Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Haul of Fame

Over the weekend, the Red Sox' Jim Rice, alongside Rickey Henderson, was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. The Hall of Fame is a wonderful place, and if anyone doubts the wonders and marvels of "the game," they have merely to browse the list of those few, those precious few, who have been inducted.

From Three Finger Brown to Rollie Fingers. From Elmer Flick to Ford Frick,   (Okay, Ford Frick didn't play, he was an executive. But Elmer Flick to Ford Frick sounds better than Elmer Flick to Frankie Frisch  - a.k.a. the Fordham Flash -  doesn't it?)

From the Goose Goslin to Goose Gossage. From Dizzy Dean to Dazzy Vance. From Catfish Hunter - does one really hunt catfish - to Cool Papa Bell. From Heinie Manush to Cum - short for Cumberland - Posey.

And it's just too darned bad that slugger Harmon Killebrew never faced pitcher Burleigh Grimes. (I just love both of those names.)

Just reading the list of members makes me want to stop by on my next drive to Syracuse. A bit out of the way, but still...

Of all the major sports, baseball is the one where the present is most closely enmeshed with history.

And Major League Baseball is past master at exploiting it all.

Maybe it's because professional baseball has just been around for so darned long, and there's so much more history to exploit. whatever it is, in general, fans don't get as weepy-eyed about NFL or NBA legends like they do about baseball greats of yore.

So the Hall of Fame is sacred ground.

And it's also lucrative ground for the legends who still walk among us.

Just how lucrative it is I learned from a Wall Street Journal article I read last week ("Haul of Fame" was their title, and I just had to borrow it.) In the article, they wrote:

... baseball nostalgia is a multibillion-dollar industry, and the 60 or so living Hall of Famers at its pinnacle are in a unique position to cash in.

Sure, most retired players make at least some walking around money signing baseballs, appearing at clinics, running camps, giving speeches, endorsing local companies and products, and doing community outreach/good will-ish things for insurance companies and banks.

But having the Hall of Fame seal, or, rather plaque, of approval can really up the take for the "marginal immortals", i.e., those not in the same league as mega stars like Hank Aaron.

For Goose Gossage, getting elected meant that the price of a speech tripled from the mere $7.5K to $10K he'd been commanding.

Well, nothing against Goose Gossage, but I've got to question the sanity of any marketing person who'd pay $30K to have him speak at their big customer event.

But what's good for the Goose, I suppose...


“‘HoF’ after a signature is the single best predictor of baseball price,” says Steve Verkman, proprietor of Clean Sweep Auctions, one of the country’s largest memorabilia dealerships. He estimates there are about 10,000 collectors around the world interested exclusively in Hall of Famer items, and many more general collectors who covet them. There is an active market in Cooperstown futures, and when someone unexpected is chosen by the Hall of Fame, prices go through the roof. “When Bruce Sutter went in, that changed everything for him,” Mr. Verkman told me. “The demand for his autograph increased a thousand-fold.”

It will be interesting to see if the annuities that Hall of Famers can garner - for marginal immortals, it can be in "'the low six figures'" - continues to be a draw for potential members when today's boys of summer become eligible. (This assumes that there will be enough of them out there who "played clean," without getting plumped up with steroids. Or whether the "boys on HGH" will be okayed when the time comes. So far, Mark McGwire is the most prominent steroid-implicated start to get stiff-armed by the voters. We'll see what happens when Roger Clemens hits the ballot in a couple of years.)

For now, however, the money really talks.

And to put that money in context,  the most Jim Rice ever made was $2.3 million in his last season in 1989. And that was after some early seasons when he was making $50K. These days, $10 million a year is no longer an eye-popping contract. The "minimum wage" is $400K, and the average salary is over $3M.  (Source: Baseball Almanac.) 

The contrast to earlier players is even more stark: Ted Williams, who retired in 1961 and was the last player to hit over .400, never made more than $100K a year.

The commercial benefits of Hall of Fame stature has had a couple of interesting side effects.

For one, ex-players now lobby aggressively to get elected  - some going as far as hiring political consultants. (Lobbying efforts by Jim Rice and his supporters certainly played a strong role in his election.) Another one may be that the H of F's Veterans Committee - all H of F-ers themselves - puts the brakes on electing "previously overlooked old-timers."*

In the words of Marvin Miller:

'Nobody wants to dilute the value of his stock.”

There article mentioned one lobby effort that's being run by the government of Venezuela. Apparently Hugo Chávez’s favorite player was Dave Concepcion, so the Venezuelan's are lobbying mightily to get him in.

Pink Slip to Dave Concepcion: He may be no Kim Il Jong or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but if I were you I'd want someone other than Hugo Chávez fronting my cause.

Meanwhile, even with all the side action with the $$$, I'm sure that it remains a special honor to get elected to the Hall of Fame that - if it doesn't actually mean a lot more than the money, still means an awful lot. Congratulations, Jim Ed. (You, too, Rickey. I always got a kick out of watching you on the base paths.)


*The traditional, and more prestigious, way to get into the Hall is to be elected by the Baseball Writers Association of America. If you don't make it in this way (and you can be on the ballot for a limited number of years), the other method is via the Veterans Committee.

1 comment:

Rick said...

re: ballplayer names. According to a recent NY Times article http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/16/books/16kero.html?_r=1 , Beat writer Jack Kerouac "obsessively played a fantasy baseball game of his own invention, charting the exploits of made-up players like Wino Love, Warby Pepper, Heinie Twiett, Phegus Cody and Zagg Parker, who toiled on imaginary teams named either for cars (the Pittsburgh Plymouths and New York Chevvies, for example) or for colors (the Boston Grays and Cincinnati Blacks)."

No question, baseball has had some great names, as Kerouac well knew.