In 1965, Willie Mays was the highest paid player in baseball, with a salary of $105,000. One dollar in 1965 would be worth about $8.50 today, if we make an inflation adjustment based on the Consumer Price Index. So that would make his salary worth about $900,000 today.
The top ten players in 2021 each were paid in excess of $30 million. None of them is having a season that even approaches that of Mays, who in 1965 batted .317 with 52 home runs and 112 runs batted in.
I’ll come back to the salary issue. First, I want to discuss race.
In 1965, veteran black players had vivid memories of going to spring training and having to sleep in separate hotels, because Florida hotels would not allow black guests. This discrimination was legally banned in 1964, but several teams had decided a few years before that it was unacceptable. The St. Louis Cardinals, with outspoken black stars Curt Flood, Bob Gibson, and Bill White, and several sympathetic executives, took a strong stand against segregation in 1961, and they ultimately succeeded.
Also in 1965, in a sense only the National League was integrated. Only one American League team, the Minnesota Twins, had more than one black contributor. The Twins’ black cadre included catcher Earl Battey, shortstop Zoilo Versalles, right fielder Tony Oliva, and pitcher Jim “Mudcat” Grant. Not coincidentally, that team waltzed to a pennant.
The National League had black players who could steal bases (Maury Wills, Lou Brock, Jim Wynn, and Tommy Harper), hit for power (Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Billy Williams, Dick Allen, Frank Robinson), play outstanding defense while batting over .300 (Roberto Clemente, Curt Flood), or do all of those things (Hank Aaron, Vada Pinson). Black pitchers Bob Veale, Bob Gibson, and Juan Marichal were 2nd, 3rd, and 6th in the NL in strikeouts and each finished among the top ten in wins, with 17, 20, and 22 victories, respectively.
But even in the National League, there was still one clear sign of bias. While black players were well represented at the highest levels of performance, teams filled out their rosters with mediocre players who were overwhelmingly white.
The San Francisco Giants, who would finish in second place every year from 1965 through 1968, epitomized this pattern. Their black corps of Mays, McCovey, and Marichal all would enter the Hall of Fame. Mays had a career batting average of .301 with 660 career home runs. McCovey had a career batting average of .270 with 521 career home runs.
But regulars for the 1965 Giants also included fringe-caliber players who enjoyed long careers: second baseman Hal Lanier (white, career batting average .228, with 8 career home runs in 10 seasons); and shortstop Dick Schofield (white, career batting average .227 with 21 career home runs in 19 seasons—19!). No comparable black player would have been kept in the major leagues for more than a season or two in the 1960s.
Another possible indicator of bias is that the two worst trades of the era involved giving up a black player. The Chicago Cubs gave away Lou Brock to the Cardinals, where he proceeded to have a Hall of Fame career. And the Cincinnati Reds traded Frank Robinson to the Baltimore Orioles, where he proceeded to win the Triple Crown (leading the league in average, home runs, and runs batted in) and turn a mediocre team into champions. The Cubs and Reds failed to recognize the drive, determination and dedication of Brock and Robinson.
Baseball players were paid so little in the 1960s that most of them worked ordinary jobs during the off-season. Some of them were able to parlay their fame as ballplayers into joint ventures with local businesses or compensation for product endorsements. This was yet another area in which black ballplayers usually did not have the same opportunities as whites. Blacks also were kept out of managerial and executive positions for a long time.
Why are salaries so high today?
Ballplayer salaries today are much higher than in 1965 for two reasons. One is that baseball revenue has increased. The other is the players are no longer held captive by owners.
Revenue has increased because baseball executives have become much shrewder about finding revenue sources. They have taken advantage of media proliferation, earning large licensing fees. And they have discovered price discrimination at the ballpark, meaning that they charge more for customers who are willing and able to pay more. Where the most expensive seat at a ball game in 1965 might have been about $3.50 (about $30 in today’s terms), today the most expensive “luxury box” seat might cost close to $1000. A blue collar worker could have paid for a box seat in 1965 with about two hours’ wages. Today, the best seat would cost that blue collar worker close to one month’s wages.
In fact, blue-collar workers are generally priced out the ballpark altogether. They support their teams mostly from a distance, watching on television.
Players get a higher share of this revenue because baseball’s “reserve clause” was eliminated in 1975. That clause gave a team owner complete control over a player. The player could not entertain an offer from a different team. And if the player was traded to another team, he had no choice but to accept the trade if he wanted to continue to play major league baseball.
In 1969, Cardinal outfielder Curt Flood tried to challenge the reserve clause, refusing to accept a trade to Philadelphia. He argued that the reserve clause was a form of slavery. He lost in court, but six years later Andy Messersmith won an arbitration case, ending the reserve clause.
If you want to delve more into the history of baseball around 1965, you can find some of the best books ever written about baseball describing that period. Jim Brosnan, a relief pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds in the early 1960s, penned The Long Season . It broke the mold by portraying ballplayers as ordinary human beings, capable of displaying boredom, jealousy, and sarcasm. Brosnan brought ballplayers down from the firmament and back to earth. Years later, Yankee pitcher Jim Bouton wrote Ball Four, which diminished the image of baseball players even further . Long afterward, David Halberstam wrote 1964, focusing on the way that the Cardinals resolved racial tensions and defeated a fading Yankee dynasty. In 1964 itself, Earnshaw Cook published Percentage Baseball, which received extensive coverage in Sports Illustrated. Cook offered a rigorous mathematical analysis of baseball strategy, decades before Bill James or Billy Beane. The trail that leads to Michael Lewis’ Moneyball starts with Percentage Baseball.