Adjusted for inflation, Babe Ruth’s highest salary was $1.4 million

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Graham Womack has a fun post over at The Hardball Times today: adjusting Hall of Famers’ top annual salary for inflation. The upshot: until extremely recently, most ballplayers made peanuts. Indeed, that inflation-adjusted $1.4 million for Ruth was actually the most anyone made for decades afterwards. The Sultan of Swat was pretty well-paid based on purchasing power of the time. Those who followed, not so much:

Many baseball greats had to play in the minors for years after they left the majors. It’s unheard of today for Hall of Famers, but players did it regularly in the first half of the 20th century whether it was 42-year-old Nap Lajoie hitting .380 in the International League in 1917 or Iron Man Joe McGinnity (who earned his nickname working in a steel foundry) pitching in the bushes until age 54. Others like Chief Bender and Wagner needed coaching jobs in retirement to escape the realities of the Depression. Grover Cleveland Alexander died alone in a rented room in 1950. While surely his alcoholism impoverished and isolated him, his top salary of $236,860 in 2012 dollars couldn’t have helped matters much.

It’s a fascinating post, not just for the list, but for the many references Womack cites which give a glimpse into the financial realities for even the best players on up through the 1970s.

There was a reason why Marvin Miller was given carte blanche by the players to go after the owners for a bigger piece of the pie. They had been getting crumbs for a century prior.

Must-Click Link: Do the players even care about money anymore?

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Yesterday I wrote about how the union has come to find itself in the extraordinarily weak position it’s in. The upshot: their leadership and their membership, happily wealthy by virtue of gains realized in the 1970s-1990s, has chosen to focus on small, day-to-day, quality of life issues rather than big-picture financial issues. As a result, ownership has cleaned their clock in the past few Collective Bargaining Agreements. If the union is to ever get back the considerable amount of ground it has lost over the past 15 years, it’ll require a ton of hard work and perhaps drastic measures.

A few hours later, Yahoo’s Jeff Passan dropped an absolute must-read that expands on that topic. Through weeks of interviews with league officials, agents and players, he explains why the free agent market is as bad as it is for players right now and why so many of them and so many fans seem not to understand just how bad a spot the players are in, business wise.

Passan keys on the media’s credulousness regarding teams’ stated rationales for not spending in free agency. About how, with even a little bit of scrutiny, the “[Team] wants to get below the luxury tax” argument makes no sense. About how the claim that this is a weak free agent class, however true that may be, does not explain why so few players are being signed.  About how so few teams seem interested in actually competing and how fans, somehow, seem totally OK with it.

Passan makes a compelling argument, backed by multiple sources, that, even if there is a lot of money flowing around, the fundamental financial model of the game is broken. The young players are the most valuable but are paid pennies while players with 6-10 years service time are the least valuable yet are the ones, theoretically anyway, positioned to make the most money. The owners have figured it out. The union has dropped the ball as it has worried about, well, whatever the heck it is worried about. The killer passage on all of this is damning in this regard:

During the negotiations leading to the 2016 basic agreement that governs baseball, officials at MLB left bargaining stupefied almost on a daily basis. Something had changed at the MLBPA, and the league couldn’t help but beam at its good fortune: The core principle that for decades guided the union no longer seemed a priority.

“It was like they didn’t care about money anymore,” one league official said.

Personally, I don’t believe that they don’t care about money anymore. I think the union has simply dropped the ball on educating its membership about the business structure of the game and the stakes involved with any given rule in the CBA. I think that they either so not understand the financial implications of that to which they have agreed or are indifferent to them because they do not understand their scope and long term impact.

It’s a union’s job to educate its membership about the big issues that may escape any one member’s notice — like the long term effects of a decision about the luxury tax or amateur and international salary caps — and convince them that it’s worth fighting for. Does the MLBPA do that? Does it even try? If it hasn’t tried for the past couple of cycles and it suddenly starts to now, will there be a player civil war, with some not caring to jeopardize their short term well-being for the long term gain of the players who follow them?

If you care at all about the business and financial aspects of the game, Passan’s article is essential.