Baseball Player Salaries

You know, I thought these articles had gone out of fashion:

In 1972, the year I became aware of baseball, its highest-paid player, Hank Aaron, earned $200,000 per season—the equivalent of around $1 million today. Aaron’s salary was 18 times the median household income in the United States. This year’s highest-paid player, Alex Rodriguez, stands to earn $29 million, which is 580 times the median income. (In fairness, Verlander may be a more egregious example of inequality than Rodriguez, since he pitches in the nation’s poorest big city. In the first year of his new contract, Verlander will earn $20 million—around 800 times as much as Detroit’s median household income.)
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Over the past 40 years—the period of rising economic inequality that former Slate columnist Timothy Noah called “The Great Divergence”—Americans’ incomes have not grown at all, in real dollars. But baseball players’ incomes have increased twentyfold in real dollars: the average major-league salary in 2012 was $3,213,479. The income gap between ballplayers and their fans closely resembles the rising gap between CEOs and their employees, which grew during the same period from roughly 25-to-1 to 380-to-1.

As baseball players accumulate plutocratic riches (Rodriguez will have earned a third of $1 billion by the time his contract expires), I find myself wondering why I’m supposed to cheer for a guy earning $27.5 million a year—he’s already a winner. When I was 11, I hero-worshipped the Tigers’ shortstop because I could imagine growing up to take his place. Obviously, that’s not going to happen now. Since my past two jobs disappeared in the Great Recession, I can’t watch a professional sporting event without thinking, Most of those guys are set for life, while I’ve been buying my own health insurance for 5 1/2 years. Paying to see a baseball game feels like paying to see a tax lawyer argue in federal court or a commodities trader work the floor of the Mercantile Exchange. They’re getting rich out there, but how am I profiting from the experience? I know we’re never going back to the days when Willie Mays lived in Harlem and sold cars in the offseason, but the market forces that have overvalued ballplayers’ skills while devaluing mine have made it impossible for me to just enjoy the damn game.

McClelland even criticizes the Seitz decision, thinking players would be better off if they were bound for life to one team. Or, actually … I don’t think he cares about the players. What seems to be damaged here is a deranged sense of economic justice.

I shouldn’t bother but … I’m in a fish-in-barrel kind of mood.

First, let’s consider the point made by honest liberal Matt Yglesias: owners will price tickets, concessions and TV for as much as they can get. There is a myth the media like to promulgate (and MLB owners like to hear) that high player salaries drive high prices for games. This is baloney. The owners will charge whatever they can. When was the last time a team dumped payroll and then cut prices? I remember when Peter Angelos was on Baltimore radio flogging this myth. Someone called up and asked if he was going to cut prices now that the Orioles had dumped all their expensive players. He didn’t have an answer.

All that free agency has done is give players a bigger piece of the pie — a pie that they actually baked since no one ever payed a plugged nickel to see an owner (and it’s not like the owners are struggling). Frankly, I wish more businesses were following their example and bumping up salaries.

A few more things to factor in: athletes are taxed at very high rates; they typically only play for a few years, if that; most of those that do reach the highest levels have pursued it with a single-minded devotion. They will have to live on those earnings for a long time. Frankly, if equity is what you’re worried about, I’d spend more time flogging the low salaries of minor league players compared to their MLB counterparts.

The Slate readers are actually pretty savvy and make many of these points in the comments. However, you do get the occasional “why do we pay teachers and fireman so little and ball players so much!” This was always my favorite argument against high player salaries because it is so obviously absurd. At any given sporting event, an average of 30,000 people show up, buying tickets and concessions. They put in a significant amount of effort and money to watch someone like Justin Verlander pitch. How many teachers teach to 30,000 students at a time? If a teacher could teach that many 162 times a year, would she not be paid like Justin Verlander? The fact is that the skills needed to teach — patience, intelligence, hard work, empathy — are thankfully common. There are literally a few million people doing it. The skills needed to fight fires or fight wars — self-sacrifice, strength, courage — are also thankfully common. The skills needed to be a Cy Young winner — while having less value in an objective sense — are much more rare.

Yes, it’s true that Justin Verlander can’t teach a class or fight a fire or do astrophysics for that matter. It’s also true that I can’t hit a curveball. So what?

But doesn’t the huge amount of money spent on sports show that we have our priorities out of whack? Shouldn’t we spend more on education that we do on baseball? Well … we do. Major league baseball made $7.5 billion last year or about $10 for all 75 million people who went to a game and considerably less for those who watched it on television. We spent approximately $800 billion on education — over $10,000 per child in public schools. The difference is the number of people into whose hands that money is concentrated — three million teachers against a thousand athletes. If our devotion to a cause is judged by the how much we spend, how much we worry, how much we argue and how many people devote decades of their lives to it, education is far, far more valued in this country than all sports combined.

So, no, I don’t think athletes are paid too much. I think they are paid what they are worth. The market has not “overvalued” ballplayers nor has it “undervalued” writers. There are maybe a few hundred people in the entire world who can play baseball at a professional level. But there are millions who could write poorly reasoned articles that drip with wealth envy.

A final thought: my enthusiasm for sports bothered me a little bit when I was younger. Surely, I thought, I shouldn’t devote so much thought to such a trivial pursuit. Is not Shakespeare worth ten pennants? I departed from that thought when I realized that one can pursue all interests: Shakespeare, astrophysics, sports and, um, blogging. But it was actually Jonathan Swift who converted me, with his compelling argument that a truly enlightened race (the Houyhnhnms) would, once they had beaten down the necessities of nature, devote themselves to the pursuit of both mental and physical excellence. Whether it is writing, playing piano, measuring stars or hitting baseballs, the pursuit of a craft, the perfection of it the pinnacle of possibility — that is what drives us as a race.

When I watch a baseball game, I see Justin Verlander throw a ball 100 mph with the right spin to make it move just enough to be almost impossible to hit. I see Albert Pujols, in a split second, decide to swing and launch the bat into the precise position to hit the ball as hard as possible. I see Austin Jackson, at the crack of the bat, take off and pursue it into the gap at just the right angle that he can spear it with his outstretched arm. Every game, I see something that should be impossible but isn’t.

Isn’t that worth $10 a head?

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