No Golden Goose Back in Old MLB Days

Even the great Willie Mays fell under the spell of ownership penury during the reserve clause era.

Even the great Willie Mays fell under the spell of ownership penury during the reserve clause era.

Thank you, Bill Brown and Alan Ashby, for bringing up the subject of how MLB salaries were settled back in the reserve clause era – and thank you, Tal Smith, for spiking the dialogue with you disclosure that it once cost the Houston franchise only $78 to sign catcher John Bateman after he impressed the club in a tryout camp somewhere between Houston and Galveston. The $78 reimbursement to Bateman for his travel expenses from his home in Oklahoma to the proving ground was enough to deliver the young man and all of his future options over to Houston for as long as they wanted to keep, trade, sell or release him.

And it was not the rookies alone who suffered under the system of those times. As Bill Brown pointed out, San Francisco Giants star and future Hall of Famer Willie Mays signed his first six-digit contract prior to the 1959 season, agreeing to play that season for $160.000 – a raise of $110,000 over his $50,000 salary for 1958.

Remember, back in those days, when the club had total control of a player forever, if they chose to keep him, there was no need for multi-year guaranteed money contracts. Clubs insisted that each year’s salary be determined on the basis of a player’s performance the previous season. If a club did not like a player’s salary demands, they could trade, sell or release the player – or simply let him stew the whole season as an unpaid, but still controlled asset. A good player could attempt to leverage the club’s fear of having to play the season without a valuable talent, but, in the end, even the greats could only sign for the club’s offer, hold out, or look for work out of baseball.

Advantage club every time.

To justify his big raise in 1959, all Willie Mays had to do was hit .347 and 29 HR in 1958, along with leading the NL with 121 runs scored and stolen bases with 31.

In 1960, Willie Mays’ salary took a ten grand pay cut to $150,000. The reasons? Most probably because his 1959 batting average dropped from .347 in 1958 to .313 in 1959; his HR totals dropped from 31 to 27; he failed to lead the league again in runs scored, even though his 125 runs total for 1959 was actually 4 runs more than it was in 1958, the year he did lead all others.

In 1961, Mays did lead the NL with 190 hits, but his batting average raised only .oo6 points from .313 to .319. That seemed to justify another whack of $80,000 from Willie’s salary for 1961. His pay for 1961 would be $70,000.

During Willie Mays’ 22-season MLB career (1951-52, 1954-73), he played 10 seasons for salaries that hit six figures, with his $160,000 for 1959 being his top payment season on the books – and not including endorsements or other residual revenue sources he may have developed.

According to Baseball Reference (dot) Com, where most of the data used in this column emanates, the grand total on Willie Mays’ career income by player contract salary is $1,945,000. That figure looks even smaller in relation to some current one-season salary figures:

Willie Mays’ Career Salary Earning Compared to 2015 Average Salary and Minimum Pay Data

Willie Mays’ Salary

22 MLB Seasons

MLB Average

2015 Salary

MLB Minimum

2015 Salary

$1,945,000 $3,386,212 $ 507,500

Nobody ever said life was fair.

____________________ (c)

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5 Responses to “No Golden Goose Back in Old MLB Days”

  1. Tom Hunter Says:

    I like to point out to casual fans–who talk about the “good old days” and complain that today’s players make too much money–that under the reserve clause, players in the so-called “Golden Age” were essentially chattel. Back then, you seldom heard anyone complain that the owners made too much money. God bless Curt Flood.

  2. gregclucas Says:

    Players had no power, but most owners were not getting rich either. Box seats sold for about $3.00 with other seats less….no big TV money… drawing 1-million fans a year was doing well. Players still got several times more than the average worker. Even rookies surpassed the average working man’s salary by double or more for a six month season. The belief was that baseball was only for part of one’s life. The rest of his life (and presumably the offseason) players would join society in other jobs. Times change that we must all admit.

    • Bill McCurdy Says:

      Thanks for attaching the balance wheel point, Greg. Yes, even the owners were not making big money in those days. And penury was not always a raise scam. It certainly was a reality-based condition for the old St. Louis Browns for most of their existence. Back in the 1930s, the Browns played many games in which they drew “crowds” in the low to mid-hundreds – and these produced gates that didn’t amount to much. The Browns even had office employees deployed in the stands to retrieve foul balls for the club’s further use, – There was none of this business of players and coaches flipping a one-pitch foul ball to fans in the stands back in the “good old days.”

  3. Cliff Blau Says:

    Those salary datums for 1959 and 1960 must be wrong. Under the rules then, the Giants couldn’t cut his salary by more than 25% a year, unless he agreed to it, and why would he?

    • Bill McCurdy Says:

      The salary information is what Baseball Reference.Com shows for Willie Mays on his page at their site. If they are wrong, we have to wonder why someone hasn’t jumped on it long before now. The information has been there for years and Willie Mays isn’t exactly the most invisible player in big league history.

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