Money, Money, Money

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Curt Flood, whose unsuccessful legal challenge against being traded while out of contract in 1969 never the less paved the way for free agency.

Since 1975, baseball players reaching the end of their contracts are no longer tied to their previous employers via the ‘Reserve Clause’, which effectively prevented the free movement of labour. Since then, free agents have been able to sell their services to the highest bidder which has led, apparently, to the downfall of civilization. Or if not its downfall then certainly its down…stumble. People complain that players are overpaid – obscenely so given the state of the economy and the fact that all they do for a living is play a game.

Occasionally people will try and back up this complaint by quoting a couple of carefully selected numbers. Well, just one usually: a comparison of the average salary of Major League Baseball players then and now.

So what are those averages?

In 1970 the average salary for a major leaguer was $44,000.

Free agency came along in 1975 and by 2011 the average had multiplied over 70 times to $3,100,000. Yes folks, that’s SEVENTY times higher.

Compare that with the average salary of the average American (whoever they are):

In 1970 the average was $6,900.

In 2010 the average had multiplied about eight times to $55,800.

So there you go: free agency has led to an explosion in player salaries totally out of kilter with what’s going on in the rest of the nation, out of whack with the depressed economy and out of step with the sensibilities of people everywhere who wished they were earning half as much as your average major leaguer.

That’s just wrong, isn’t it? Why should sportsmen be allowed to earn that much more compared to the rest of us? How can they sleep at night with so many folks struggling to make ends meet?

Truth is though, the grumblings about the explosion in player salaries come from two ignoble places:

  1. Owners whose profits are getting squeezed…a bit. Let’s face it, profits are a lot easier to come by when the players salaries are ‘only’ six times higher than what most everyone else was earning ($6,900 v $44,000). But now that major leaguers have salaries that are on average 56 times higher ($3.1m v $55,800), it’s easy to see why they’d complain. Except for the fact that local TV revenues have tripled in the last 10 years
  2. Closet communists. They wouldn’t even vote socialist on a ballot paper but they’d sure like to see the top players earning less than they do because that would be, well, more fair.

But does the average man on the street, or woman in the office, have a real gripe? Are they getting worse off while baseball players ascend to ever greater heights of undeserved privilege? One way of looking at that is to compare the average price of a house with the average wage.

Back in 1970 the average house cost $26,000 – approximately three times the average wage.

In 2010 the average house cost $166,000 – approximately three times the average wage.

And that is why I think any complaints over player salaries are just sour grapes. The general population is – in broad terms – just as able to buy a house as it was 40 years ago so it’s not that we’re suffering while they prosper, it’s just that we’d like to prosper as much as they do.

Society has always had its high-earners, moving in financial circles far above what most of us can even dream of, but in ages past we never really saw them, and if we did we could see that they were a different kind of person to us. The trouble with baseball players (and for that matter all rich sportsmen and most rich celebrities), is that on some level they seem a lot like us, which gives us the idea that it could, and maybe should, have been us.

Trouble is, for the most part it couldn’t have been us. Major leaguers like to say that they got where they are through hard work alone. That’s not true. They got where they are through hard work and the ability to hit a 95mph fastball. And the day we can all do that is the day when major leaguers are reduced to earning the same as the rest of us.

And there’s nothing unfair about it.

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