In exploring the Hoover-Ruth salary story, I indulged myself to compare salaries of other baseball players in light of the annual salary of the President. Given that the POTUS’s salary changed only four times in over 100 years, it was an easy task. Beginning in 1909, Taft became the first President to earn $75,000 per year. Data for baseball salaries in 1909 is sketchy, but SABRE puts Nap Lajoie and Ty Cobb at the top of salary list. Each earned $9,000, a modest sum for future Hall-of-Famers. In fact, the top salaried baseball player did not match the POTUS salary until Ruth did so in 1930.
Baseball salaries slid downward during the Great Depression, while the President’s salary remained static at $75,000. The next bump for the POTUS came in 1949, when Truman’s salary was increased to $100,000 in response to postwar inflation. Sources differ on which major leaguer first earned $100,000 annually. Some point to Hank Greenberg’s 1947 contract with the Detroit Tigers; others point to Joe DiMaggio’s 1949 deal with the Yankees. Neither ‘Hammering Hank’ nor ‘Jolting Joe’ faced reporters’ questions about the relative merits of their salaries compared to the President.
When the Presidential salary was doubled to $200,000 in 1969, it was meant to catch up with inflation. Baseball salaries had lagged behind the POTUS. Even stellar players like Mays, Koufax, Aaron and Mantle earned less than $150,000 annually at the end of the 1960s. This changed when the courts overturned baseball’s reserve clause in 1976. 1977 saw baseball’s first class of free agents, able to negotiate their own terms. Phillies slugger Mike Schmidt was the top earner in 1977, making $560,000.
Even pedestrian players benefited by 1977 free agency, notably Wayne Garland, who signed a ten-year contract for $2.3 million—making him the highest paid pitcher in the league. Performance seemed to matter less at this time. Pitching for the Cleveland Indians, Garland compiled a 28 win, 48 loss record over the next five years before being released in 1982. At no point could Garland argue to Carter or Reagan that he was worth $30,000 per year more than the President because ‘he was having a better year.’
By the time the Presidential salary was increased to $400,000 in 2001, baseball salaries had long since surpassed that figure as a benchmark. Pitcher Nolan Ryan became the first to earn $1 million per year beginning in 1979. Mike Schmidt broke the $2 million barrier in 1985. Bobby Bonilla earned $6 million per year beginning in 1992—not counting deferred salary. Albert Belle made $10 million in 1997. In 2001, Alex Rodriguez signed a ten-year contract that guaranteed him $252 million. This amounted to $25 million per year—or what the POTUS would earn for sixty-two years!
The current salary for the President remains $400,000 per year. By comparison, the current highest annual salary for a big leaguer is Stephen Strasburg’s $35 million. The average salary for a major league player is about $4 million per year in 2019. The minimum annual salary for a major leaguer was set at $400,000 in 2009; by 2019 it had risen to $555,000. Thus the back-up second baseman for the Florida Marlins has been out earning the POTUS since 2010.