Today it’s billionaires, not millionaires, who rule the upper echelon of business, entertainment and sports. But in simpler times, $1 million went a long way, and was exceedingly rare. Though most normal working stiffs never sniff a seven-figure annual salary even today, professional athletes, — especially in the “big four” top-tier leagues in the U.S. (NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL) — have $1 million+ paychecks. In fact, the $1 million-per-year wage is on the low end of the collective pay scale in these leagues, and has been for some time.
However, in the early and mid 20th century, pro athletes were often not the visibly wealthy magnates they are today. The best players could earn comfortable livings, but the average or marginal players usually supplemented their incomes with offseason jobs. All of that changed with the advent of free agency, sports marketing, sponsorships, players’ unions and a sports pioneer: Jim “Catfish” Hunter.
Technically, major league pitcher Hunter is the first athlete in a major sport to earn at least $1 million in a season as part of his salary. (He wasn’t, however, the first athlete to sign a multimillion-dollar contract; that distinction belongs to hockey player Bobby Hull in 1972, who signed a 10-year deal worth $2.5 million. Hunter also wasn’t the first to average $1 million a year over the course of a contract.) In 1975 after winning three straight championships with the Oakland Athletics, Hunter, with the help of the players’ union, petitioned the league to nullify his contract with the A’s, according to SportsLawNews.com. Hunter suddenly became a free agent and was wooed by the New York Yankees, who signed him to a five-year, $3.25 million contract with a $1 million upfront singing bonus. Hunter would continue his success with the Yankees, winning two more World Series championships. The right-hander played a total of 15 seasons in the majors, amassing 224 career wins and an impressive 3.26 earned run average, even through arm trouble forced him out of the game at the young age of 33. He has one of baseball’s perfect games to his credit, and most impressive, Hunter saved his best performances for the playoffs and World Series, earning a reputation as a “big game” pitcher. The Baseball Writers of America voted him into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1987. Sadly, he died in 1999 after battling ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease).
Hunter’s deal didn’t immediately open the flood gates to million-dollar-a-year athletes, but another famed baseball hall-of-famer, Nolan Ryan, inked a four-year, $4.5 million deal just five years later with the Houston Astros, making him the first to average at least $1 million a year over the duration of a contract, according to NotableBiographies.com. In that offseason, several other players signed multimillion-dollar contracts.
When you consider that the first million-dollar athlete was just 35 years ago and that professional sports existed for seven centuries before handing out million-dollar paychecks, it’s remarkable the exploding rate of player salaries in recent decades, even adjusted for inflation. Before he opens an endorsement check this year, Alex Rodriguez of the Yankees will make $25.2 million, according to the Denver Post. Similarly, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade of basketball’s Miami Heat will each make in the vicinity of $20 million. Credit (or blame) the increased media and marketing revenues, non-stop TV coverage, and the world’s insatiable appetite for professional sports.