It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that baseball players are an inflationary commodity (click here for a yearly progression of highest paid players), but for those who need proof, baseball-reference.com has significantly bolstered its salary database with the addition of information from Dr. Michael Haupert of UW-LaCrosse. Dr. Haupert obtained his data by searching the contract archives at the Hall of Fame, coming away with salary figures for over 7,000 players from 1915 to 1969.
Baseball salaries have grown exponentially since the beginning of the free agent era, first rising quickly from artificially depressed levels and then continuing upward to keep pace with expanding industry revenue. Because of the different dynamics involved throughout the years, salary comparisons are sketchy at best. They are, however, interesting. And, although Haupert’s information is by no means complete, nor infallibly accurate, having a more extensive collection of salary figures makes the comparisons more meaningful. Listed below are the top-15 hitters and pitchers in baseball history, ranked by bWAR (so, more of a quantitative than qualitative list in some cases), alongside their career salary figures, both in nominal terms and adjusted for inflation, along with a few observations about the data contained therein.
Career Earnings of Top-15 Hitters
|Babe Ruth||159.2||10620||$ 1,020,000||$ 15,424,274|
|Barry Bonds||158.1||12606||$ 188,245,322||$ 248,364,453|
|Willie Mays||150.8||12496||$ 1,945,000||$ 13,412,460|
|Ty Cobb||144.9||13078||$ 491,233||$ 7,767,983|
|Hank Aaron||137.3||13941||$ 2,118,500||$ 12,365,225|
|Tris Speaker||127.8||11991||$ 322,000||$ 4,945,683|
|Rogers Hornsby||124.6||9481||$ 470,032||$ 6,935,017|
|Stan Musial||123.4||12717||$ 980,050||$ 8,561,062|
|Ted Williams||119.8||9788||$ 1,092,000||$ 10,252,919|
|Eddie Collins||118.5||12040||$ 259,200||$ 3,939,703|
|Alex Rodriguez||111.4||11163||$ 325,416,252||$ 373,633,320|
|Honus Wagner||110||9640||$ 138,500||$ 3,364,231|
|Lou Gehrig||108.5||9663||$ 416,400||$ 6,617,314|
|Rickey Henderson||106.8||13346||$ 44,525,000||$ 74,951,099|
|Mickey Mantle||105.5||9907||$ 1,128,000||$ 8,591,911|
*Salary adjusted for inflation based on CPI.
Notes on missing data: Speaker: Excludes 1907-1912, 1921; Hornsby: Excludes 1924; Collins: Excludes: 1906, 1908-1912, 1914
Not surprisingly, in any discussion about money and baseball, Alex Rodriguez’ name is featured prominently. Arod’s total earnings of $325 million to date easily top all major league players. In fact, his career total, excluding the approximately $114 million guaranteed to him over the next five seasons, is more than the combined earnings of the other 14 names on the list, which wouldn’t be remarkable if not for the presence of Barry Bonds. Even on an adjusted basis, Arod will end his career out earning the rest of the top-15, at least until Albert Pujols joins the group.
During his era, Babe Ruth was the undisputed king of many things, including salary. In his 22-year career, the Sultan of Swat took home approximately $1 million dollars, which in current terms would amount to about $15 million. In today’s free agent market, that would only get you one year of B.J. Upton, but the Babe wasn’t exactly a starving artist. In fact, because of the significant deflation that occurred during the Depression, Ruth’s lofty salaries allowed the slugger to live even more extravagantly while the rest of the country struggled. For example, the Bambino’s $70,000 salary in 1932 had the buying power of $90,000 just five years prior. That still doesn’t balance the scales against the boatloads of money paid to modern players, but it is something to keep in mind when considering salaries earned during the 1930s.
Career Earnings of Top-15 Pitchers
|Walter Johnson||144.7||5914.1||$ 239,250||$ 4,003,259|
|Roger Clemens||133.1||4916.2||$ 150,601,000||$ 203,851,896|
|Pete Alexander||112.8||5190||$ 95,000||$ 1,578,468|
|Lefty Grove||103.7||3940.2||$ 250,500||$ 4,024,703|
|Tom Seaver||101.1||4783||$ 5,912,914||$ 17,157,826|
|Greg Maddux||99.4||5008.1||$ 153,845,000||$ 205,270,655|
|Randy Johnson||98.6||4135.1||$ 175,550,019||$ 223,731,066|
|Phil Niekro||91.7||5404||$ 5,970,600||$ 14,582,364|
|Christy Mathewson||91.5||4755||$ 57,000||$ 1,426,215|
|Bert Blyleven||90.7||4970||$ 13,243,000||$ 27,981,485|
|Gaylord Perry||87.5||5350||$ 1,771,000||$ 7,263,491|
|Warren Spahn||86||5243.2||$ 253,500||$ 1,997,615|
|Pedro Martinez||82.6||2827.1||$ 146,259,585||$ 183,228,432|
|Eddie Plank||82||4495.2||$ 6,000||$ 143,949|
|Steve Carlton||78.6||5217.2||$ 6,947,000||$ 18,377,830|
*Salary adjusted for inflation based on CPI.
Notes on missing data: Alexander: Excludes 1913, 1919-1924, 1926; Seaver: Excludes 1978 and 1984; Niekro: Excludes 1964-1979; Matthewson: Excludes 1900, 1904-1908, 1914-1916; Blyleven Excludes 1970-1972, 1976, 1978; Perry Excludes: 1977-1978, 1983; Spahn Excludes: 1946-1956, 1960-1964; Plank Excludes: 1902-1913, 1915-1917; Carlton Excludes: 1978-1980, 1987
Historical salary data for pitchers is much scarcer, so a comparison of the top-15 hurlers has meaningful gaps. At the top of the list, Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez all rank among the highest paid at the position, and, considering their performances, it’s hard to argue they weren’t worth every penny. Still, one wonders what these all-time greats would command in the current market, especially in light of the new $147 million contract signed by Zack Greinke, whose career ERA+ is only 114.
Although the limited data hinders the comparison, figures compiled for some of the all-time great pitchers pale next to the amounts paid to hitters. For example, Walter Johnson, who many rank as the greatest pitcher of all time, earned just a fraction of Ty Cobb’s total earnings. Although hitters have historically been paid more than their counterparts on the mound, that gap seems to be lessening, at least at the very top, even though the modern pitcher contributes less on an innings pitched basis. No wonder Ruth decided to abandon pitching for the batter’s box. As Ralph Kiner once famously said, “Cadillacs are down at the end of the bat.”