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Sports Legends Speak Out

How Much is a Ballplayer Worth?
A Famous Battler for a Higher Wage Tells You Why 'Holdouts' Do Their Stuff
Reading Time: 9 minutes 45 seconds

When holdout DiMaggio surrendered to owner Ruppert's 1938 terms. "From the books, I was worth $40,000," said Joe.

I would like to talk about ballplayers salaries. After the long discussion which led up to my signing with the New York Yankees as late as April 25, I suppose you expect me to have something to say on that subject. Of course everybody is interested in money, and fans want to know what the average big leaguer thinks on that subject.

Club owners, as a class, like to put the muffler on publicity about contracts before they are signed, and some of them are against publicity even after that. There are some to whom the word "holdout" is like a red flag to a bull. But there is a lot of talk all over the country about salaries in general, and I don't see why I shouldn't join in.

First let me get very personal about a player by the name of Joe DiMaggio. I have signed my contract and I can tell you there wasn't a happier man in the U. S. A. the day I went back to work. I count myself a very lucky man to be with a great club like the Yankees, working for an owner like Colonel Jacob Ruppert.

What I say about the Colonel is not a lot of soft soap. He offered me $25,000. I believed I was worth as much as $40,000. At no time was there anything personal in our disagreement. If you offer $8,000 for a house and the seller insists it is worth $10,000, does that mean you are deadly enemies?

I kept holding out because I thought I was right. But as the season approached I began to weaken. Not because I had changed my mind about what I was entitled to, but because the game gets into your blood.

When the Yankees dropped two out of three in Boston. I decided that my place was with the club and that money no longer was the first consideration. So I called up the Colonel, and in five minutes everything was straightened out.

I accepted the contract for $25.000, but did so without giving up my idea that from the books — not only the American League records but the attendance figures of the New York club — I was worth $40,000 to the Yankees.

While still holding to this thought, I assure you it has nothing whatever to do with my daily job. I work as hard and as earnestly as if Ruppert had signed me for $100,000.

That's one of the funny things about baseball and baseball players. If you are selling gas pipe and your employer fights you on salary, you may have some sort of grudge in your mind, and it possibly will affect your work.

But in baseball, the man who carries a salary grievance into the field with him is as rare as an Italian who isn't nuts about his spaghetti and vino.

Now, then, how much money should a big-league club pay an outstanding player? That question is about as easy to answer as it is to settle the argument about blondes and brunettes.

There are sixteen clubs in the two big leagues. They are located in cities with different populations, different enthusiasms about baseball, and, above all, different results in competition. Generally speaking, the financial success of a team depends on where it is located in the standing.

It is not possible to draw up a uniform scale of salaries. If there were such a scale, it would not be fair to the best players. They would be held down by the average performers.

Many years ago the National League tried out a salary system whereby no man could be paid more than $2,500 a season. Yes, believe it or not, they used to pay that kind of dough in baseball. The scheme not only collapsed but brought on a big strike which resulted in the organization of the Players' League, better known in baseball history as the Brotherhood. That association ran one season — 1890 — and then blew higher than a kite.

A hit — Joe's first of the season — against Washington.

But out of the strike and the Brotherhood came a better understanding between the club owners and the players, and this has improved year after year, until now we have an ideal situation.

I would say that, in general, the ballplayer gets all the traffic will bear. In most cities he gets more than the club's books show him to be entitled to. That's because club owners are the world's champion optimists. They may finish in the cellar one season but figure on the first division the following year.

However, there are some cases in which the great player cannot get what he should be paid. He is held down by the league average and, what's more to the point, by the feeling that a star should climb slowly and be satisfied to take gradual increases.

I can't see why baseball should be different from the movies or selling locomotives or acting on the stage.

Suppose Hollywood gets a great attraction? He signs for $500 a week, makes one picture, turns out a sensation, and immediately expects more dough.

The studio doesn't say. "Look here, Jones, you haven't been with us very long. We will give you six hundred a week next year, and seven hundred a week the third year." No, it tears up his old contract and pays him what the box office says he is worth.

However. I know what the baseball club owners are up against. In 1937 the Yankees drew 1,850,000 paid admissions in New York. The Browns drew about 200,000 in St. Louis. I am not nutty enough to believe that, playing with the Browns, I could get as much as I would being with the Yankees.

In St. Louis an outfielder getting $20,000 from either club has to be the eighth wonder of the world.

But in New York, Babe Ruth climbed as high as $80,000 a year, which is the record salary for a ballplayer.

I'd like to stop here and tell a little story I got from Dan Daniel, the baseball writer, about Ruth's $80,000 contract in 1931. The Babe was holding out for eighty-five grand, but was down in St. Petersburg, Florida, where the Yanks were training. He was playing golf.

The night before the Yanks played their first exhibition game the Babe announced he would not play unless he got his eighty-five. It was raining hard, and Ruth was blue.

Dan went for the story — that if Ruth did not sign the next morning he would turn in his uniform.

But the next morning the sun came out, and the Babe changed his mind. He could not keep away from a bat. Dan heard about it and rushed to Ruth.

"Hey, you can't do this to me!" the writer hollered. "You told me you wouldn't play unless you signed. Now you make me look like a liar far. Nothing doing. You sign or you don't play."

They argued for half an hour. Finally Dan said. "How can you turn down eighty grand? Yesterday, in New York, fifteen thousand unemployed, with nothing to eat, rioted in Union Square."

Ruth couldn't believe it. Dan brought him a paper. The Babe said. "My gosh, all those guys out of work, with nothing to eat. Gee whiz, find Jake! I'll sign."

So Ruth signed for eighty, and Dan got a better story, which held up his original yarn.

In 1931 New York was the only city which could pay Ruth that kind of dough. Now Chicago and Detroit could stand the gaff too. Detroit is the wonder of baseball. They tell me that the official figures in the offices of the American League actually prove that the Tigers last year outdrew us by something like 30,000. Imagine that, in a city with so many millions fewer than we have in New York, and with so many thousands fewer transients each day!

Detroit lifted Mickey Cochrane up to $60,000 last year, but he was manager as well as player. His playing career was ended when he was hit in the head.

In some cities in the major leagues a salary boost of $2,000 is regarded as a great break. But in another city a player offered an increase of as much as $10,000 may feel he should get more.

When you hit a lot of home runs, drive in a bunch of tallies, do a good job in the field and, on top of all that, bring in fans who never before went to ball games, you say to yourself, "Joe, you certainly meant something in that box office, even if you didn't mean a thing winning the pennant."

Ruth got that important dough because his home-run trick brought in people who never before had interested themselves in baseball. He changed the game, he changed the type of attendance, made parks bigger, and raised the salary standard of all the sixteen clubs — and the minors too.

There is something in this discussion about baseball salaries which is very important to the player.

In the first place, the average major-league life of a player is less than five years. Where do you go from there?

Then again, day in and day out, we risk our lives and our limbs. Suppose you break a leg. Suppose you crack your skull. Suppose you are beaned by a wild pitch. Where do you go from there?

Naturally, the club owners try to make the best bargains with their players. They must be careful not to upset the general balance of salaries — not to make the players of the less fortunate clubs dissatisfied.

While hollering for more money, we know all this. We all know that in the matter of salary we must contribute toward the player who is in what we call the bread-and-butter class.

These men are in Class 3. They supply most of the playing strength among the twenty-three men who make the pennant fight for each club between May 15 and September 1. and the forty who are allowed on each team's reserve list before May 15 and after September 1.

In arriving at club salary limits we must not forget the player who, without getting any great publicity, does a marvelous job day after day, season after season. Those who are close to the game appreciate his class. But the newspapers rarely play him up and maybe the men in the press box do not realize how good he is.

Very often that type of player fails to realize his own class and value. When he does, he unconsciously affects the entire salary situation of his team.

Now, don't get the idea that this piece has been a squawk. I want to say again, in all sincerity, that I am happy to be playing with the Yankees, happy to be getting the salary I am getting.

I have managed to do pretty well for myself, and the saints be praised. I got $350 a month with San Francisco. I jumped to $8,500 with the Yankees in 1936, $15,000 in 1937, $25,000 in 1938.

With a club pay roll over $300,000. Colonel Ruppert did the best he could for me within his budget limits.

I am lucky to be a ballplayer. What would I be doing if I hadn't gone into the game? Fishing for a living, like my dad did for so many years? Driving a truck, working for a fruit company in San Francisco? What — compared with the opportunities I have with the Yankees in the greatest city in the world, with the champion ball club?

I call myself lucky when I go to bed. I call myself lucky when I get up in the morning and face a day doing the thing I like to do best in the world.

In closing. I want to say that my holdout was no gag. It was not done for publicity. And I did not sign last season or at any other time before April 25. Nor did Colonel Ruppert promise me any bonus for giving in. You see, baseball does things to you, and when spring comes, the sun shines, and you read about scores, you forget dough and grab yourself a bat.

Publication Date: June 18, 1938