Then and now

A desperate gambit 50 years ago shows just how much baseball has changed

Getty Images

Fifty years ago, Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale tried one of the boldest maneuvers in baseball history. That year, 1965, Koufax and Drysdale carried the Los Angeles Dodgers to the World Series almost by themselves. Together, they started more than half of the Dodgers’ games and pitched 44 percent of the team’s innings.

In their starts, the Dodgers went 56-17, and Koufax/Drysdale had a combined 2.39 ERA.

In the games they did not start, the Dodgers went 41-48 and the rest of the staff had a 3.14 ERA.

In the World Series, Koufax made three starts and allowed one run, Drysdale (after getting rocked in his Yom Kippur start) pitched a complete game victory. The Dodgers beat the Minnesota Twins in seven games. It wasn’t ALL Koufax and Drysdale, but it was MOSTLY Koufax and Drysdale. The Dodgers were eighth out of 10 teams in the National League in runs scored and dead last in home runs. Jim Lefebvre and Lou Johnson led the team with 12 homers each.

The 1965 Dodgers were one of the most successful teams in baseball history up to that point.  More than 2.6 million people came to Dodger Stadium that year, far and away the highest attendance in baseball, more than double the Yankees’ crowd and more than three times what they drew at Fenway Park. The Dodgers were selling merchandise like crazy, they were hugely popular in Hollywood, their Vin Scully radio ratings were through the roof. And Koufax and Drysdale carried that team.

In other words, Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale seemed to be in positions of some power.

But, THAT was an illusion.

* * *

It’s silly and very old-fogeyish, of course, to compare salaries from era to era. Sure, it’s always a fun conversation starter to mention that Willie Mays never made even half of today’s minimum salary or that Henry Aaron in his entire career made less money than a low first-round draft pick will get in a signing bonus. But without context, such comparisons are nothing more than silly talk. There’s inflation to consider. There’s the enormous impact of television on the game. There are the union wars that changed the system. And so on and so on.

Still, it is interesting, in light of the seven-year, $217 million deal that David Price has reportedly agreed to with the Boston Red Sox, to remember the Koufax-Drysdale holdout only 50 years ago.

The pair decided to go something bold and unprecedented; the requested a combo $1 million deal for three years. That’s not a million apiece, you understand. It was $1 million for the both for them, over three years, which comes down to $166,666.66 per year for each of them.

In 2015 dollars, that’s roughly $1.25 million per pitcher per year. You will note that, for that price, you could not even buy Honus Wagner’s rookie baseball card today.

In the moment, though, the request was absolutely outrageous. No, more — it was scandalous.

“The greed which has become the ruling passion of today’s professional athletes,” wrote a New York sportswriter named Murray Johnson, “never showed its ugliness more unpleasantly than in the holdout maneuvers of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale.”

What part of the Koufax-Drysdale gambit was considered so offensive? Answer: All of it. For one thing, they were each asking for the highest yearly salary in the history of baseball. According to SABR, the highest-paid player in baseball in 1965 (and the highest-paid player in baseball history up to that point) was Willie Mays at $105,000. One of the more remarkable things about baseball before the Marvin Miller revolution was that the top salary simply did not move. Look at the annual salary leaders by decade:

1920s: Babe Ruth at $70,000 (2015 value: $928,000)

1930s: Babe Ruth at $80,000 (2015 value: $1,092,000)

1940s: Joe DiMaggio at $100,000 (2015 value: $974,000)

1950s: Ted Williams at $85,000 (2015 value: $741,000)

Early 1960s: Willie Mays at $105,000 ($790,000)

Look at that, over 45 years, the top end salary didn’t budge. It actually came down during what we love to call the Golden Age of baseball. All of this, you will note, was at a time when baseball was clearly America’s biggest sport. How the heck did the owners get away with it? Obviously, a lot of it had to do with the baseball system, the reserve clause, the long history of players unions losing and so on. Baseball had long before rigged the system.

But it wasn’t JUST the system. If it was just an unfair system, people might have demanded change. But the truth is that the fans did not want change. In fact, the fans did not seem to care at all how much money the baseball owners made (they didn’t really know how much) but they had visceral reactions to how much money players made. This is still somewhat true, though not to the extent it was then.

This is why legendary baseball union leader Marvin Miller was often dismissive of fans’ complaints about the union’s tactics. In his mind, the fans were not allies, and they were not friends. They were often the enemy. Fans (and media) had long been a big reason why players were so mistreated and drastically underpaid. Fans and media booed and heaped scorn on Joe DiMaggio for trying to get a few extra bucks after a stellar season. They shouted “greed” anytime any player looked for more than the team was offering. And they turned angrily on Koufax and Drysdale for trying to change the landscape.

But, in Koufax-Drysdale, it wasn’t just money that offended. The bigger problem, at least as far as the Dodgers were concerned, was that they were asking for three-year, no-cut contracts. That was an absolute non-starter. Three-year deals? Security? Were they insane?

“No way Koufax and Drysdale get more than a one-year contract,” Dodgers GM Buzzie Bavasi promised the Dodgers’ players in a team meeting when they arrived at spring training.

Getty Images

Here’s the thing that is striking about the Koufax-Drysdale gambit — it never had a chance of working, and that is made entirely clear by the amused reaction of the Dodgers’ brass. You might imagine the miserly Walter O’Malley, his face red with rage, shaking his fist and grumping, “You’ll never get another nickel out of me!” But it wasn’t like that. O’Malley and Bavasi were not angry at all. Quite the opposite. They sounded almost sympathetic to the absurdity of baseball players believing that they had the power to command that sort of money or security.

“I do not wish to romance this thing,” owner Walter O’Malley said. “But I must admit the boys had a good idea. To my knowledge, it had never been tried before. And I have always been one to admire initiative.”

“I do not blame Sandy and Don for asking,” Bavasi said. “They rightfully believe that they deserve a lot of money. I also believe they deserve a lot of money. Where we are at an impasse is in the definition of ‘a lot.’”

Yes, the Dodgers yucked it up (“They were not impressed with my offer,” Bavasi said after the first exchange of terms. “But I was”) because they knew just how hopeless the plight of Koufax and Drysdale was. It had nothing to do with their differing definitions of “a lot.” It had everything to do with their differing definitions of the word “power.”

That’s what has changed. David Price is 30 years old, which means by baseball’s clock he is likely already on the career decline. Yet, he just received a seven-year deal for more than $30 million a year. This is because of baseball’s power shift. The Red Sox know that Price is likely to be no better than an average pitcher, and perhaps worse than an average pitcher, as that deal comes to a close. They know that pitchers similar to Price (Johan Santana, CC Sabathia and Jake Peavy to name only three) broke down in their early 30s.

They know but they gave Price the deal anyway, and other clubs lined up to give Price similar deals, because clubs no longer wield all the power. Don’t get me wrong, they still wield A LOT of the power. Baseball owners ain’t starving. The Red Sox will make way more than Price. But now the player has some force, too. Price is a rare commodity — a brilliant left-handed starting pitcher; there are only a handful of such creatures in the world today — and he had freedom to sign wherever. Teams wanted him badly because he can help them win. The marketplace gave him power.

But Drysdale and Koufax had none. Sure, on the surface, as mentioned above, Drysdale and Koufax seemed to have a strong narrative. They seemed to control the baseball fate of the richest team in America’s richest sport. They knew that, if they did not pitch, the Dodgers would drop to fourth or fifth in the standings. That had to be worth something, right?

No. Bavasi and O’Malley knew that didn’t matter in the least. They knew that Drysdale and Koufax were not allowed to go to any other team, so the Dodgers were their only option (Koufax and Drysdale tried to bluff the Dodgers into believing that they were considering going into the movies as actors, but it was a see-through bluff). Bavasi and O’Malley knew the fans and most of the media would be on the Dodgers’ side.

They knew that, as ridiculous as it may sound, they could cry poor and get away with it.

“I don’t blame Koufax and Drysdale for trying to get all they can,” Bavasi said sweetly. “That’s their privilege. At the same time, they have to be realistic. Walter (O’Malley) had to borrow money to pay for the stadium. Do they expect me to go to him and ask him to borrow money to pay for the players’ salaries too?”

Yes, the man actually said publicly that Walter O’Malley, who had made riches beyond imagination moving the Dodgers to Los Angeles and getting 300 acres of prime Los Angeles real estate in the bargain, might have to borrow money just to pay a few thousand extra dollars to Koufax and Drysdale. It is chutzpah of the highest order, but it made no difference. The great baseball money machine was churning, and Bavasi understood that the longer Koufax and Drysdale held out, the tighter the noose would get around their necks.

And sure enough, stories began appearing like the rant of Murray Johnson above calling the pitchers greedy and selfish and bums. Then rumors began floating — wonder where they started — that Koufax and Drysdale had actually asked for a million dollars APIECE, not separate (“Bavasi almost fell out of his chair,” said Yankees owner Dan Topping). Then, the final blow, as the pressure grew to the point where Koufax felt the need to EXPLAIN the players’ motivations publicly. That had no chance to do anything but backfire.

“The ballclub is defending the principle that it doesn’t really have to negotiate with a ballplayer because we have no place to go,” Koufax told the New York Times. “You might say Don and I are fighting for an antiprinciple — that ballplayers aren’t slaves, that we have a right to negotiate.”

Of course, you don’t need me to tell how people read that. They noticed just one word — slaves. And soon after there were outraged stories and gripes about baseball players making 10 times the median family income comparing themselves to slaves.

It was all so predictable then, so utterly predictable. The Dodgers had this thing won before the fight even started, and capitulation came just three days after the Koufax slavery story appeared. Funny thing, in the very first Sporting News story about the holdout, it was speculated that Bavasi offered one-year contracts to Koufax for $125,000 (the highest ever salary) and Drysdale for $105,000 or so.

On March 30, Koufax and Drysdale signed one-year deals for a presumed $120,000 for Koufax and $105,000 for Drysdale. The Dodgers had not come up even a dollar.

This is a reminder of just how influential — and miraculous — the Marvin Miller revolution really was. Players were utterly powerless. And then they weren’t. Along came Miller and with him came Flood and Messersmith and Catfish and Gullett and Reggie.

And you will notice a different trend beginning in 1977:

1977: Mike Schmidt, $560,000 (2015 value: $2.2 million)

1982: Mike Schmidt, $1.5 million (2015: $3.7 million)

1987: Jim Rice, $2.4 million (2015: $5.1 million)

1992: Bobby Bonilla, $6.1 million (2015: $10.3 million)

1997: Albert Belle: $10 million (2015: $14.8 million)

2002: Alex Rodriguez: $22 million (2015: $29.2 million)

2007: Jason Giambi, $27.1 million

2012: Alex Rodriguez, $30 million

David Price, I mentioned in a tweet, will make per start roughly twice what Sandy Koufax made in his entire career. That’s if he stays healthy. Even adjusting for inflation, for each of the next seven years he will get paid roughly 30 times more than Koufax made in 1966.

It really is like the Star Wars story. Those Koufax-Drysdale days were dark times, times of the empire. Marvin Miller and a group of united players brought some balance to the force. Oh the empire is still doing great, still making a lot more money then they’re paying out, no matter how big the numbers get. But at least the players have a chance now.