From the underpaid Black Sox to the underappreciated Curt Flood, from Ted Williams' $100,000 paycheck to A-Rod's quarter billion, here is a timeline of the biggest earners, the bigger busts and the highest-paid players in every era of Major League Baseball.
This is a history of the game told dollar for dollar through the rise, fall and rise, rise and rise some more of player salaries.
Cincinnati establishes the first professional (read: paid) baseball team, and lures Harry Wright from New York to lead the club. Wright, the famed Knickerbocker who helped craft some of the game's modern rules with that team, made $2,500 as the highest-paid player of the 1870s.
Detroit's NL club sells its players, including Deacon White and Jack Rowe, to Pittsburgh for $7,000. Irate they would only get a fraction of that, the players abscond to Buffalo before relenting. They're paid $1,250 upon arrival in Pittsburgh with $500 salary per month.
Boston's King Kelly makes $12,500.
Collapse of rival league leaves National League as the place to play and allows owners to cap salaries at $2,500.
Pittsburgh's Honus Wagner considers retirement until ownership doubles his salary to $10,000, the high for the decade and the salary he makes until 1917.
The Federal League opens as a competing major league, and it raids the American and National leagues for players, sending salaries soaring. Some even doubled. Tris Speaker made $17,500 that season for Boston. Ty Cobb signed for $20,000 a year later. The Federal League was bought out by the other leagues after the 1915 season.
St. Louis Browns owner Phil Ball fumes about the performance of his players and says for every $1,000 he loses he'll dock the players $100.
The ripple effects of rising salaries crashed headlong into scandal with the "Black Sox.'' Several members of the Chicago White Sox team conspired to tilt the World Series in favor of the gamblers in exchange for a payoff. Some big-league players were making a third of what they made with the Federal League around, and White Sox owner Charles Comiskey was viewed as particularly stingy.
Yankees sign Babe Ruth to a three-year deal that makes him baseball's first $50,000 player, at $52,000 per season.
Ty Cobb is wooed to Philadelphia by Connie Mack with an offer that is worth at least $75,000, and possibly as much as $80,000 or more. Regardless, it made him the highest-paid player in the game, at age 40.
Babe Ruth, who once made $7,000 a year, gets a raise to $80,000 from the New York Yankees. Told he now makes more than President Herbert Hoover, Ruth famously replies: "I know, but I had a better year than Hoover."
Cardinals great Stan Musial is among a group of players offered riches to leave the majors for the Mexican League. Musial was believed to turn down an offer of $125,000 per year for five years to play in that league.
In his biography, Bob Feller wrote he made $150,000 in salary, incentives and endorsements.
Hank Greenberg becomes baseball's first $100,000 player when Pittsburgh buys his contract from the Tigers and signs him for that salary. In 1986, Greenberg's obituary in The Los Angeles Times had the headline, "Hank Greenberg, First $100,000 Player, Dies."
Red Sox's Ted Williams and the Yankees' Joe DiMaggio get raises to $100,000.
The Major League Baseball Players Association is recognized as the players' bargaining representative.
Ted Williams makes $125,000 in the last year of his decade-long run as the game's highest-paid player.
The San Francisco Giants sign Willie Mays to a two-year deal worth $130,000 per year, the highest salary in the game.
The MLBPA is led by Marvin Miller to the first collective bargaining agreement, one that raises minimum salary from $6,000 or $7,000, depending on reports, to $10,000.
With his case against baseball winding toward the Supreme Court, Curt Flood signs with the Washington Senators of the AL for $110,000, one of the highest salaries of the time. Flood refused a trade from the Cardinals to Philadelphia after 1969, arguing baseball's "reserve clause" was little more than modern-day slavery. He lost his case and ultimately his career, but he rallied the union and his was the first crack in a dam that held back a free market.
Hank Aaron signs a three-year contract with Atlanta that averages $200,000 per year, the highest salary in the game. Aaron, 38, who made less than $35,000 as the MVP in 1957, already had 639 of his 755 homers when he signed the deal.
Shortly after an arbiter invalidated his contract and the reserve clause in it, pitcher Jim "Catfish" Hunter becomes a free agent and signs with the Yankees for five years, $3.75 million. Hunter's average salary of $750,000 a season is three times the second-highest salary in the game and it hinted at the jackpot of free agency.
Owners lock out players after an arbiter rules in favor of free agency for Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally. The commissioner orders camps to open and a new CBA is struck that awards players with at least six years of service time with limited rights to sign with the highest bidder.
Free agent Nolan Ryan becomes baseball's first guaranteed million-dollar man, signing a four-year, $4.5 million contract with the Houston Astros. A year earlier Pirates outfielder Dave Parker earned $1 million but unlike Ryan's deal, Parker's salary was laced with incentives to reach the milestone.
Average player salary reaches $143,756, up from $51,500 just four years earlier. Thank free agency.
The Yankees obliterate the market with baseball's first eight-figure deal, signing Dave Winfield to a 10-year, $16 million contract. Due to cost-of-living adjustments in the deal, the Yankees actually paid Winfield $23 million.
Winfield's escalator clauses aside, Mets make outfielder George Foster the first $2-million player with a five-year, $10.2 million contract. Foster played 4½ seasons with the Mets and retired at the end of the deal.
Cardinals shortstop Ozzie Smith, already established as the finest fielder in the game, signs a four-year, $8.7-million extension with the club that averages $2.175 million, just ahead of Mike Schmidt and George Foster. The deal also includes the right to a beer distributorship with Anheuser-Busch, a clause that added significantly to the contract's long-range value.
Kirby Puckett signs a three-year, $9-million deal to remain with the Twins, making him the first $3-million player and the highest-paid player in the game ... for a week. In the next few months, Rickey Henderson, Mark Langston and Mark Davis receive higher salaries for 1990.
Jose Canseco's extension with Oakland artificially inflates the market. The muscle-bound outfielder gets a deal worth $23.5 million over five years, shattering the $4-million milestone with a $4.7 million salary.
Boston's ace Roger Clemens becomes baseball's first $5-million player with $21.5 million, four-year extension with the Red Sox.
Sports Illustrated runs an article with the headline "Rolling A 7: That's 7, as in $7.1 million, the new annual salary for Chicago Cubs' Ryne Sandberg." Leaving Clemens in the dust, Sandberg signed a four-year, $28.4 million deal to stay at Wrigley. Since he retired after 1994 (for the first time), Sandberg never reached the total value of the deal and its spot in history was lessened.
Coming off his second MVP in three seasons, Barry Bonds hits free agency and signs the largest total value deal in major-league history with the San Francisco Giants. At $43 million over six years, Bonds eclipses Sandberg's average salary. Despite a $10-million signing bonus given to Cecil Fielder in 1993, Bonds remains the highest-paid player by salary until 1996.
Bounding over milestones, Albert Belle becomes baseball's first $10-million player with a $55-million, five-year deal with the White Sox. His $11 million salary is $2.5 million more than No. 2, Ken Griffey Jr.
Baseball gets its first $100-million man, and it's a pitcher. Fresh from throwing San Diego to the World Series, Kevin Brown nets a seven-year, $105-million shocker from the Dodgers. It's an albatross that LA eventually passes on to the Yankees. Brown, 40 when the contract expires, admirably goes 72-45 with a 3.23 ERA during the life of the deal, with three 30-start seasons.
Knowing they'd have to overpay to lure a pitcher to high altitude, the Colorado Rockies rout other suitors and sign Mike Hampton to an eight-year, $123-million contract. The outrageousness of the deal, easily one of the biggest busts in baseball, is forgotten two days later. …
While many believe Texas Rangers owner Tom Hicks was only bidding against himself, he lands wunderkind shortstop Alex Rodriguez with a mind-bending 10-year, $252-million offer. Less than two months after Carlos Delgado sets baseball's highest-average salary at a record $17 million, Rodriguez's deal pushes it to $25.2 million, nearly half again Delgado's.
Roger Clemens announces his return to the Yankees. He actually was paid $18.7 million for the work, but that's the prorated portion of a $28,000,022 contract, the largest single-season salary at the time.
Alex Rodriguez's deal, passed from Texas to the Yankees, included an opt-out clause that he exercised during the 2007 World Series. Intent on re-signing with the Yankees, Rodriguez still nets a record-setting deal worth $275 million over 10 years. The deal includes bonuses that could make him the first $300 million player, and from 2009 to 2011 his actual salary will be in excess of $30 million, a first in baseball. Until ...
Sources: Post-Dispatch research, Michael J. Haupert's "Economic History of Major League Baseball," Wezen-Ball.com, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (published 2001), Sporting News, Baseball-Reference.com, USA Today, Sports Illustrated.