Today’s (Dec. 24) New York Times marvels at the boxcars of money being delivered to some sportswriters by ESPN and Yahoo!. After likening the scribes to the star players they cover, the Times reports that:
ESPN, in particular, has gone after the biggest stars at newspapers and magazines, signing them for double and triple what they were earning—$150,000 to $350,000 a year for several writers, and far more for a select handful.
The Times piece echoes a Dec. 21 article in the Wall Street Journal about ESPN’s recent recruitment of A-list sportswriters and sports editors from the world of print. Poaching stars from newspapers and magazines is not anything new for ESPN, I scoffed in my column. The network’s editorial chief, John Walsh, has been doing it for two decades.
Nor are extraordinary wages for hot sportswriters anything new, as the Times would have you believe. The article cites sports agent Leigh Steinberg saying that “free agency for sports journalists” is beginning to unfold and goes on to attribute to Steinberg and fellow sports agent Scott Boras the view that we’ve reached an “unnoticed milestone” in which prominent reporters are better paid than the low-level players they interview.
Not so fast. Top sportswriters have long commanded superstar incomes. Consider, for example, sportswriter Ring Lardner (1885-1933). Jonathan Yardley’s fine biography, Ring, tells us that Lardner was earning slightly more than $10,000 a year from the Chicago Tribune in 1916. Corrected for inflation, Lardner was drawing wages of $200,000 a year, and that’s not counting his income for freelance articles and short stories, which was substantial.
This sort of money would have put Lardner on a plane with the greatest baseball star of the time, Ty Cobb, who made $20,000 in 1915 according to Baseball Almanac. Lardner would have soared over the average baseball player: The minimum salary for ballplayers was stuck at $6,000 a year for two decades until 1968 when the players’ union won a raise to $10,000. Hell, a superintendent at a Midwest steel-stamping plant could make $10,000 a year for his labors in the mid-1960s.
Lardner eventually left the Tribune and sportswriting for the greener fields of a syndicated weekly column that by the mid-1920s was paying him $30,000 ($360,000 in today’s money). At his peak, the money-hungry Lardner was making the equivalent of about $1.7 million a year, if I correctly extrapolate the figures in Yardley’s book.
I don’t have my journalism history books at hand, it being Christmas Eve and all that. But I’m fairly certain that sportswriters Grantland Rice, Dick Young, Jim Murray, Shirley Povich, Damon Runyon, Heywood Broun, Red Smith, or scores of other scribes didn’t have to stoop to players when visiting locker rooms because of massive disparities in income.
If egos were cash, sportswriters would be the richest people on earth. Who is your favorite sportswriter turned wealthy journalist? Mine is David Remnick. Send your nominations to firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)