The Babe went big. He notched 54 home runs in a season before anybody else hit 30, ordered two steaks at a time, and chased women incessantly. His paychecks were correspondingly hefty. In 1921, Ty Cobb was the best-paid player in baseball history, receiving $25,000. The next year, Babe Ruth took home $52,000.
Ruth’s highest salary came in 1930 and 1931, at $80,000. (Allegedly, he deflected criticism that he made more than President Hoover by replying “I had a better year,” but that may be just a sportswriter’s invention.) With the unemployment rate exceeding 20% and industrial workers who retained their jobs earning $950, that figure enthralled the public. Babe Ruth was almost inconceivably wealthy.
Still, let’s try to conceive. The customary way of translating Ruth’s salary is to adjust by the Consumer Price Index, which gives an estimate of $1.37 million. Hmmm. That’s not overly impressive. True, that would buy a lot of hot dogs, but it’s far from astonishing. For example, every New York Knick save for Norvel Pelle earned a higher amount this past season. (As Mr. Pelle played only 52 minutes on the year, his hourly compensation was satisfactory.)
There exist better evaluations of purchasing power than drab CPI computations. What could Ruth have bought with his salary? How much of today’s money would be required to fill the same shopping lists?