Salary caps have always struck me as odd, dare I say un-American. At their best, they seem to help undisciplined owners make fewer mistakes; at their worst they suppress what workers can earn in a very artificial way. One might argue that they help to improve competitive balance, but I’m not so sure. What a team pays in salary is one factor among many that helps them to succeed. And teams that fail tend to find lots of ways to do so.
In our last two elections, we paid homage to William Hulbert and Charlie Comiskey, two of the men integral in the formation of the National and American leagues, respectively. Today we honor a third man, Ban Johnson, who probably deserves even more credit than Comiskey for the existence of the American League.
Why? Other “major” leagues had come and gone, none up until 1901 with any success. That’s when Ban Johnson’s Western League became the major league we know today as the Junior Circuit, the American League. In order to compete, one of the main tactics the AL used was to remove the salary cap. Cy Young, Nap Lajoie, Ed Delahanty, Jesse Burkett, and over 100 more jumped to the AL., and by 1902 the fledgling organization outdrew its NL competition by half a million. And the rest, as they say…
I don’t want to share an entire history lesson here. I’m happy to let Joe Santry and Cindy Thompson at SABR do that. I want to point out what a critical element to baseball’s success salary is. Generally speaking, the talented go where the money is. Again, I say that only generally. And in order for great athletes to choose baseball, there has to be a financial incentive. Michael Haupert’s SABR article on salary progression is fascinating for people who like numbers.
Here are a few of the highlights:
- Ty Cobb may or may not have been the first to $10,000 in 1913.
- If you allow for the manager part of his contract to count, Cobb made it to 25K in 1921.
- One year later, Babe Ruth topped $50,000.
- It took until Joe DiMaggio’s 1949 contract when salaries doubled again to 100K.
- I’m shocked by the first player to reach a quarter of a million – Dick Allen in 1974.
- By 1977 Mike Schmidt was up to half a million.
- And in 1980 Nolan Ryan became baseball’s first $1 million player.
To say that Ban Johnson is responsible for Ryan or what we see today would be ridiculous. Dozens, maybe hundreds, of people have more to do with Peter Bourjos, for example, making $2 million this season than he does, but I don’t think we’d see a game much like today’s without Ban Johnson helping to get the American League off the ground by poaching players from a more financially-constrained NL.
As we get deeper into this project, those we elect will be more and more stage-sharers, people to whom we’ll attribute something, something that is more likely the work of a number of people. We’re not quite there yet. We can say that without Ban Johnson, we wouldn’t have had a competitive major league in the form we had one, when we had one. And who knows what would have happened later.
Overall, we’ve elected nine greats into the Hall of Miller and Eric’s Pioneer/Executive wing. Here they are:
- Branch Rickey
- Kenesaw Mountain Landis
- Marvin Miller
- Henry Chadwick
- Bill James
- Doc Adams
- Charlie Comiskey
- William Hulbert
- Ban Johnson
Number ten is just a week away.