When Pro Ballplayers Had to Side-Hustle
For many big leaguers, the off-season meant a second job, from selling suits to digging graves.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Once upon a time, being a professional athlete didn’t necessarily mean you could pay the bills.
In this original weeklong series, The Evolution of the Side Hustle: How Gigs Are Killing the 9-to-5, OZY charts the past, present and future of the side hustle. Do you have a unique side hustle that OZY should know about? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org and we might feature your gig.
In Game 2 of the 1966 World Series, 20-year-old Baltimore Oriole pitcher Jim Palmer bested another future Hall of Famer, Sandy Koufax, 6-0, becoming the youngest player ever to pitch a complete game and a World Series shutout, helping his team secure their first-ever championship title. A week after making history, the baseball phenom, whose wife was expecting their first child, reported for duty at his other job: as sales associate at Hamburger’s, a men’s clothing store in Baltimore. Palmer’s Jockey-clad body would one day grace billboards and television, bringing the 268-game winner a side income as comfortable as his fabled underwear, but winning the World Series was not enough for a young player to make ends meet without selling a few suits on the side. “I made $150 a week,” he once told The New York Times. “Enough to pay for groceries, hot water and electricity.”
With today’s exorbitant salaries, few players have to worry about supplementing their incomes during the off-season to support their families. But in the old days, professional baseball players had little choice but to augment their on-field hustle with some serious winter side-hustling.
Many ballplayers also have made the leap to running their own off-season businesses.
For lots of strong but undereducated ballplayers, many of whom had grown up on farms and in working-class families, manual labor was the natural work complement to their baseball lives. Pitcher Harvey Haddix, best known for throwing 12 perfect innings in a game he lost, raised hogs and cattle on his family’s Ohio farm. Even legendary slugger Mickey Mantle worked in the mines outside his hometown of Commerce, Oklahoma, as a minor leaguer. Longtime career-strikeout leader Walter Johnson dug postholes for the Idaho Telephone Company, while the man who broke his record, Nolan Ryan, installed air-conditioning units as a young player. Pitcher Tug McGraw drove a truck to earn cash, and legendary Yankees skipper Casey Stengel ferried passengers in a taxi. Another manager, Joe Morgan of the Boston Red Sox, spent the cold New England winters operating a snowplow on the Massachusetts Turnpike.
Like Palmer, many players opted for sales roles to help their employers cash in on their celebrity. Despite several World Series titles with the New York Yankees, Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto and Whitey Ford also sold men’s clothes for department stores at a time when the minimum baseball salary was only $5,000. Others, like Rogers Hornsby and Jim Bunning, the latter of whom would become a U.S. senator after his playing days had finished, sold insurance, while out in San Francisco, longtime Giants Willie Mays and Willie McCovey sold cars. Even Jackie Robinson, after breaking baseball’s color barrier in 1947, sold appliances in the off-season at Sunset Appliance in Queens. “Business [is] booming like wildfire since Jackie came,” Sunset’s owner told the New Yorker in 1950.
Many ballplayers also have made the leap to running their own off-season businesses. Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Honus Wagner tried his hand at several endeavors in the early 20th century, including bankrolling a circus with his two brothers (which flopped before its first show). Together with teammate and fellow Hall of Famer Pie Traynor, Wagner also ran a sporting goods store, which too was soon forced to close its doors. Other off-season entrepreneurs have had more success: Brooklyn Dodgers catcher Roy Campanella operated a liquor store in Harlem, the Cubs’ Ron Santo owned several pizzerias in Chicago and Lou Brock, the legendary stolen-base artist, ran a successful flower shop.
Performance was another profession that came naturally to some of baseball’s greats. Colorful New York Giants manager John McGraw, known as “Little Napoleon” for his fiery temper, earned $3,000 a week playing himself on the vaudeville circuit in 1912. Even the man who would become baseball’s biggest star, Babe Ruth, had several side gigs. In addition to barnstorming tours, the Sultan of Swat took to the silver screen, featuring in the 1920 silent flick Heading Home about his own life. Apart from a bit of cash, these endeavors “exposed the kid from humble Baltimore beginnings to the ways of the country, and the world,” says Michael Gibbons, former executive director of the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum.
Finally, for the prize of the most bizarre off-season occupations, there are three finalists. Journeyman pitcher Don Rudolph met and married his wife, Patti, a popular stripper, in 1954, and would spend his off-seasons as her manager, publicist and designated clothes catcher (when she tossed them from the stage). Another journeyman pitcher, Waite Hoyt, tried his hand at vaudeville, painting and semi-pro basketball, but he earned his nickname, “the Merry Mortician,” for his work in a funeral home. According to one urban legend, he once took a cadaver to the ballpark and left it in his parked car until he could get back to it after the game.
And then there is Richie Hebner, a longtime Pirates infielder who hit 203 home runs over 18 big-league seasons but dug countless more graves at his family-owned cemetery in Massachusetts over a 35-year grave-digging career. You just won’t see many players today picking up a pick and shovel as part of their off-season conditioning.