That's right, folks — in 1970, when these photos were run in an Ebony Magazine article on the highest-paid players in major league baseball (a big tip of the Monsanto Toupée goes out to Mike Funes, an enthusiastic contributor to the Big Hair & Plastic Grass Facebook page, for digging these up), Carl Yastrzemski of the Red Sox was "reported to be the highest paid player ever in major league baseball" — with a salary of $140,000.
That amount, even adjusted for inflation, is chump change compared to the $3.27 million average salary of today's major leaguers. And this brings up one of the thornier conundrums I've encountered this summer when I've been interviewed about the book. Do I think that free agency was a necessary change to the sport? Absolutely. Do I also think that the rapidly escalating player salaries brought on by free agency changed the game irrevocably, and often for the worse? Um, I'd have to say yes to that, as well.
While what major leaguers make today is admittedly pretty obscene compared to the salaries of the really important people in our society — say, school teachers and firefighters — I still believe that ballplayers should receive an equitable slice of baseball's financial pie, since after all it is the players that fans are paying money to see. (I also firmly believe that any team owner these days who says that they are "losing money" on their franchise is either lying or incredibly inept, but that's a rant for another time.) And I believe that players should have greater control over their own destinies, at least in terms of being able to negotiate with other teams if their contract is up, and having a say (at least once they've achieved veteran status) as to if and where they'll be traded.
None of those possibilities existed when these photos were taken. You played your ass off all season for your team — and if your team's owner or front office wanted to pay you the same salary next season, give you a pay cut, or even trade you to another team (even if, like Curt Flood, you'd already put in a over a decade with the same franchise), you had no real recourse. You could complain to the press and threaten to sit out the next season, but that would only get you labeled a malcontent and make you a target for fan abuse...and good luck with landing a spot on another team, pal.
Now, thanks in part to Curt Flood's brave (and career-destroying) lawsuit against baseball's reserve clause, all of that's a thing of the past. But then again, so are the days when most great players would stay with the same team for years or even decades. And while it's nice for the players that they no longer have to work other jobs in the off-season to pay the bills — Pirates infielder Richie Hebner's sideline as a gravedigger being the most famous example — their gigantic salaries have definitely put some distance between them and the fans, and not just financially. (C'mon — how many multi-millionaires can you really relate to?) When I was at Cubs Fantasy Camp this past January, Bob Dernier told me how he and many other players used to go drinking at the bars around Wrigley after day games in the '80s. Not hanging out with their bodyguards in the "VIP" section — just bellying up to the bar and bullshitting with fans. You rarely, if ever, see that happening today.
Such is the complexity of life, I guess — positive and necessary changes can also produce some unforeseen negative developments. But this is part of why I find the '70s such a complex and fascinating period in the sport, and a prime example of how the legacy of that decade continues to impact baseball as we know it in the 21st century.
By 1979, most of the sharply-attired players pictured here — Bob Gibson, Willie McCovey, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Juan Marichal, Roberto Clemente, Frank Robinson, Frank Howard — had either retired from playing or (in Clemente's case) passed away. The only ones left on the field were company man Yaz, who was still playing for the Red Sox and making a $375,000 salary, and Pete Rose, who was making nearly three times that amount as a free agent signee with the Phillies. Of course, no amount of money could ever make Charlie Hustle look as smooth and sharp as McCovey does here...