Deep dive into history of athletes’ salaries

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Max Scherzer and agent Scott Boras

Max Scherzer and agent Scott Boras
Image: AP

Just before Major League Baseball’s lockout began, the Mets signed Max Scherzer to a three-year, $130 million contract, a $43.3 million annual average that set a new record and also set a talking point for the labor dispute to come.

“It’s definitely a labor issue,” former major league reliever Jerry Blevins told Deadspin. “It’s definitely a move of power to be able to be like, ‘Well, you’re making this much.’ It’s worked in past labor discussions. … It skews the real reasoning for some of the labor issues, economically, because fans see a guy making a million dollars a year, and they’re like, ‘What are you complaining about? You’re just playing baseball.’ Well, when you [do a job] you want to get what it’s worth, the market value. Without the other side of the coin with ownership, it’s hard to truly argue market value, because they’re always going to say that owning a baseball team isn’t that profitable, which is ludicrous.”

The way that you can tell running a baseball team is profitable is that billionaires keep lining up to do it, and that’s not a group of people that rushes headlong into money-losing enterprises. We don’t get to know how much the owners make, but we do get to know how much every player in the majors is paid — how much every player in every top North American sports league is paid, in fact.

There’s been public discussion and knowledge of ballplayers’ salaries for more than a century. The Philadelphia A’s before World War I were known for their “$100,000 Infield” of Stuffy McInnis, Eddie Collins, Jack Barry, and Frank “Home Run” Baker. In 1930, Babe Ruth offered up one of his most famous quotes when asked about his salary being higher than President Herbert Hoover’s: “Why not? I had a better year than he did.”

In the past, though, it was really only the top stars’ whose paychecks were known to all, or maybe players whose salaries became newsworthy. But even in those cases, the true salaries might not have truly been known.

“The reporters weren’t necessarily interested in knowing how much Joe Dugan was making from the Yankees,” said Michael Haupert, a professor of economics at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and co-chair of the Society for American Baseball Research’s Business of Baseball committee.

“You’re more interested in the story about something. You know, Joe Dugan was reporting two weeks late this year because he had a salary dispute. Well, Joe Dugan, you know, asked for this much, and the team offered this much, and here’s how much he signed for. Well, the problem is, I’ve done a lot of looking those reported salaries, and now that I have all the contracts, the actual salaries, about 50 percent of the time, they’re not even close to what was reported.”

We still see something like that today, not in baseball, but the NFL. Patrick Mahomes’ “$500 million contract” has “only” $141 million in guaranteed money, and the Kansas City quarterback (and Royals part-owner) will really wind up making somewhere in between those figures over the course of the 12-year deal.

So, even though we know every player’s salary, when it comes to football, the public generally doesn’t fully know.

“When we hear a number that people are floating, people often have a reason for floating those numbers,” said CBS Sports analyst and former Oakland Raiders CEO Amy Trask. “An agent might want to float a gross number. A team source may want to float a minimum number. Unless you’ve seen the contract, you really don’t know what it says.”

Haupert has seen the old baseball contracts through his research, and while the public has been aware of baseball players’ salaries since there have been baseball players’ salaries, it was only in the 1980s that the reported figures became accurate for everyone and Sports Illustrated could put Montreal Expos pitcher Bob Sebra and his $70,000 salary on the cover along with a couple dozen other ballplayers, with every single major leaguer’s salary printed inside.

The reason for the sudden change from mysterious and unreliable figures drawn out of reporting, and pinpoint accuracy in salary information? The Major League Baseball Players Association decided that greater transparency was in its best interests, and although an MLBPA spokesman said the union has a strict policy prohibiting public disclosure of individual salary information and does not make such lists publicly available, once the numbers started getting shared among all members and agents, there were always going to be leaks.

“There were a couple of reasons,” Haupert said. “One, they wanted every agent and every player to have every bit of salary information so they could use it to their advantage in negotiating. And also, it was a way to let the public know how much these guys were being paid, as opposed to how much teams were arguing. That strategy didn’t really pay off that well because the average fan still mysteriously empathizes more with the billionaire owners than with the players.”

Even though fans may have come to resent players’ high salaries in a world where owners don’t have to open their books, the first part of the MLBPA’s reasoning for releasing the salaries was huge, and the reason that the move was beneficial.

It wasn’t until the 1994-95 NHL lockout that this change happened in hockey, and it was a big thing that the NHLPA fought for in that dispute.

“Players’ eyes were opened,” said Octagon Hockey agent Allan Walsh. “Holy shit, the best player is making that much money. Holy shit, these guys are on my own team and I was told I was the highest-paid player on my team, and I just found out three guys make more money than me. It was a game changer.”

Before the 1990s, players could certainly talk amongst themselves about their salaries, but North American culture doesn’t tend to big on talking about what you make to begin with, and hockey culture is even less about self than that. Plus, a general manager might agree to pay a player a higher amount of money, but urge them to keep it on the down low — and the secret could be safe because nobody else had to know outside of the parties to the contract.

“Everyone thought they were the highest paid guy on their team, and it worked,” Walsh said. “There’s a story about Gordie Howe being told for years and years and years that he was the highest paid guy on the Red Wings, and one day Ted Lindsay went up to him and said, ‘Gordie, do you realize that you’re holding all of these other guys back? The team says you can’t come in here and ask for more than Gordie Howe, are you kidding me? Your docility at the negotiating table is holding everybody back.’ And then Gordie Howe found out that Ted Lindsay was making double his salary.”

Lindsay, one of the pioneers of the NHLPA, was stripped of his captaincy and traded to Chicago in no small part because Red Wings general manager Jack Adams didn’t like the organizing efforts and all that salary stuff. The NHLPA did form, but Adams’ union-busting move over this very issue is part of why it took decades more for hockey players to get accurate salary information in their workplace.

That still doesn’t mean that salary information has to be public, but given the number of people who now get access to the data and the public’s interest in playing armchair GM — especially in the leagues with a salary cap — it’s going to come out whether players want it to or not. It may not be a question so much of why the general population needs to know athletes’ salaries, as much as why there isn’t more transparency about salaries throughout our society, where job postings don’t even necessarily indicate how much someone can expect to be paid for their work before applying.

Athletes’ salaries being public now goes with the territory, but that’s not true for pretty much anyone else, and that’s where — especially when major leaguers aren’t making $70,000 a year anymore like Bob Sebra — it gets a little awkward.

“It’s such a weird talking point that people make early,” Blevins said. “It’s like, ‘How much are you making?’ And I’ll be like, ‘Well, how much do you make, then?’ They’re, like, offended, ‘oh, how dare you?’ Well, that’s the same. You know, you can Google it. I don’t want to talk about it. If you’re really curious, you can look it up on your phone. But it’s an uncomfortable thing because people start to view you differently. … I feel like it shouldn’t be the first thing you know about a person.”

That’s the part of salary disclosure that’s insidious, where people get distilled down to a dollar figure, and treated with far less humanity as a result. That’s the part where the MLBPA miscalculated all those years ago: when the public can attach a specific amount of outlandish money to players, it doesn’t matter that the owners are orders of magnitude richer when their wealth is abstract.

“Everybody sees all these huge contracts being made, and they forget that salaries have gone down in a sense,” Blevins said. “The qualifying offer was down, and you’re like, how is that possible with revenue spiking? It’s because they pay the guys at the top, the elite, what they’re worth, and then they fill everybody else in. And with 0-3 [years’ experience] guys making league minimum, they leverage that on the middle class, for lack of a better term, and veterans that are worth a little bit more get kind of strong-armed out. In the NBA, LeBron has his earnings capped based on what he would truly be worth on a free market. I think the upside to that for the NBA’s union is that the minimum salary and the mid-level salaries are higher.”

LeBron James’ annual salary from the Lakers, $41.2 million, is lower than Scherzer’s pay from the Mets over the next three years with the Mets. Although James certainly makes more overall thanks to endorsements, the public knowledge of salaries can, in that way, be something that makes the MLBPA think a bit in the current negotiations about how to make a bigger piece of the pie available to the vast majority of players who won’t be superstars in their late 30s.

Likewise, everyone in hockey knows that NHL salaries have not kept pace with their compatriots in the other leagues, something that wouldn’t be as clear if the unions kept their leagues’ salary figures to themselves. There’s an entire economy of sports now, in a way that’s completely different from when Lindsay was organizing hockey players, let alone when Ruth was having his salary compared to the president’s.

The minimum salary in MLB ($570,500 in 2021) is now more than what the president gets paid ($400,000), which also helps to explain the increased public demand for the information. Playing a sport professionally has always been a dream job, but all the more when that job pays so much more than in the days when average major leaguers had offseason jobs because they were essentially seasonal workers making a common wage. It’s why when Blevins would meet elementary schoolers, their two biggest questions would be how hard he throws and how much he got paid.

“When baseball first became professional, that itself was very controversial,” Haupert said. “You know, the idea that people should be paid to play this gentlemen’s leisurely sporting game was controversial, and the whole way the National League was started, was as a basis to control salaries to improve profits. … I think the public finds it of interest because we all see ourselves as working stiffs and those guys are playing for their money. So, I’m always interested in what they’re making, just like I’m interested in what a movie star is making because I look and say, ‘Gee, here, just playing and making a ton of money, isn’t that interesting?’”

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