When the offseason meant job-season

Written by: Lenny DiFranza

Yogi Berra was 22 years old when he played in his first World Series in 1947, where he hit his first Series homer and contributed to the New York Yankees’ 11th championship. If Berra was breaking into the major leagues today, his post-Series plans would probably include some celebrating, but also a regimen of hard work to prepare for the next season.

The current guaranteed minimum salary of $500,000 would cover his expenses.

But in 1947, the minimum pay was only $5,000. Like many players before the salary boom that began in the late 1970s, Berra returned home and found an offseason job. A St. Louis restaurant hired Yogi to don a tuxedo and greet patrons. Another winter, he sold hardware at a department store. Even in 1951, after winning his fourth championship and his first AL MVP Award, Berra sold suits at a store in Newark, N.J., alongside his teammate Phil Rizzuto.

From there, Berra’s life on the field and off became far better than minimum. With stardom came higher salaries and lucrative product endorsements, as well as a unique business opportunity. He was hired to endorse the chocolate drink Yoo-Hoo, and became so valuable to the growing company that they made him an executive. In those days before a dependable player pension, Berra’s future was secure.

From the earliest days of professional baseball, players without a big paycheck to support themselves and their families have worked a wide variety of offseason jobs. The Hall of Fame's Library and Archive are packed with their stories.

Ballplayers took jobs ranging from suit salesman to insurance salesman, trading their celebrity status for a chance to make some extra money during the winter. It was a time and a place that big league baseball is unlikely to see again.

In the offseason, Phil Rizzuto would sell suits at a store in Newark, N.J. - BL-3180.68 (National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)

Baseball’s Early Days

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Al Spalding set a high standard for ballplayers hoping to succeed in business. Before clubs openly paid their players, Spalding had a series of jobs that offered plenty of time off to practice and play games. But Spalding had a genuine interest in commerce and learned accounting. When professional ball began in 1871, Spalding became the most successful pitcher in the game, leading the Boston Red Stockings to four straight National Association pennants. In 1876, he jumped to the Chicago White Stockings, helping to found the National League. During this time, Spalding opened a Chicago sporting goods store, modeled after a store in Philadelphia, which Al Reach, that city’s baseball hero, opened two years earlier. Spalding ended his playing career two years later, throwing his energy into growing his business into a national institution. He also rose to control the Chicago ball club (now named the Cubs), and became a dominating force throughout baseball into the start of the 20th century.

Mike “King” Kelly, known for his daring baserunning, became the biggest star of the 1880s and arguably the game’s first celebrity. He developed new uses for his fame by endorsing products with his likeness, barnstorming, releasing the game’s first autobiography (ghostwritten, of course) and working as an entertainer on the stage. The wild ride ended with his tragic death due to pneumonia at the age of 36, but Kelly proved that a ballplayer’s success on the field could fuel an offseason industry.

Not every player hoped to duplicate Spalding or Kelly’s commercial success. Some rejoined their clubs in the spring with stories of their unusual jobs and adventures. Roger Bresnahan, who first gained fame with the New York Giants in the early 1900s, told many tales of outwitting criminals during his winters spent as a police detective in his hometown of Toledo, Ohio. But after he had his pockets picked on the streets of New York City, he quit the position in embarrassment.

Waite Hoyt wore many hats in addition to his career as a player. He appeared on the vaudeville stage, played professional basketball, wrote and painted, and later shared stories of his experiences as a longtime broadcaster for the Cincinnati Reds. As a young pitcher with the Yankees, he began a very different career, working at his father-in-law’s funeral home, and eventually he opened his own business on Long Island. Sportswriters often referred to Hoyt as “The Merry Mortician.” One unsubstantiated but often repeated tale describes the day that the right-hander kept a cadaver in his car parked outside the Polo Grounds while he attended to his day’s work on the mound, and then finally delivered the corpse to its final resting place.

At home on the farm

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Players looking for less exotic fields to explore in the offseason often returned to farms where they were raised. Philadelphia Athletics star hurler “Gettysburg” Eddie Plank and his family owned a farm in Pennsylvania, where he also served as an offseason battlefield tour guide. Pittsburgh Pirates player-manager Fred Clarke grew up in Kansas and Iowa and bought his own “Little Pirate Ranch” in Kansas, where he spent his winters. The shrewd outfielder also explored other ventures, patenting both his early flip-down sunglasses and a mechanical tarpaulin system, and eventually amassed a fortune when he discovered oil on his land.

“Home Run” Baker was raised on a farm in Trappe, on Maryland's Eastern Shore. He returned to serve as a town board member, tax collector, director of the State Bank of Trappe, and volunteer fireman. The farm became a place of solace when he sat out the 1915 season rather than play for the salary that Connie Mack offered, and again when he took the 1920 season off to care for his two children after his wife’s sudden death.

At the start of the Great Depression in 1929, some in baseball lost considerable savings when banks suddenly shut down, such as Tony Lazzeri, Mickey Cochrane and Connie Mack, while others, like the Giants’ Bill Terry, came through unscathed.

Terry’s financial success was not easy to predict. “Memphis Bill” was so poor at the start of his minor-league career that he and his young wife pawned her wedding ring so they could buy food. He quit the game after the 1917 season, returned to his hometown, where he took a job at the Standard Oil office as a clerk. He also joined the company ball club, and over the next few years played well enough to attract the attention of Giants manager John McGraw, while his work in the office led to promotions. Terry relaunched his storied pro baseball career in 1922, and remains the last NL player to hit .400. He returned to the Memphis office each winter, and prospered in the 1930s when so many did not. Terry later toured the country to promote Standard Oil in a road show that also featured bandleader Guy Lombardo.

Winter in the sun

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The best players in the Negro leagues had the opportunity to extend their baseball seasons by barnstorming in the fall and playing winter ball in the Caribbean and California. Most of their contemporaries had to deal with Jim Crow jobs during their offseasons, coping with limited choices. Jackie Robinson, determined to make the best of his opportunities in sports, played pro football, worked as a college athletic director and basketball coach, and went to a 1945 tryout with the Boston Red Sox, who did not offer a contract. He started that season by signing with the Negro American League's Kansas City Monarchs, and he ended it by signing his historic agreement with the National League's Dodgers to break baseball’s color barrier. In the offseason he headed to California to play winter ball and then joined a baseball tour to Venezuela.

After his rookie season with the Brooklyn club in 1947, Robinson needed to augment his income. He sold appliances in Queens, barnstormed around the country, attracted endorsement deals, and went on a 1948 vaudeville tour, making more than his baseball salary simply by sharing his thoughts about the game. He appeared on TV, published an autobiography and starred in the 1950 biopic that followed. He hosted “The Jackie Robinson Show,” his own national radio program on ABC, and later opened his own department store in Harlem. After retiring from baseball, Robinson expanded his business experience and continued to break racial barriers.

How to succeed in business

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Many players, such as Rogers Hornsby and Jim Bunning, sold insurance in the offseason. Bunning, who starred for the Tigers and the Phillies during the summers, studied to be a stockbroker in the winters. After his baseball career, Bunning served on the city council of Fort Thomas, Ky., which started him on a path that led to the U.S. Senate in 1998.

Many players invested in businesses, including the Cubs’ Ron Santo, who owned pizzerias in the Chicago area. But few players have been as commercially creative as Lou Brock, who invested in and started a wide range of businesses while breaking records with the Cardinals. A few examples include a florist shop, a sporting goods store, and his own invention called the “Brockabrella” – an umbrella worn on the head.

Even players without Brock's entrepreneurial drive have often landed sales jobs in the offseason. In San Francisco, Willie Mays and Willie McCovey both sold cars. Jim Palmer became a world champion with the 1966 Orioles at the age of 19, making a name for himself as the youngest player to ever throw a shutout in a World Series. That winter, he sold suits at a downtown Baltimore store. Later in his career, Palmer’s offseason opportunities included national print and TV ads for Brylcreem hair cream and Jockey underwear. Faced with an in-season “offseason” during the 1981 strike, Palmer worked for a local TV station. That fall he returned to broadcasting, matching wits and words with Howard Cosell as a postseason color commentator.

Willie Mays sold cars in San Francisco in the offseason. - BL-381-72f (National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)

When major league salaries began to increase in the late 1970s, players became more likely to look for investment news than help wanted ads. They also gained the opportunity to use their fame, wealth, and offseason time to promote their favorite charities. One recent player, Craig Biggio, throughout his career, and into retirement, has supported the Sunshine Kids Foundation, assisting children with cancer.

Biggio never had to deal with the economic hardship most players face when they turn professional. He entered the minors with a signing bonus and the Astros brought him to the big leagues after only one-and-a-half seasons. Young Latin players in the minors, however, often return to the Caribbean to play in the winter leagues or enjoy their relatively high income. Most of today's minor leaguers start on the minimum salary of $5,500 a year – only slightly more than Yogi Berra made in 1947. Many need to find offseason employment, following baseball's long tradition that so many players have shared.

Lenny DiFranza is the assistant curator of new media at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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