- The Washington Times - Monday, February 5, 2007

The owners of the New York Yankees, Del Webb and Dan Topping, wanted to make superstar center fielder Joe DiMaggio the highest-paid player in baseball. Cleveland Indians ace Bob Feller was earning $85,000 a season, so on a visit to Gotham’s most famous sports watering hole, Webb and Topping told the restaurant’s owner, Toots Shor, they planned to give the 34-year-old Yankee Clipper $90,000.

“Hey, you bums!” roared Toots, one of DiMaggio’s few close friends. “Don’t be cheapskates! Give him six figures — it would be historic.”

Webb and Topping nodded, and so it was done. The next day, smiling broadly, DiMaggio signed a contract that made him the first $100,000 ballplayer.

The date was Feb. 7, 1949, 58 years ago this week. These days, when Alex Rodriguez gets more than $25 million a season, it is easy to snicker at DiMaggio’s windfall — but first a bit of financial perspective if you please.

In 1949, at the heart of the postwar boom in and out of baseball, the average major leaguer’s salary was $15,000, the minimum was $5,500 and the average U.S. worker earned $2,844, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures. The average new house cost $7,450, a gallon of gas went for 17 cents and the minimum U.S. hourly salary was 70 cents.

And, yes, this was all in 1949 — not 1849 or 1899, as you might suspect from today’s vantage point.

There were no big network TV windfalls back then and no player agents or free agency. Ballplayers pretty much signed contracts for whatever management deemed appropriate, or they would be gone in favor of younger, cheaper chattels.

Was this fair? Of course not, but that’s the way it was. Ballclubs paid their bills with gate receipts and by selling radio rights, and it helped if the owners were rich. That’s why shoestring operators like Clark Griffith in Washington and Connie Mack in Philadelphia seldom competed successfully with well-heeled rivals like the Yankees and Boston Red Sox. A pennant for the Senators or Athletics? Forget it — neither had won since the early 1930s.

As the Yankees and new manager Casey Stengel began an unprecedented run of five straight World Series championships in 1949, DiMaggio was one of four major leaguers whose names were known from coast to coast (although the major leagues existed nowhere west of St. Louis). Feller was the game’s premier pitcher; Ted Williams of the Red Sox and Stan Musial of the St. Louis Cardinals were its dominant hitters along with DiMaggio.

All four men had lost time to military service in World War II, thus reducing their lifetime statistics from what would have been sensational to merely superb. Joltin’ Joe became the first to retire after the 1951 season. Feller lasted until 1956, Williams until 1960 and Musial until 1963.

Stan the Man was about the same age as President John F. Kennedy, and during the 1960 campaign the 42-year-old JFK supposedly told him, “They say you’re too old to play ball and I’m too young to be president, but we’ll show ‘em.”

When the Yankees signed DiMaggio for $100,000, however, they were shelling out for damaged goods. Joe had been bothered by a painful bone spur on his right heel throughout the 1948 season, though you wouldn’t have known it from his .320 batting average, 39 home runs and 155 RBI. Surgery on his heel at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital in November failed to correct the problem.

DiMaggio reported for spring training as scheduled March 1, but the pain was so intense he lasted only one day before checking back into Hopkins. The doctors said further surgery would not help, so he toughed it out on the exhibition trail until April 9, when he left the team again and the newspaper headlines screamed, DIMAG TO MISS OPENER.

As it turned out, he missed a lot more than that — the season’s first 76 games. But on a morning in late June, as DiMaggio later put it, “I put my foot on the hotel room floor, and there was no pain.” He played in an exhibition game against the New York Giants, then flew to Boston to join his teammates for a series against the archrival Red Sox and promptly authored one of baseball’s more dramatic comebacks.

In the first game, he singled and hit a two-run homer in a 5-4 victory. The next day, he drove in five runs with a pair of homers as the Yankees overcame a 7-1 deficit to win 9-7. The day after that, he slugged a three-run homer to help his team complete the series sweep 6-3.

During the last game, a plane flew over Fenway Park trailing a banner that read “The Great DiMaggio.” Not many people disagreed.

DiMaggio finished the season batting .346 with 14 home runs and 67 RBI in 76 games, but then the slide started. He batted .301 in 1950 and .263 in 1951, earning $100,000 both years before hanging up his spikes because “I can’t play like Joe DiMaggio anymore.”

Very few others could either. The proud and dignified DiMaggio then began a long stretch as baseball’s “greatest living ex-player.” Before his death in 1999, he saw journeyman players earning more for a game than he did for that 1949 season, but Joe never complained. That wasn’t his style — and Joe DiMaggio was all about style and class.

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