubt they would be—except for one thing. They are, in effect, the bond servants, the semiserfs, of the club owner. At only one time in their lives can they say "How much?" with any real freedom of choice. That is before they begin to play professional baseball. Once they sign a professional contract with any club, they become commodities in the baseball market and have little more effective control over their rewards or, indeed, their performing careers than so many trained seals, which can yelp for more fish but will get no more than the trainer calculates will keep them eager. This is because the contract contains something called "the reserve clause." It is the keystone around which the whole baseball industry is built.
Stripped of its legal trimmings, what the reserve clause says is that the contract—which ordinarily is for a one-year period—can be renewed if the club wishes, and that it can be sold to any other club at any time. Elsewhere in the contract, the player agrees to abide by all the rules governing organized baseball, which are contained in interlocking agreements that bind the team to its league and the league to all the other leagues in a tightly knit code of "baseball law." A feature of this law is its provision on "tampering," which forbids any other club's even having "negotiations or dealings respecting employment" with a player without the permission of the club which holds his contract. These two items combine to give the player no recourse. If he refuses to renew his contract for what his club wants to pay him (subject to certain minimum pay rates laid down in the law), no other club can offer him a job. His alternatives are to sign or to stop playing. What he ordinarily does instead, if he feels he is being undervalued, is to hold off signing, meanwhile invoking justice, honor, common decency and his informal guesses as to what other players are getting. If he is a star, he can cause the owners embarrassment both in the newspapers and on the field by holding out until after the season starts. Usually, before then, some reasonably satisfactory figure will have been hammered out.