Make no mistake, I love the game of baseball. As a youth I dreamed of playing professional ball. Alas, it was not to be, and I’ve spent the rest of my life chasing other dreams.
Photo courtesy of Sommerville Photographie
A few days before the new season started, it was announced that my Detroit Tigers had signed the game’s premier hitter, Miguel Cabrera, to a contract extension that likely will keep the old English D on the front of his jersey for the remainder of his career. The cost to keep him in Detroit for the next eight years: $292 million. I read somewhere that that amounts to $48,000 per plate appearance, for playing a kid’s game. A few days later, the Angels signed Mike Trout to a six-year contract extension worth a reported $144.5 million, after which he reportedly stated he was pleased with the amount of money because it represented security.
I’m old enough to remember when Pete Rose signed a deal with the Cincinnati Reds for $750,000, only to sign with the Philadelphia Phillies a few years later for $3 million. If the standard of that bygone era was an obscene amount, to what does $31 million year amount? Most of us will work close to half a century and never earn $31 million for our life’s work.
What price can one put on security? In today’s economy, is three month’s worth of savings enough to provide security should one lose their job? If only one percent of a MLB player’s career spans twenty years—the average career lasts but 5.6 years—is any ballplayer worth $31 million dollars a year?
There was a time, prior to the players association, that the owners took advantage of ballplayers, to the point they, well, pretty much “owned” them. The players deserved a larger share of the gate; after all, without them, the owners wouldn’t have a product to peddle. But most players held jobs in the offseason, tending bar or doing menial labor. After they retired, they worked other jobs.
Ty Cobb, the game’s first super star, played 24 years of baseball between 1905 and 1928. In 1927, after leaving the Tigers, Cobb signed with the Philadelphia Athletics, earning $85,000—more than 12 times the average player’s salary at the time. Accounting for inflation, Cobb would earn $1.14 million a year for playing in today’s game—a steal considering he still holds a number of baseball records.
Yet Cobb never got rich playing ball. He amassed his fortune investing in General Motors and Coca Cola. At the time of his death in 1961, Cobb was worth $12.1 million. That’s equal to $94 million in 2013 inflation adjusted dollars.
In his will, Cobb set aside a quarter of his empire to establish the Cobb Educational Foundation of Atlanta,which has, as of July 2013, awarded more than $15 million in college scholarships to tens of thousands of poor kids in Georgia. He also donated a large portion of his Coca-Cola shares to build the Ty Cobb Healthcare System, which today is composed of eight full service hospitals and care facilities throughout Georgia. Residents of Royston, Georgia refer to Cobb Memorial as “The hospital that was built with a bat.”
I try not to lose myself in the petty squabbles between billionaire owners and millionaire players. If I did I’d likely stop watching the game, and I’m not willing to do that because it’s still a beautiful game, largely unchanged since the early part of the twentieth century, even if this year they expanded replay review. Football, with annual changes to the rules and what constitutes a catch or a penalty and instant replay, little resembles the game I grew up watching. The NHL eliminated the center line, added a trapezoid behind the goal, and changes from year to year what constitutes a penalty to create more scoring and protect the players from injury. Maybe there would be fewer injuries if they eliminated helmets because the players would show more respect for each other, like they did before helmets were mandatory; but that would slow down the game.
I understand the importance sports hold in our society. It provides a sense of community. During the Great Depression, America found baseball a distraction to its depression. But $31 million a year for playing a kid’s game? Who do you blame: the players for being greedy, or the owners for overspending to keep a player from jumping ship to another team? How about the television stations who overpay the league for broadcast rights? The fans for paying thousands of dollars for season tickets? Is blame even to be found? After all, I likely wouldn’t turn down a $31 million advance for my next novel if Second Wind could afford it. But I wonder if I could, in good conscience, accept that contract knowing that so many others work far harder for much less.
But the real reason for my April rant is this: when colleges and universities look to make budget cuts, it’s always the arts that suffer, never the sports programs. Are sports really more important than the arts? Truly, what is a society without culture?
Novels connect us to the past, both to writers who long ago passed away and to ways of life that are no more. Novels express feelings, ask “why?” or “why not?”, and define values and traditions. They communicate ideas, and some novels do nothing short of change the world. I recently read a Facebook post that put forth the notion: If reading bores you, you’re not doing it right.
Without art, a culture erases its own future history.
More and more Americans today confess to not reading novels, even while they admit to enjoying reading. I don’t know about you, but I find time to do the activities I enjoy.
J. Conrad Guest, author of: 500 Miles To Go, A Retrospect In Death, Backstop: A Baseball Love Story In Nine Innings, January’s Thaw, and One Hot January
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