In 1930 Babe Ruth was asked to justify his new annual salary, $80,000, which he was paid to hit baseballs a long way, in light of the fact that the President of the United States was making a mere 75 grand. "I had a better year than he did," Ruth replied. He wasn't wrong, certainly, but the carping continued.
In the eyes of some, athletes have always been paid too much. This view was given new currency when the Seattle Mariners' free-agent shortstop, Alex ("A-Rod") Rodriguez, last week signed a 10-year contract with the Texas Rangers for (no typo) $252 million. Is A-Rod's windfall really news? Toward the end of the 19th century, the boxer John L. Sullivan earned four times as much as the President, and Sully's contemporary Mike ("King") Kelly, baseball's first transcendent star, was able to underwrite a flashy lifestyle with what bleacher bums saw as an oversize paycheck. Joe DiMaggio was criticized for his regular spring-training holdouts, and in 1970, when Curt Flood challenged baseball's reserve clause, which bound a player to his team--in a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court--most fans viewed him not so much as a great emancipator but as a greedy guy.
Flood lost his case, but baseball saw the handwriting on the wall and modified its reserve clause to allow for free agency. With players permitted to shop themselves to any bidder after a few years of service, the floodgates opened to larger amounts of money and scorn. There was alarm when Reggie Jackson was given $2.9 million a year in 1976; shock when one-dimensional Jose Canseco became the game's salary king at $4.7 million in 1990; disbelief when pitcher Kevin Brown signed a seven-year, $105 million deal in '98. Observers from Bob Costas to Joe Blow said the sky had fallen, hell had frozen over, pigs had flown, and the grand old game was dead.
This historical march of dimes is offered as prelude to what happened last week: the signing of A-Rod by the no longer lowly Rangers. "The inequity in this system is now so apparent," said baseball commissioner Bud Selig. "The system has to be changed, and it will be changed."
The inequity is in competitive balance. Only four or five teams could afford even to consider bidding for A-Rod's services or those of, say, Cleveland Indians outfielder Manny Ramirez, who last week signed the game's second richest contract, $160 million for eight years with the Boston Red Sox. Even the demands of mid-level players are soaring beyond the reach of less well-heeled clubs. Kevin Appier, who is hardly Pedro Martinez and isn't even Kevin Brown, will be paid $10 million a year after signing with the New York Mets last week, and the average major league salary will climb to $2 million in 2001.