I’ve been a Boston Red Sox fan for the past 40 years. Since the mid 1970s. Long before the turn of the century/millennium when in 2004 they ended the 86 year drought and won a ‘World’ Championship. Then 3 more in ’07, ’13 and most recently last year. So I’m very familiar with the phrase “wait til next year!” that was the mainstay of any Red Sox fan during the 70s, 80s and 90s. Anyway, that’s not what this post is about. It’s more about the paychecks that modern baseball players are getting, and have been receiving since the end of the reserve clause and the birth of free agency also in the 1970s.
But let me back up a bit here. A little history is in order to understand how things got the way they are now. Going back to the late 1800s, baseball was becoming a lucrative business to a certain extent, and the players were starting to make serious (at the time) money that far and away was more than your average worker would make in a year. The baseball club owners decided that they needed a method to keep the players in check, so they wouldn’t be able to leave whenever they wanted to, to work/play for another team the next year. So they came up with a clause in every player’s contract called the reserve, essentially binding the player to that team every year they played. Every player signed a new contract every year. The owners determined their value and if they didn’t wish to sign the contract, then they couldn’t play. Players tried to unionize, but it didn’t work out for them since basically the Owners ignored the union and continued to do what they wished. Some players sued the leagues on the grounds that the Owners were essentially creating a monopoly, but the players lost in the Supreme Court when the justices torpedoed that idea by labeling baseball not as a business, but as an ‘amusement’, making it immune to anti-trust laws. Many feel this was a BS decision, the justices didn’t really believe in the ruling, but they feared giving the players the power to decide for themselves their worth would have ruined the game, so they gave the baseball owners a pass, hoping that things would work out for the best. In essence, it was a Dred Scott type decision, since the players became indentured servants to a certain extent, beholden to their team until the team owner decided they no longer served a purpose or were valuable anymore and got rid of them.
By the late 1960s, baseball had become integrated and a player by the name of Curt Flood decided that he didn’t wish to accept a trade from his current team, the St. Louis Cardinals, to another team in the same league, the Philadelphia Phillies. The owners of both ball clubs had created a trade, and Flood was one of the players being dealt. Flood sued, stating that he wasn’t a commodity, that he didn’t have to go where the owners wished he would go, but should be permitted to negotiate with any of the other 23 baseball clubs to determine where he could play in the future. This case too eventually went to the Supreme Court, where Flood lost and the reserve clause was again upheld, though the justices did make note that their earlier ruling about baseball being exempt from anti-trust laws was possibly in error. This eventually paved the way to the next step, which was handled by Marvin Miller, who was the Executive Director of the Major League Players Union at the time. Boiling down what was accomplished, Miller managed to finagle a way to do away with the reserve clause with a little sleight of hand. Once the reserve clause was eliminated, the players could become ‘free agents’, meaning that they could then negotiate with any team at the conclusion of their current contracts.
However, Miller tried to institute a new system, so that every year every player wasn’t trying to switch teams, creating a new problem. Players had to stay with a team for a certain amount of years, in order to be rewarded with the ability to be a free agent. This made it more acceptable to the team owners, who would be able to ‘protect’ their more valuable players for a time, rather than lose them all enmasse year to year. Free agents would be available to negotiate with any team, without restrictions and the market would determine the value of the players. It worked, for the most part, for many years.
In the last 10 years however, it’s starting to break down again as salaries are starting to get ridiculous. In the just recent 2018-2019 post-season, several players have signed mega-deals and extensions that have been worth $120-330 million USD, which translates to anywhere from $20 million to $33-$35 million per season. A baseball season is 162 games. It lasts from late April to late October (if one makes the post-season). So that’s basically $20-$35 million for five months work. Break it down further, if a player were to participate in every game in the season (not all do), that player would be making $123,456 – $216,000 per game. $13,717 – $24,005 per inning. Compare that to someone that’s making the federal minimum wage of $7.25/hr. And that person isn’t just working for five months.
The thing that got me started on this was an interview that was posted on Facebook over the weekend, where Xander Bogaerts stated that he ‘left money on the table’ when he signed his contract extension for $120 million over the next 6 years. The reason, he stated, was because he wanted to remain with the Red Sox. I’m certain if he wanted to remain with the team, he could have done it at a lot less than what he signed for. He was already making $12 million a year. Which is hardly chump change. But anymore, it’s not team loyalty that drives these people. It’s money. ‘Money talks, BS walks’ is the old adage. You’d be hard pressed to find any player that has the interest in spending their entire career with one team anymore. They’re going to go where the dollar signs take them. And that’s just another sad thing that’s happening in the national pastime.
My question of course is, where’s the upper limit? How soon is it going to be where a player signs a contract for $1 billion over time? How can someone who plays a child’s game be worth that much? To my mind, they can’t. Especially the way that the game is played anymore. But that’s another blog post.