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Joe DiMaggio: The $100,000 risk

Joe DiMaggio was one of the best and most popular players of his era. So why was his record contract such a risky move?

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Tomorrow marks the 67th anniversary of Joe DiMaggio becoming the first baseball player to earn a contract worth $100,000 dollars. While the question "What took so long?" may pop into your head (he received that contract in 1949 as a 34-year-old, after all), the decision to give him that contract may not have been so obvious. Let me explain.

As was almost custom, in the offseason prior to the 1949 season DiMaggio was one of the last Yankees to agree to a contract for the upcoming year. His battles with the Yankees' front office were infamous, and he often held out for bigger contracts. For example, during his famous 1941 season, the then 26-year-old centerfielder earned just $37,500-- paltry by today's standards, but still one of the largest salaries in the game at that time. He was constantly in offseason battles with Yankee ownership, from Jacob Ruppert (who owned the team until 1939) to Dan Topping and Del Webb.

DiMaggio's salaries in the two years after coming back from serving in World War II were exactly the same ($43,750) before he saw a big increase for the 1948 season, when he earned $65,000. During the '48 season, DiMaggio led the league in home runs (39), runs batted in (155), and total bases (355), while slashing .320/.396/.598. He surely was in a position to ask for yet another raise since even at 33, he still appeared to be one of the best players in the game.

However, problems were making themselves evident. Shortly after the 1948 season, DiMaggio underwent surgery on his right heel to have a bone spur removed. He had injured it during the previous season, and he had also had surgery to remove a bone spur in his left heel that caused him to miss the first two weeks of the 1947 season. So as good as DiMaggio still was, there were signs that his body might be beginning to break down.

Yankee owners Topping and Webb surely knew about the surgery on his right heel that offseason, and could have used that as a bargaining tool. Also, because free agency didn't exist in baseball yet, there was no chance of losing DiMaggio to another team in a bidding war, which would have driven his price up. Yet, they still caved and gave DiMaggio the six-figure contract he had long been after following so many years of holding back. So why the sudden risk?

In a New York Times article on February 8, 1949, writer John Drebinger hinted at a possible reason for the record contract:

"Because of his magnificent comeback last year [for his standards, DiMaggio had two good, but not the typical DiMaggio-esque, years in 1946-47 as he worked his way back from missing three seasons due to the war], plus the fact that he always felt the Yanks had treated him rather shabbily in pre-war years, it is generally felt the Clipper this time drove a sharp bargain.

Before leaving for Mexico, DiMaggio said that he had recovered completely from the operation performed on his right heel last November and that, barring mishaps, he expected to enjoy a good season."

The key words in that above quote are "drove a sharp bargain." DiMaggio knew his importance to the Yankees, not only on the field, but off. While DiMaggio was away at war from 1943-45, the Yankees attendance dropped significantly. Early on in the war, the Yankees and every team in baseball saw decreases in attendance. Because they were the Yankees and had DiMaggio, the team still drew close to one million fans in 1941 (946,000) and 1942 (922,000). However, just take a look at the three years DiMaggio wasn't there (keep in mind, the Yankees won the World Series in 1943):

Now take a look at the attendance after DiMaggio returned:

Surely there was a DiMaggio effect, and this effect had to have been known by the aforementioned Yankee owners. They knew what would happen financially had DiMaggio held out for a long period of time. He had proven that he was willing to wait--in 1938, he held out all the way to the first series of the season, and came back for less than what he had wanted only because the Yankees lost two of three to the Red Sox in Boston. In '38, he was only 23-years-old and had just two big league seasons under his belt (plus Lou Gehrig was still the biggest name on the team). What would have stopped DiMaggio from holding out as long as he pleased until he got exactly what he wanted as the most popular player in the game in 1949?

Ultimately, it may have been riskier to have DiMaggio hold out than to give him the first ever $100,000 contract, which might explain the decision to finally give it to him. Unfortunately for DiMaggio, his first year as the $100,000 man did not go so well, and it almost came back to bite the Yankees. While he hit .346/.459/.596, he did so in only 76 games because his right heel acted up during spring training and he could barely run. In fact, the injury was so bad that there was a question of whether DiMaggio would be forced to retire. He eventually worked his way back to make his debut in 1949 on June 28 (having missed 65 games). Even then, he would miss 13 additional games over the remainder of the season due to the heel. He would continue to have problems with that heel over the last two seasons of his great career.

Ironically, DiMaggio's three most injury-riddled seasons were also his three highest paid seasons, as he received contracts of $100,000 in 1950 and $90,000 in 1951. His importance to the Yankees' attendance numbers was never more obvious than the fact that he was offered another $100,000 contract for the 1952 season, despite the worst season of his career the year prior. That was the power of the DiMaggio draw, which may have meant that the risk of making him the highest paid player ever wasn't that much of a risk at all given how much money his mere presence made the team.

To his credit, the ever-humble DiMaggio declined the offer and retired, telling reporters (in a quote tinged with melancholy and familiar to those of us who witnessed the retirements of the most recent versions of Yankee legends): "I no longer have it."