As early as 1856, journalists began to refer to baseball as our National Pastime. People all over the country played, watched, and read about a sport supposedly invented in 1839 by Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown, New York, now the home of the Baseball Hall of Fame. George Will, who contends that he only writes about politics to support his baseball habit, placed the game in historical context when he pointed out that Fenway Park in Boston and Wrigley Field in Chicago are older than the Golden Gate Bridge, the Hoover Dam, the Jefferson Memorial, and the United States Supreme Court Building. A passage from the movie “Field of Dreams” describes the sport in more romantic terms: “The one constant through the years has been baseball . . . . This field, this game, it’s part of our past. It reminds us of all that was once good and that could be again.”
In the fall of 1919, two important developments changed the nature of Major League Baseball. The first is known as the “Black Sox Scandal.” Star player “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and seven of his Chicago White Sox teammates, all notoriously underpaid by the team owner, were indicted for intentionally losing the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. A gambling syndicate paid the players thousands of dollars to “fix” the result. All eight players were acquitted in a jury trial. The team owners, however, determined to establish the integrity of the sport, named federal judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis as the first Commissioner of Baseball. Given practically unlimited authority to govern, Landis forever banned the “Chicago Eight” from organized baseball.
The second occurred just after the conclusion of the 1919 Series, the Boston Red Sox sold the contract of Babe Ruth, a young player who had starred as both hitter and pitcher, to the New York Yankees for the then unprecedented sum of $100,000. While with the Red Sox, the “Bambino” had set a major league record for the most home runs in a season and led his team to three world championships. The owner explained that he needed the money to finance a Broadway play. Even with the hefty price tag, some sportswriters described the transaction as the “steal of the century.” The Boston team had won outright five of the very first 16 World Series until the time of the trade, but did not win another until 2004. The eighty-five-year streak of bad luck has been dubbed the “curse of the Bambino.”
Ruth became the greatest player—and the greatest personality—in all of sports. The Yankees, which had never before played in a World Series, won seven American League pennants and four World Series Championships during Ruth’s fifteen-year tenure. In the 1927 season, Ruth hit 60 home runs, a record that stood for 34 years. During the Great Depression, a sportswriter asked if he was aware that his $80,000 salary was $5,000 more than that of President Herbert Hoover. “I know,” the Babe responded, “but I had a better year.”
By the end of Ruth’s career, “Iron Man” first baseman Lou Gehrig led the Yankee dynasty. With statistics comparable to Ruth, he never earned more than $39,000 before losing his battle with ALS, better known today as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Centerfielder Joe DiMaggio, whose celebrity rose to even greater heights when he married Marilyn Monroe, succeeded Gehrig as the Yankee’s new star. He became the very first player to earn $100,000 in a single year. By the time DiMaggio’s career ended in 1951, outfielder Mickey Mantle had joined the Yankees. Eventually the most popular player of his era, Mantle received $7,500 his first year in the big leagues. Over his 18-year career, he played in 20 All-Star games, won three Most Valuable Player awards, and led the Yankees to 12 American League championships and seven World Series titles. His 18 home runs in his World Series games broke Ruth’s record of 15. From 1963 through 1968, Mantle’s salary was $100,000 each year. His career total of $1,128,000 is about what an average player today makes in a year. Even more ironic? In 1952, a Mantle card manufactured by the Topps Chewing Gum Co. sold for once cent. In 2018, the same card brought the astounding $2,880,000 at auction! What brought about these dramatic changes?
The “reserve clause,” initiated in the standard baseball player contracts as early as 1879, tied a player to a particular team indefinitely. In 1922, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Federal Baseball Club v. National League that the clause did not violate antitrust laws. Baseball was merely an “exhibition” according to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who authored the Court’s opinion. Thus, players could be traded, but otherwise had no freedom to change teams.
As Mantle retired in 1969, Marvin Miller the executive director of the players union, negotiated baseball’s first collective bargaining agreement. A year later, the St. Louis Cardinals traded Curt Flood to the Philadelphia Phillies. Flood, who played most of his 15-year career with the St. Louis Cardinals, had won seven Gold Gloves as the National League’s top fielder at his position, led three pennant-winning teams and compiled a lifetime batting average of almost .300. Flood, encouraged by Miller, challenged the reserve clause. Only 32 at the time of his trade, Flood had sat out the 1970 season, foregoing a $90,000 salary. In the following year, he played only thirteen games before retiring from the sport. He lost his case in a 1972 ruling by the Supreme Court.
Then, in 1974, the Oakland Athletics owner breached the contract of star pitcher Jim “Catfish” Hunter. Hunter, free to negotiate with any team, signed with the Yankees for five years at $667,000 per—the highest salary ever awarded. A year later, pitchers Dave McNally of the Baltimore Orioles and Andy Messersmith of the Los Angeles Dodgers, encouraged by the Player’s Union, played without contracts. On November 4, 1976, an arbitrator declared that they were free agents. McNally retired, but Messersmith signed a three-year contract for a total of $1 million.
Years passed before the owners and the players agreed on what is known as “The Curt Flood Rule:” a player with ten years in the majors and five years with one team, must give consent to a trade. A 1998 Act bearing Flood’s name confirmed that the antitrust laws applied to baseball.
In March of 2019, Mike Trout of the California Angels, today’s equivalent to the star power of Mantle, signed a contract for $35,540,000 per year for twelve years—a total of $426,500,000! Later on that year, the Yankees signed free agent pitcher, Gerrit Cole, to a nine-year contract for $324,000,000, making Cole, at $36,000,000 per year, the highest paid player in baseball—at least for now. If healthy all year, Cole would likely pitch in 30 or so games, about $1,200,000 per appearance. After his first three starts, he could purchase the 1952 Mantle card and have at least half a million left over. Free enterprise at work.