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The Boys of Winter

By Bill Lucey, December 21, 2014
During the offseason, Brooklyn Dodgers catcher Roy Campanella operated a liquor store in Harlem.

With the World Series between the San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals having reached a thunderous conclusion, it’s now time for Major League ballplayers to put away their gloves, hang up their spikes, and make their winter plans.

Did you ever wonder how much time baseball players have to travel the world, get reacquainted with their families, and while away the hours before packing their belongings and heading to spring training?

It might come as a surprise to learn that, while the rest of us are slogging through the snow and combating the driving winds, most baseball players don’t have as much time to relax on the beach and soak up the sun during the offseason as you might think.

According to Ron Blum, baseball writer for the Associated Press, “Most [baseball players] take a few weeks off, then start weight room routines around Thanksgiving (though some lift straight through), light hitting and throwing in December, more intensive hitting and throwing right after Jan. 1.”

Tom Boswell, sports columnist for the Washington Post, sharply rejects any suggestion that baseball players, or professional athletes in general for that matter, lead leisurely lives during the long winter months of the offseason. “Ballplayers work, and work very hard and very long hours, on a year-round basis that would far surpass the average American (or probably the average doctor/lawyer/business person who thinks they work very hard). Pro athletes,” Boswell stresses, “have plenty of flaws. With rare exceptions, they are fanatically hard workers out of season, too. Money motivates. But so does pride. Fans really underestimate this area of athletic character.”

Believe it or not, it wasn’t all that long ago when baseball players had little choice about how they were going to spend their offseason. They simply didn’t have the financial independence to sharpen their athletic skills and polish their mechanics with any kind of regularity before darting off to spring training.

Stan Musial and several of his Cardinals teammates sold Christmas trees from a parking lot to earn extra money during the winter.

Before free agency (first adopted in 1976, freeing players from the reserve clause) and the explosion of multimillion-dollar contracts, baseball was nothing more than a seasonal job for most players. After the season ended, they needed to find another job to supplement their meager wages.

According to data compiled by Michael Haupert, professor of economics at the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse, the average salary for a ballplayer was $13,668 in 1952, rising to $17,942 in 1960. The year before free agency kicked in, the average Major League salary was $51,051. The average salary for a Major Leaguer didn’t exceed $100,000 ($104,775) until 1979. In 2013, according to Major League Baseball, the average salary had ballooned to $3,386,212.

Not only were players’ salaries frightfully low, they weren’t even commensurate with other professions and industries nationwide.

A 1952 Congressional Study on Monopoly Power (H.Res.95, 82d Cong., 1st Sess.) persuasively documented that Major League Baseball salaries had increased, but not in proportion to the growth of wages in other recreational industries or even all industries combined. The average salary in 1951 was $11,000. Wages in recreational industries (other than motion pictures), by comparison, increased 91 percent from 1929 to 1950, Congress concluded, while wages in all industries increased 114 percent during the same period.

So it wasn’t uncommon to read stories as reported in the New York Times that Casey Stengel spent the winter driving a taxicab in Kansas City to help pay the bills; or that Walter Johnson dug postholes for the Idaho Telephone Company.

In 1919, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that Indians first baseman Joe Harris was planning to spend the offseason working at an auto factory in Newcastle, Indiana, while outfielder Jack Graney sets his sights on a radiator company in which he was part owner.

Roy Sievers, the American League Rookie of the Year in 1949 for the St. Louis Browns who later belted 42 home runs in 1957 for the Washington Senators, literally “cut rugs” in the offseason in his hometown of St. Louis to supplement his modest salary.

Roy Sievers, shown here as the newly crowned home run champ in 1957, went to work every offseason for 18 years in order to support his family.

Cleveland Indian Al Rosen, a four-time all-star (1947-1956) and an economics major at the University of Miami, worked as a stockbroker between seasons in the Cleveland office of Bache and Co., a securities firm that provided stock brokerage and investment banking services.

Writer Roger Kahn, author of the baseball classic The Boys of Summer, meanwhile, informed me (through an email) that during the offseason of their careers Brooklyn Dodger Gil Hodges sold Buicks for the Pepper and Potter dealership on the Flatbush Avenue Extension in Downtown Brooklyn, while right-handed starting pitcher Carl Erskine lined up an offseason gig selling insurance for an agency in Anderson, Indiana.

Arguably, the most famous, or infamous, offseason job of all time belonged to former AL third baseman and current batting coach for the Toronto Blue Jays Richie Hebner (1968–1985), who worked as a gravedigger at a cemetery run by his father in Norwood, Massachusetts, earning $35 per grave. Nolan Ryan, who earned a measly $7,000 during his rookie season in 1966, pumped gas during the offseason; another winter he installed air conditioners.

While plenty of players took blue-collar jobs from truck drivers to auto assembly workers to working on the waterfront unloading big merchant marine ships in order to make ends meet, not all offseason jobs ballplayers took were labor intensive. Many players were approached by organizations just to make an appearance at different functions, to make the most of their celebrity status.

To make ends meet, Al Kaline also worked in sporting goods store in his hometown of Baltimore.

Ron Swoboda, former outfielder and most famously known as a member of the 1969 Miracle Mets, said, “Once I made it to the big leagues I never worked an actual job in the offseason. In New York we were appearing at Little League dinners and breakfasts at Jewish temples for $25 to $50 cash in those early days and that was enough to live on. You could do something every night. . . . I remember one particularly busy stretch,” Swoboda said, “where I had something like $2,000 in small bills so I threw it in the middle of the bed and jumped in it like Scrooge McDuck.”

During their playing days in the late 1960s, Detroit Tigers pitchers Denny McClain and Mickey Lolich tried their hand at nightclub singing during the offseason. The November 16, 1968, issue of Billboard Magazine listed Lolich opening in the Frontier Lounge with a singing group called the Strikeouts.

Others marketed their names to launch their own business operations.

Jackie Robinson, for example, opened the Jackie Robinson Department Store at 111 West 125 Street in Harlem where high-quality clothes bearing his name on the label were sold. The all-star second baseman additionally endorsed Borden’s Evaporated Milk and Bond Bread. Another celebrated Dodger, Roy Campanella, owned a liquor store at 7th Avenue and 134th Street in Harlem, where he worked regular shifts during the offseason. Tragically, Campy had locked up his liquor store on a bitterly cold night on January 28, 1958, when his car slammed into a telephone pole after hitting a patch of ice and overturned on Dosoris Lane in Glen Cove, New York, crushing his fifth and sixth vertebrae, rendering him quadriplegic. Campanella was confined to a wheel chair until his death in 1993.

When the regular season ended, a number of players would form a team and barnstorm around the country to earn money. In 1952, Roy Campanella’s All-Star squad featured George Crowe of the Boston Braves, Larry Doby and Harry Simpson of the Cleveland Indians, Joe Black of the Brooklyn Dodgers as well as Hank Thompson, Monte Irvin and Willie Mays of the New York Giants.

The salary of the well-traveled Vic Wertz (1947–1963) hovered around $35,000—small wonder that the first baseman and outfielder jumped at the chance to serve as a national spokesperson for the National Brewing Co. Yankee greats, teammates, and lifelong friends Yogi Berra and Phil Rizzuto worked during offseasons in the American Shops (clothing store) in Newark, New Jersey, and later (in 1959) they opened a bowling alley in Clifton, New Jersey—the Rizzuto-Berra Lanes. It closed in 1999.

Barnstorming was a lucrative source of income for many players during the offseason. Cleveland Indians flamethrower Bob Feller earned $4,000 for 10 games in 1937, touring first in his hometown of Van Meter, Iowa, and then on the West Coast. This hefty income equaled 40 percent of his regular-season salary with the Indians. In 1946, Feller and Satchel Paige (then with the Philadelphia Stars in the Negro Leagues) organized their own all stars, and they played 35 games in 27 days in 17 states and drew over 400,000 fans. Feller’s all stars included Ralph Kiner, Bob Lemon, Jim Hegan, and Phil Rizzuto. Stan Musial even joined the tour after the World Series was completed, earning a cool $10,000 share for participating. Members of Satch’s black all stars included Sam Jethroe from the Cleveland Buckeyes and Henry Thompson and Buck O’Neil from the Kansas City Monarchs.

Today, with this current class of professional baseball players now considered members of the nouveau riche, liberated as they are from financial hardships or worries about paying their mortgages, they’re free to concentrate on more important matters, like improving their hitting, building strength, and adding more giddyup to their fastballs during the offseason.

Still, examining the different winter activities of ballplayers in the decades before the adoption of free agency makes you appreciate on a deeper level the extent to which fans developed a stronger connection to their heroes on the diamond, knowing that the players they were reading about with their morning Corn Flakes weren’t all that different from any other blue-collar worker, proprietor of a mom-and-pop shop, school teacher, police officer, or firefighter. They were all struggling in unison in order to pay the bills and make a better life for their families.

American nonfiction author and sports columnist for the New York Times George Vecsey said that most players and reporters back then shared the same economy. “I drove the wives of two different players,” Vecsey recalled, “to or from spring training in 1964 and 1968 to save a few air fares.”

Just another reminder of a simpler time in a bygone era.

Yogi Berra worked at a clothing store in Newark in the winter. Later, he and teammate Phil Rizzuto opened a bowling alley.




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