Los Angeles — Back in 1938, according to a book about child movie stars, Shirley Temple ($ 307,000 a year) was touted by her studio as the seventh-largest wage earner in the United States. Today that salary might not even make a major league baseball player the seventh-highest-paid on his own team.
What's worse is that the end of inflated salaries in professional sports is nowhere in sight. I mean, I definitely have a problem relating to pro athletes who drive Rolls-Royces; fly their own planes; wear custom-made clothes; have an agent; and own pieces of established companies, just like Mr. Rockefeller.
The biggest laugh is when pro athletes tell you that, because of careers that are often over after only five or six years, they have to get the big money while they can. Well, just about now I'd be willing to settle for one year at $ 500,000, then drop back to my regular salary.
The lucrative contracts that major league baseball and other pro sports periodically sign with television networks which allow them to air their games are a tremendous financial boost to club owners. But ultimately it's the fan who pays, via increased prices for consumer goods, or tickets, or both.
The problem with the $1 million guaranteed salary is that it encourages the pro athlete to take the money and run.
Consider baseball, for example. One has to wonder if a player getting that kind of money really cares whether he appears in a World Series or not. What's another $40,000 payoff, especially if Uncle Sam is going to take most of it anyway?
Since pro owners have already given more than a generation of athletes the super contract, including deferred payments that often extend years into the future, there is no turning back. You might as well try to catch Niagara Falls in a spoon.
But there is an answer for everything, and I would like to offer a solution to the salary problem in professional sports, which would eventually drive ticket prices so high that only the rich can afford them.
Continue to pay the players their millions, but make it contingent on what their teams do and, based on statistics, on what they do as individuals.
Let's say a pro athlete, getting $10,000 a game under present conditions, is put into a position where he receives only $5,000 a game if his team loses, a formula easily applicable to baseball, football, hockey, and basketball.
With everybody on the same team forced to operate this way regardless of salary, you have now created the ultimate in motivation. Players would begin to police themselves. Guys would make sure that their teammates stayed in shape, got to bed at a reasonable hour, worked on their weaknesses, and hustled like Pete Rose.
Instead of so many baseball teams just going through the motions in August, or a pro basketball team with no chance of making the playoffs dogging it down the stretch, every game would mean something.
To reward individual achievement, bonuses could be paid to players on weak teams who won batting championships or scoring titles or graded out well as offensive linemen, defensive backs, or hockey goalies.
Naturally there would be some problems. Since expansion franchises in all pro sports are given little in the way of high-quality personnel to work with their first year, a different salary structure would have to be agreed upon for a certain period of time.
Basically what my plan would do for the fan is this: (1) guarantee him real effort by the athlete he is paying to see; and (2) help keep ticket prices down by cutting a lot of huge salaries in half when either the individual or his team doesn't produce.
Getting the pros to go along with such a radical idea, of course, would not come quickly or easily. I'd place their day of acceptance at about the same time the Russians embrace labor unions, adopt the four-day workweek, and cut all restrictions on foreign travel.