In the middle of this arbitration season, we should pause to remember one of the stories that made the late Bob Feller one of baseball's true iconoclasts.
Indeed, on this date in 1950, after a below-average season — probably the worst in his career to that point — Feller took a pay cut of about $20,000 from the Cleveland Indians.
And it was his own suggestion, Indians' GM Hank Greenberg said at the time (via the Wilmington Morning Star):
"You can call this 'a very drastic pay cut.' Feller thinks it's drastic, too. But he himself made the suggestion. In fact, he offered to take more than the 25 per cent maximum pay cut allowed.
"There was absolutely nothing to it. We all agreed quickly on the figure after Bob showed up yesterday."
Yes, the Nolan Ryan of his time demanded a pay cut. Don't even bother imagining this happening today. Feller's agent (which was himself, back in '50) would never allow it. Peer pressure wouldn't allow it. The rules of collective bargaining probably wouldn't even allow it. It might not even occur to him. So there's no way that Bronson Arroyo, who had an NL-worst 5.07 ERA in 2011, ever would walk into the office of Cincinnati Reds owner Bob Castellini and hand over $2.4 million, or 20 percent of his $12,000,000 salary. Same goes with A.J. Burnett and the New York Yankees.
Feller, who died in 2010, obviously was from a different time.
Update: Feller wanted a pay cut again in 1953! The Tribe obliged, but only rolled it back to $38,000.
On the downside of his career because of shoulder injuries, the 31-year-old Feller made about $65,000 in 1949, when he went 15-14 with a 3.75 ERA. In 28 starts and 211 innings, he had 108 strikeouts (after leading the league the season before), 84 walks and 198 hits allowed. Two years earlier, his ERA had been 2.68 and he led the league in strikeouts. In a sentence, Feller's reputation was this: He could throw a no-hitter at any time.
The average AL ERA in '49 was 4.20, so Feller still performed better than most, if not dominantly. So going from $65,000 to $45,000 is quite a drop. (In case you're wondering, a $45,000 salary has the buying power of $422,421.16 in today's dollars. Also FYI: The minimum salary in the majors in 2011 was $414,000.)
Feller had no agent, no union and no concept of how much he actually was worth. Only pride. After Feller came to the Indians in a contrite mood, the two sides agreed that Feller would not take attendance bonuses, which had a rider in his contract since 1938. They actually took away his incentives. Even though the Indians continued to draw enormous crowds when Feller pitched, Greenberg made it sound like Feller's pay cut had everything to do with performance:
"You see, over a five-year span, Feller was winning something like 24 games a season and losing very few. In the last two seasons, he averaged about 17 victories and 14 1/2 defeats.
"We couldn't possibly continue paying him that kind of money he has been receiving based on his performance. But if he starts winning the number of games he did in the old days, we'll be delighted to boost him back up again."
Bob Feller did what he did for what he thought were the right reasons, but it's a shame the Indians took advantage of his bruised pride, especially after they appeared to abuse his arm when he was in his 20s. And, as was the case with every other baseball player of the time, they never paid him what he was worth — even when he was the best in the league. Even when he was the highest-paid player in the league.
But, as the contracts of Arroyo, Burnett and others of today show, the next time we have a system that is truly fair to both sides, it will be the first time. Bob Feller should have been a little greedier back in '50. Today's players should demand more of themselves. They should be be a little more like Bob Feller.
Big BLS H/N: @LanceMcAlister via @luckiexstar
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