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Buzzie Bavasi
May 22, 1967
A movie actress was surprised when the Dodger general manager told her what a baseball star is paid, and sometimes the player is surprised, too. Fame may be a spur, but cash can be an even bigger incentive
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May 22, 1967

Money Makes The Player Go

A movie actress was surprised when the Dodger general manager told her what a baseball star is paid, and sometimes the player is surprised, too. Fame may be a spur, but cash can be an even bigger incentive

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The Koufax-Drysdale holdout was the most serious contract discussion I was ever involved in, but it sure wasn't the only one. Money is a big thing in baseball, and you have some ballplayers who respond to nothing much except the long green. You can holler at them until you're blue in the face and you can pat them on the back till you've got a callous on your hand, and nothing happens till you come up with the cash on the line. I would have to put Ron Fairly, our great Dodger redhead, in that classification. And maybe that's why he fell into the job of player representative on the Los Angeles club. When Ron first came up, he was the college hotshot from the University of Southern California, and who was he to knuckle down and pay attention and concentrate on his job? Stars from the University of Southern California didn't have to go to all that trouble! Fairly was running the bases with all the speed of a Mack truck and all the alertness of a sloth.

Walt Alston was unhappy about him and so was I, so I took him out to dinner. "Ron," I said, "as a first baseman you still have the first dime you ever played on. You're never going to be accused of doing the Swan Lake at first base." I didn't see any reaction, but I plowed full speed ahead. "And you're going up to the plate like the pitchers owe you a living. Who do you think you're playing against, San Diego State?" He didn't bat an eye. "Pay attention to me. Ronnie," I said. "I'm going to make a bet on you." Now he perked up. "I'm betting that Walter Alston is wrong about you. Walter doesn't think you have it. I'm betting $10,000 you do." By now he's on the edge of his seat. I mean, you have never seen a young man concentrate the way Ron Fairly was concentrating. "If you hit this season the way I know you can hit, that's what you'll get," I said, "10,000 big ones right off the top." I almost had to restrain him from running out to the batting cage right then and there. Why, $10,000 was as much as his annual salary! And he went out and earned it, too. He hit .322, got the bonus and won himself a starting job.

I tried more or less the same approach with Lou Johnson, "Sweet Lou," one of the nicest things that ever happened to Los Angeles. We were desperate for an outfielder when Tommy Davis broke his ankle in 1965, and the boys at Spokane recommended Lou, who was then 31 years old and in his 13th season with his 19th club and not exactly burning up the league. When I had my first talk with Lou I said, "No one on this club can hit the size of his cap, so you're bound to look good." Then I told him I would double his pay the minute he showed me something. Well, his seventh home run after we brought him up showed me how to beat the Cubs and put the Dodgers in first place, and then on the 28th of September he showed me how to beat Cincinnati with a home run in the 12th inning to put the ball club in front to stay. Who got his pay doubled and won a World Series share to boot? Sweet Lou, that's who!

Willie Davis was another one who responded to cash. Willie has told the story on himself: "I was a swinging man with the foxes hanging on to me and my money was going fast when Buzzie called me in. He offered me a hell of a piece of cash if I'd get married and buy a house. Man, there was a wedding in nothing flat! And I've been a happier player since." And a better player, too, those famous three errors in one inning against the Orioles in last year's World Series notwithstanding.

It's great to be able to take a kid like Willie and by some little stratagem, some little maneuver like giving him a few grand, turn him into a productive major-leaguer. Money makes some players go. But that doesn't mean you can lay $10,000 incentives on the line for everybody. Baseball doesn't have that kind of money. I remember when we were still in Brooklyn and Leo Durocher was married to Laraine Day. One day the two of them introduced me to the actress Joan Caulfield, and we got to talking about ballplayers and their salaries. The club was playing in Ebbets Field—capacity: 32,000, jammed to the roof—and nobody was making a whole lot of money, including me and Walter O'Malley, though I couldn't make anybody understand that, including Miss Caulfield. " Joe Black had a good year," she said. "How much are you going to pay him next year?"

I said, "Oh, about $12,000. In fact, he's already signed for $12,000."

She looked shocked. "Only $12,000?" she said. "Why, after my first year in Hollywood I got $100,000 a picture."

I said, "Yeh, but none of your pictures ever got rained out."

She probably thought I was some kind of a New York wise guy, but it was true that a few extra rainouts at Ebbets Field over the course of a season could make all the difference on the year. The profit margin was slim in a ball park that seated only 32,000.

Through my years in baseball I've been blamed for everything except the Black Sox scandal, but when it comes to holding salaries to a minimum at Brooklyn I plead guilty. Beyond the limited seating capacity there was a good reason: our farm system was anemic, and I wanted to use every nickel I could scrape up to pump some life into it. Even after we moved out to Los Angeles and began drawing record crowds I still kept a tight clamp on salaries, and I figure I saved something like $2 million in my first 10 years. While the team was consistently near the top or at the top of the standings, both in won-lost and attendance, our payroll was about fifth or sixth in the league. The money was going into our farm operations. I looked at it like a man looks at his future. Maybe he makes $100 a week, and he needs all that to live on. Now he gets raised to $150 a week, but he still lives on $100 a week and invests the other $50 in his future security. That's what our farm operations were—an investment in future security. Our payroll began to shoot up about five years ago, when I figured the farm system was set, and in 1965 and 1966 we had the highest payroll in the National League. We wound up paying two pitchers $235,000 for the 1966 season alone. You remember them.

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