Think contemporary voters are tough on worthy players when they become eligible for Baseball Hall of Fame consideration — whether it be Roberto Alomar, undoubtedly on the short-list of best second basemen ever, having to wait until his second year of eligibility to get his ticket to Cooperstown signed, or Jack Morris, among the very best pitchers of his generation, falling far short of the required percentage of votes in his last year of eligibility? Well, if you think Alomar and Morris were dealt varying degrees of tough breaks, consider Cy Young.
Yes, that Cy Young.
The same one who has an award named after him. The guy who over a 22-year span (1890-1911) won at least 30 games in a season five times and retired with an all-time-best 511 wins, or 106 more wins than the next closest pitcher on the list, Walter Johnson. Young was on the inaugural Hall of Fame ballot in 1936. And he didn’t just come up short of the 75% of votes required for election. He came up waaay short. Of the 226 ballots cast, 170 votes were needed to get in. Young received 111 or 49.6%.
Like Alomar, Young only waited a year for election, but even that wasn’t easy, as he received 153 of a possible 201 votes, getting placed on 76.1% of the ballot. Salaries for the early days of baseball are spotty at best, but of what is known about Young’s compensation, his high-water mark was $4,000, which he earned in both 1904 and 1909. In 2013 terms, that comes out to about $103,926 each season, or $2,309 for each of his 45 wins during those two campaigns. Last season, the Majors’ leader in wins, Max Scherzer of the Detroit Tigers, earned $320,238 for each of his 21 victories. And that’s considered a great value by today’s standards.
Following is a breakdown of arguably the most august group of Major Leaguers: the five charter Hall of Famers. And by today’s standards, geez, were they underpaid!
5. Ty Cobb, Career Earnings: $491,233
Ty Cobb has the distinction of getting elected with the highest percentage of votes in the inaugural class, being named on 222 of the 226 ballots. Cobb’s 98.2% of the vote remained the highest until Tom Seaver was named on 98.84% of the ballots in 1992. (Nolan Ryan and Cal Ripken Jr. — 98.79% in 1999 and .98.53% in 2007, respectively — also have leapfrogged Cobb.)
Over a 24-year career (1905-1928), spent mostly with the Detroit Tigers, the Georgia Peach won twelve batting titles, including nine straight, hit over .300 twenty-three times; produced a .400-plus average three times; and retired with an all-time MLB-best .367 average. His 4,191 hits, 297 of which were triples, was a record that stood until Pete Rose broke it in 1985.
Cobb once said, “I’ve got to be first all the time — in everything.” While he’s not first in everything, he’s at the top or pretty close in a lot of baseball things. Besides batting average (first), batting titles (first), and hits (second), Cobb ranks second all-time in runs scored with 2,245 and third all-time in stolen bases with 892.
In his early 20s, Cobb, who earned $491,233 during his career, or $6,692,173.45 adjusted for inflation, guided the Tigers to the World Series three straight times (his only trips to the Fall Classic), where they lost to the Chicago Cubs in 1907 and 1908 and to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1909.
During those three seasons, Cobb won the first three of his nine straight batting crowns and accumulated 616 hits. For his efforts, he earned a combined $11,400, which, adjusted for inflation, translates into $293,963 today. Today, the minimum salary for a Major Leaguer is $500,000.
4. Babe Ruth, Career Earnings: $1,020,000
For saving baseball following the 1919 Black Sox Scandal, for redefining – or is it for defining? — what it meant to be a power hitter, for being arguably the most famous person in the world, for holding literally hundreds of baseball records at the time of his retirement, Babe Ruth was kept off of 11 ballots.
Over a 23-year career, he helped the Red Sox win two World Series and the Yankees four, metaphorically built a new Yankee Stadium, and hit 714 home runs while driving in 2,220 runs (after, mind you, spending the first five seasons of his career as a pitcher with the Boston Red Sox developing a reputation as the best left-handed pitcher in the game). He was so beloved that he had two nicknames (The Bambino and The Sultan of Swat). For all this, Ruth earned $1,020,000. Today that would be $17,344,243.800. Or, a little more than what the Cincinnati Reds’ Joey Votto made last season when he swatted 24 homers and drove in 73 runners. That is not to say Ruth was not well-paid for his times, however.
When asked how he felt holding out for a higher salary than the President of the United States, Ruth reportedly quipped: “What the hell has Hoover got to do with it? Besides, I had a better year than he did.” When he clubbed 60 home runs in 1927, he earned $70,000, more than the combined salaries of the next five highest paid Yankees. His highest single-season salary was $80,000 for each of the 1933 and 1934 campaigns, which translate into about $1.45 million today. His 1933 pay exceeded the combined compensation of the next five highest paid Yankees, all future Hall of Famers: Lou Gehrig, Bill Dickey, Lefty Gomez, Tony Lazzeri and Earl Combs.
3. Honus Wagner, Career Earnings: $138,500
More famous today for being on the face of the world’s most expensive baseball card — the rare (only 57 are known to exist) T206 Honus Wagner baseball card – than for his exploits on the field, Wagner tied Ruth with 95.1% of the votes. Playing the majority of his 21 seasons (1897-1917) with the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Flying Dutchman is considered by most baseball pundits, the greatest shortstop in baseball history. Bill James goes even further, listing Wagner as the second best player of all-time behind Ruth. Yet, like Ruth, Wagner was found lacking by 11 voters in 1936.
He broke into the game in 1897 with the Louisville Colonels, hitting .344 his rookie year. He would bat .300-plus for the next 17 seasons. Wagner captured eight National League batting titles (tied with Tony Gwynn for most all-time) and led the league in stolen bases five times. He finished with a .327 batting average and 723 steals, the latter of which ranks 10th all-time; and his 252 triples are the third highest tally all-time.
Wagner earned a combined $138,500 — $2,520,667.54 in today’s money. That’s about a half million more than what the Yankees are paying Brendan Ryan, he of the lifetime .237 batting average, this season to be Derek Jeter’s caddy at short.
And what about Wagner’s T206 baseball card? The most recent one went for $2.8 million.
2. Christy Mathewson, Career Earnings: Incomplete
Mathewson is viewed as one of the best pitchers of all-time. Most of the voters agreed in 1936. Mathewson received 205 votes, appearing on 90.7% of the ballot. His 373 wins is the third-best total in history. He spent 16 of his 17 seasons (1900-16) with the New York Giants, winning at least 20 games in twelve straight years, and least 30 four times. In the 1905 World Series, he threw three shutouts in six days against the Philadelphia Athletics.
Mathewson’s 1908 season is, perhaps, the most dominant pitching performance ever. Mathewson led the Majors in wins (37), ERA (1.43), complete games (34), strikeouts (259), and shutouts (12); and the 37 victories is still the high mark in the National League.
Like Young, Mathewson’s salary history is incomplete. What is known, however, is that in 1909, the year following his masterpiece season, Mathewson earned $10,000, the equivalent today of $259,815. That season, he led the league with an .806 (25-6) winning percentage and a 1.14 ERA, the lowest of his career. He also made $10,000 in 1910 when he pitched 27 complete games. He took a pay cut the following three seasons, earning $9,000 for each campaign (1911-1913) during which time he won 78 games. Meaning that over a five-year stretch (1909-13), the Giants paid Mathewson $373 per win, about $8,777 in today’s dollars.
Mathewson died in 1925 and was the only posthumous member of the Class of ’36.
1. Walter Johnson, Career Earnings: $239,250
The Big Train was the final player elected in the Hall of Fame’s inaugural class, receiving 83.6% of the vote. That means 37 voters determined that Johnson and his 417 wins, including a record 110 career shutouts (people will be dancing the tango on Mars before that mark is topped) somehow was lacking for inclusion in the first group of Hall of Famers. Over a 21-year career, Johnson played for one team, the Washington Senators. He earned $239,250 during that span — $4,021,031 in 2013 terms … or $21,031 more than the Mike Pelfrey earned last season going 5-13 for the Minnesota Twins – the descendants of the Senators.
Johnson played for a team that finished under .500 in 10 of 21 seasons, as many times as he won 20. From 1911-1920, Johnson compiled a 265-143 (.650) mark, while Washington’s other hurlers went 490-594 (.452). He paced the American League in ERA five times and finished with a 2.17 ERA, the seventh lowest of all-time. Johnson still ranks near the top in a couple other pitching categories, ranking third all-time in innings (5,923) and fifth all-time in complete games (531).
He led the Senators to their lone World Series win in 1924, pacing the team in every significant pitching category: wins (23), ERA (2.72), complete games (20), shutouts (six), strikeouts (158) and WHIP (1.116). Amazingly, Johnson, who earned $12,000 in 1924, was not the highest paid player on the Senators that season. That honor belonged to second baseman and future Hall of Famer Bucky Harris, who was paid $14,500 for his services and owned a WAR of 1.6 that season compared with Johnson’s 7.4.