Sunday, December 2, 2018

"A laborer is worthy of his hire"

In today's game, salary negotiations can sometimes be a mind boggling mixture of players, agents, general managers and club owners arguing about amounts of money that seem almost incomprehensible.  A hundred years ago, when Charles Ebbets was a baseball owner, things were very different.  Players didn't have the combined advantages of free agency and agents while owners couldn't delegate the negotiations to skilled baseball executives working within a given budget.  And while the amounts of money may seem absurdly low to us today, they were to the average person as unimaginable as they sometimes seem today.  The last few chapters of my just published Ebbets biography devote a considerable amount of space to the Brooklyn magnate's handling of salary negotiations with three Hall of Fame players - Zach Wheat, Burleigh Grimes and Dazzy Vance.  In this post, however, I want to give a sense of the negotiating process by looking at Ebbets' dealing with another future Hall of Famer (although not due to his playing prowess), one Charles "Casey" Stengel.

Casey Stengel during the Dodgers 1916 pennant winning season, posing near the famous right field fence

Although Stengel wasn't as talented as the other three players, he took a back seat to no one when it came to salary negotiations.  As noted, players didn't have much of a bargaining position a century or more ago.  The hated reserve clause limited their choice to playing for their current team or not playing at all.  Trained to play baseball, players were often at an unfair disadvantage negotiating with owners who were more experienced at the process.  There were, however, a few brief periods when baseball trade wars, caused by new upstart leagues seeking major league status, not also gave players another option, but also a source of leverage with their current team..  Such was the case not long after Stengel joined the Dodgers in late 1912 when the Federal League burst on the scene tempting players and threatening existing owners especially Charles Ebbets who had just finished building an expensive new ballpark.  Fortunately, the Brooklyn owner had plenty of experience dealing with such threats and he knew the best, perhaps only strategy was to aggressively sign his own players even if it was at the expense of higher salaries and long term contracts.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle - January 20, 1917

While Stengel may have been new to the major leagues, he knew how to take full advantage of this situation negotiating a salary that by 1916 had reached $5,300.  Looking at historical salary data for players of the Deadball Era compiled by Mike Haupert, a professor at University of Wisconsin, LaCrosse, Casey clearly did very well for himself.  During the Dodgers 1916 pennant winning season, Stengel received the same salary as Zach Wheat, who was without question a much better player and was also in the same range as Gavvy Cravath, Art Fletcher and George Burns all of whom had better career numbers.  By the end of the 1916 season, however, the baseball landscape had changed considerably.  The Federal League was dead and buried, removing that option for players and priming owners to try to cut salaries that had reached unprecedented levels.  Unfortunately, for Charles Ebbets, the timing couldn't have been worse for 1917 salary negotiations since he was in the position of trying to impose pay reductions on players who had just won the National League pennant.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle - February 3, 1917

On the surface, Ebbets' position may seem more than a little unreasonable, but the 1916 Dodgers were built to win that year and there was little likelihood they would  continue to draw big crowds again in 1917.  According to Ebbets, a team that finished fourth or lower would lose money if its payroll exceeded $80,000, not a good situation when Ebbets claimed the Dodgers pay list was at $125,000 including bonuses.  Ebbets self appointed goal was to reduce the Brooklyn payroll to about $90,000 and perhaps understandably, he felt Stengel was an obvious candidate for a $2,000 pay cut.  Equally understandably Stengel didn't agree and voiced his displeasure publicly at the proposed reduction arguing that a pennant winning season should be rewarded with a "nice little increase."  Declining to deal through the media, Ebbets boarded a train for Kansas City where he met with his unhappy player.  In addition to what other arguments he used, Ebbets reminded Stengel that he had been paid his full 1915 salary even though he missed a good portion of the season due to illness - something Ebbets had no contractual obligation to do so.  Stengel, claimed Ebbets, left the meeting "somewhat chastened," but chastened or not the Dodger right fielder was absent when Brookyn began spring training.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle - March 1, 1917

The deadlock was resolved in a way unimaginable today after Abe Yager of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, sent a telegram to Stengel on behalf of the sportswriters saying they wanted him at spring training and asked him to come to camp even without a contract.  Stengel quickly agreed and while Ebbets wasn't happy with third parties getting involved in the negotiations, he met with his discontented player and they reached an agreement at a $3,000 salary with a $400 bonus if Stengel hit over .300, a bonus the Brooklyn owner didn't have to pay.  After the 1917 season, Ebbets, who was no fool when it came to judging talent, decided Stengel wasn't worth a repeat salary squabble and included him a trade to Pittsburgh in return for, among others, Burleigh Grimes.  Grimes would become an ace pitcher for Brooklyn as well as a royal pain in Ebbets' neck at salary time, but he was at least a player worth the effort.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle - March 18, 1917

While cutting a player's salary after the team won the pennant may seem to be an example of Ebbets cheapness, a charge he was tarred with somewhat unfairly throughout his career, he had every right to negotiate the new salary on the current market conditions, as unfair as they may have been to players.  Indeed at some level it was his responsibility to do so since an unprofitable Brooklyn club would never be competitive.  It's estimated that the 1916 regular season generated an operating profit of just over $73,000, but that was on attendance of about 448,000 and there was no reason to believe future crowds would be anywhere near that large.  Not only was Brooklyn unlikely to be as good on the field, the threat of World War I became a reality in April of 1917, dropping attendance to 221,619 that season and then an almost unimaginable 83,830 in the shortened 1918 campaign.  Even with whatever salary reductions Ebbets was able to negotiate, it was a financial blood bath that again put the Brooklyn club at the brink of ruin.  Fortunately, the end of the war and the advent of Sunday baseball in 1919, finally put the Brooklyn club on a sound financial footing.

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