The trade of Mookie Betts to the Los Angeles Dodgers has split Red Sox Nation the way trading Barack Obama for Donald Trump has split America.
Many fans are infuriated that the Sox unloaded their superstar a year before his free agency so they could get something in return before he walked away in 2021.
But others see him as a mercenary after reports that he refused a club offer of $300 million over 10 years, instead seeking $420 million over 12 years.
Although the dollar amounts these days are mind-boggling, salary disputes are nothing new – in 1932, some thought Babe Ruth pecuniary when, despite ravages of the Depression, he told Yankees’ brass he wanted his $80,000 salary left intact.
Informed that he was earning more than President Hoover, the Babe famously replied, “So what? I had a better year.”
But the Sporting News soon reported that Ruth had softened and accepted $75,000, which put him on equal terms with Hoover. That’s about $1.3 million in today’s money – chump change compared to Mookie’s current-year contract giving him a $7.7 million raise to $27.7 million.
Comparisons are tricky, but for his adjusted $1.3 million Ruth was coming off a year in which he batted .373 with 46 home runs and 162 runs batted in. For his $27.7 million, Betts finished last season hitting .295 with 29 home runs and 80 runs batted in.
The contemporary Red Sox can only dream of hiring labor for what they paid back in the day, even when numbers are adjusted for inflation.
In 1919, the last year Ruth played for them before his infamous sale to the Yankees, he hit .322 with 29 home runs (at the time a new major league record) and 113 runs batted in. Incredibly, he also went 9-5 as a starting pitcher, providing double duty unheard of today. For this sterling performance the Sox paid him $10,000, equivalent in 2020 spending power to about $150,000.
Sox immortal Ted Williams was also a cheap date in view of today’s market demands. In 1941, the year he hit a since-unmatched .406, he earned $20,000. That’s equivalent to some $350,000 today. For this achievement, he got a raise in 1942 to $35,000 – about $550,000 now.
Despite the raise, Williams in ‘42 was making less than half the $75,000 salary of President Roosevelt. At $27.7 million, Mookie is making 70 times the current presidential salary of $400,000.
Bloated paychecks are due largely to the elimination in 1975 of baseball’s reserve clause, which prevented players from selling their services to the highest bidder when their contracts expired.
Ever after, the pleasure of seeing stalwarts play out their careers with their original teams has largely evaporated.
Much as it pains us to see budding idols like Betts leave the fold in search of astronomical sums, it’s hard to disagree with the late St. Louis Cardinal Curt Flood, who argued for years that the reserve clause was a form of indentured servitude.
Depression President Hoover once noted that making a living can be frustrating because, “About the time we think we can make ends meet, somebody moves the ends.”
That may be true even today for many of us, but for Major League players ends are meeting comfortably – the minimum salary is now $563,500 and the average paycheck for the 2019 season was $4.36 million.
An ardent fan himself who enjoyed throwing out each season’s first ball for the Washington Senators, Hoover once exclaimed, “Baseball is the greatest of American sports.”
If you don’t believe that, just ask Mookie.
Gerry Goldstein (firstname.lastname@example.org), an occasional contributor to What’s Up Newp and What’s Up Rhode Island, is a retired Providence Journal editor and columnist who has been writing for Rhode Island newspapers and magazines for 60 years.
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