The bizness of baseball is, like the game of baseball, much about numbers.

All combined the 30 major league baseball teams in 1999 spent about $1.4 billion on player salaries. Most fans assume that the teams with the highest payrolls are those teams that win the most games. This insight rests on the assumption that better players make more money. Better players means better won-loss ratios. More money sown in April means more wins reaped by October, baseball's harvest time, its post-season.

Of course speaking so generally can lead to confusion. For example, baseball fans and scholars are forever debating about what makes a "better player." Also, the geographical division a team competes in can influence how many wins it needs to play in the post-season. For example, in 1999 the Red Sox who play in the American League East division made it to the post-season with 94 wins, but the Reds, in the National League's Central division with 96 wins did not.

A quick review of the 1999 data shows that the relationship between payroll and final standings bears out the notion that more money means more games won. Appearance in the post-season is related to a team's payroll. In 1999 a team had to be in the top ten of the payroll standings if it wanted to be one of the eight clubs to compete in October. The team that won the 1999 World Series (New York Yankees) had the highest payroll ($91.9 million) and the team they defeated in the series (Atlanta Braves) had the third highest payroll in major league baseball ($79.2 million.)

What are the implications of these numbers? For fans it means that if your team has a high payroll you have a better chance of getting excited in October. Fans of the Minnesota Twins, the Montreal Expos and the Florida Marlins, all teams with payrolls under $16 million, had little to root about after the 1999 All Star break.

The phenomenal payroll figures for major league teams are a result of the rapid increase in player salaries over the last thirty years. In 1969 the average big leaguer made $24,909. The six-figure mark was broken in 1979 when the average salary hit $113,558. The seven-figure average salary of $1,168,263 appeared in 1989. In 1999 the average player salary was about $1.7 million. The Major League Baseball average annual player salary was higher then the average salary for National Football League players (1999 average was $1 million) and National Hockey League players ($1.2 million) but less then the National Basketball Association's average ($2.8 million) .

In 1999 the highest paid position on a baseball team was the designated hitter. DHs averaged $4.0 million a season. Relief pitchers were paid the least with an average salary of $979,763. Ten players in 1999 had average annual salaries of over $12 million dollars. The highest paid player in major league baseball was Los Angeles Dodger starting pitcher Kevin Brown who made $15 million for the season. (The Dodgers with the 4th highest payroll in baseball compiled a very mediocre 77-85 won-lost record and finished 3rd in the National League West, 24 games behind division winner Arizona.)

Again, what are the implications of these numbers? Teams can spend a lot of money for expensive players and not get to the World Series but teams that do not spend a lot of money will almost never get to the World Series. Do these insights relate to other perhaps broader issues we as citizens ought to be mindful of?

In a culture completely dependent on the idea that commerce and gain are praiseworthy values (i.e. "Horatioalgerism") it becomes true and self-evident that the accumulation of money might buy you happiness, but it might not. On the other hand, poverty will almost never make you happy. The poor have few joyous harvest moons. October is mostly for the rich.

Sources and References
  • Salaries by Position: Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA); December 8. 1999
  • Average Baseball Salaries: MLBPA. December 8, 1999.
  • Highest Baseball Salaries: Associated Press compilation. December 8, 1999.
  • Team Payrolls: Office of the Baseball Commissioner. November 9, 1999.

Copyright © 2000 by Lani Canfield Fisher

LANI CANFIELD FISHER teaches art history at the Mason Dixon College of Art in Maryland.

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JCBA Vol. 19
Published: October 15, 2000
Copyright © 2000 by the Cosmic Baseball Association