Professional sports is a big business, and when it comes to revenue baseball is no Punch and Judy hitter. Major League Baseball notched up $10.7 billion in revenue in 2019, up from $10.3 billion in 2018, according to Forbes magazine.
These numbers likely took a hit in 2020, owing to a 60-game abbreviated season as result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, baseball remains a lucrative profession, where in addition to salaries top athletes enjoy corporate sponsorship deals, sell their own lines of sports apparel, and grace the covers of video games.
This wasn't always the case. Big league players earned bush league salaries until about 1975. That was when the "reserve clause" system—which tied players to their teams and hampered their ability to negotiate—was scrapped. The introduction of free agency led to an immediate spike in average player salaries, rising from $51,500 in 1976 to about $76,000 just a year later. Under players' current collective bargaining agreement, athletes earned a minimum of $555,000 in 2019, up from $16,000 in the 1975 season.
Television also changed the business of baseball. The first game was televised on an experimental basis in 1939. In 1946, the New York Yankees became the first team to sell broadcasting rights. In the 37-year period from 1964 to 2001, MLB grew television revenue more than ten-fold, from $123 million to $1.3 billion (in 2002 inflation-adjusted dollars).
Below we look at how some of the most-beloved players would have stacked up if their salaries were updated to October 2020 dollars. We use the CPI Inflation Calculator provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
This left fielder played for the Boston Red Sox from 1939–1942 and 1946–1960. During 7,706 career at bats, he racked up 2,654 hits, 1,839 RBIs and 521 home runs. Following his career as a player, Williams went on to manage the Washington Senators and the Texas Rangers.
1959 salary: $125,000
2020 adjusted salary: $1.1 million
Hammerin' Hank Aaron was a 25-time All-Star who played for the Milwaukee Braves from 1954–1965, the Atlanta Braves from 1966–1974, and the Milwaukee Brewers from 1975–1976. In 1973, Aaron set a new record for home runs, surpassing the 714-mark set by Babe Ruth. He finished his MLB career with 755 home runs and a .305 lifetime batting average. His record of 2,297 career RBIs remains standing.
1976 salary: $240,000
2020 adjusted salary: $1.08 million
This center fielder played for the Birmingham Black Barons from 1948–1950, the New York Giants from 1951–1957, the San Francisco Giants from 1958–1972, and the New York Mets from 1972–1973. Considered to be the greatest all-around player of any era, Mays was a 24-time All-Star who finished his career with 660 home runs, 3,283 hits, 1,903 RBIs and a .302 lifetime batting average.
1972 salary: $165,000
2020 adjusted salary: $1.02 million
This center fielder and second husband to actress Marilyn Monroe played for the New York Yankees from 1936–1942 and 1946–1951. Notable feats include a 56-game hitting streak in 1941. Ted Williams described DiMaggio as the best all-around player he'd ever seen, while Mickey Mantle said he was one of best players of the century. His career stats include 361 home runs, a .325 lifetime batting average, 2,214 hits and 1,537 RBIs.
1949 salary: $100,000
2020 adjusted salary: $1.1 million
This center fielder played for the New York Yankees from 1951–1968. Plagued by a knee injury suffered early in his career, Mantle still managed to become one of the league's best players. He was a 18-time All-Star who scored 536 home runs, a .298 lifetime batting average, 2,415 hits and 1,509 RBIs.
1963 salary: $100,000
2020 adjusted salary: $845,000
Known as the Bambino and the Sultan of Swat, Babe Ruth is a baseball icon and the league's first celebrity homerun hitter. He played for the Boston Red Sox from 1914–1919, the New York Yankees from 1920–1934 and the Boston Braves in 1935. He had 8,339 career at bats and scored 714 home runs—setting an all-time record that would stand until 1973. He finished his career with a .342 lifetime batting average, 2,873 hits and 2,214 RBIs.
1930 salary: $80,000
2020 adjusted salary: $1.2 million
Adjusted for inflation, the salaries of these baseball legends pale in comparison to today's top players. As of 2019, the highest paid athletes in the MLB were:
- Stephen Strasburg – $38.3 million
- Max Scherzer – $37.4 million
- Zack Greinke – $34.5 million
- Mike Trout – $34.1 million
- David Price – $31 million
Yet it's no surprise that compensation structures have evolved as baseball has grown into a multi-billion dollar business. A business model that started with sales of tickets, peanuts and crackerjacks at the start of the 20th century now includes broadcasting rights, licensing and sponsorship agreements, and revenue sharing. This has rightfully benefited players, the stars of America's favorite pastime.
For more, see Major League Baseball's Business Model and Strategy.