These were the highest-paid Tiger players

Magglio Ordonez hugs his wife after signing a five-year $85 million deal with the Detroit Tigers in 2005.

Magglio Ordonez hugs his wife after signing a five-year $85 million deal with the Detroit Tigers in 2005.

Miguel Cabrera is making $22 million this season to play for the Detroit Tigers. Next season his contract calls for a raise to $28 million.

A million here, a million there, pretty soon you’re talking about real money.

Cabrera is the highest-paid Tiger in franchise history and by the time his career is done, assuming he stays in Detroit, he’ll have made well over $360 million from the team.

Cobb made money on and off the field

The first high-priced Tiger is no surprise: the great Georgia Peach, Ty Cobb earned as much as $40,000 to play and manage the Tigers. That may seem like a paltry sum, and it is compared to what Miggy banks, but at that time, in the mid-1920s Cobb’s salary was equal to half a million in 2015 dollars. A nice sum in the Roaring Twenties.

For all the money Cobb made as a ballplayer (he was usually the highest-paid man in the game until Babe Ruth got an obscene $87,000 contract in 1928), he made even more money off the diamond thanks to his savvy business acumen. Cobb invested early and wisely in General Motors and Coca-Cola. As a result, Ty became the first millionaire athlete in American history.

Silent Charlie should have spoken up

As Cobb’s career with Detroit was winding down, a slight, unassuming infielder was debuting in the middle of the infield for the Tigers. He was from the tiny little farm town on Fowlerville, Michigan, and Charlie Gehringer was as polite as could be. He grew into the best second baseman in baseball and one of the best in history, keying the lineup as the Tigers won three pennants from 1934 to 1940. But he was never paid what he was worth. When Gehringer won his MVP award in 1937 he made only $18,500. While that was a fantastic sum for the Depression Era, it was well below the sum paid to many other stars in the league and ranked only fourth on the Detroit team. Charlie eventually made as much as $20,000 (teammate Hank Greenberg, a far better negotiator, made as much as $55,000 with the Tigers), but the Hall of Famer was grossly underpaid.

Another Tiger star and future Hall of Famer who never earned as much as you’d think was Hal Newhouser, the great left-handed “Prince of the Hill.” Newhouser was the greatest star still in the game during World War II and he won back-to-back MVP awards in 1944-45. But during the war he never made as much as $20,000 and even after the war ended his $55,000 salary was well below that of Bob Feller and other great pitchers in the game. Even Satchel Paige, the legendary negro leagues hurler, earned as much as Prince Hal with Detroit.

Detroit front office was known to be stingy

George Kell ($45,000 in actual dollars and about $500k in current dollars) was the top-earning Tiger in the early 1950s, and then Ray Boone and Fred Hutchinson each earned in the $30-35,000 range, but those salaries, while a great living in that era, were not eye-popping. Detroit’s front office under the watchful eye of owner Walter Briggs, was notoriously stingy. Briggs didn’t believe in paying more than he had to and he didn’t even want to do that. Under Briggs Sr., Detroit did not like to give multi-year deals. When he passed away in 1952 he was succeeded by his son Spike, who was just as cheap. During one offseason negotiation with Spike Briggs, pitcher Frank Lary informed his boss that he’d beaten the Yankees four times the previous year, to which Briggs replied “They still won the pennant.”

The first $100,000 Tiger

The Tigers signed Al Kaline when he was 18 years old and the young outfielder gradually started to earn more as he proved himself to be one of the best players in the game. But even Kaline wasn’t immune to salary squabbles. In 1960 Kaline hit .278 with 15 home runs, an offseason by his standards. He earned $42,000 that year, more than Cobb had ever been paid by the Tigers. But in December he received a letter from Detroit general manager Rick Ferrell that called for a cut in pay by $3,000. In the years before a players’ union or free agency, Kaline had little choice and he signed the contract and took a pay cut. Could you imagine Miguel Cabrera agreeing to take less money after an off-year?

Kaline gradually inched up the pay scale throughout his Hall of Fame career. In 1968 he made $70,000, matching the highest contract in franchise history, which has been given to Hal Newhouser in 1949. After hitting .379 and leading both teams in hits in the World Series, Kaline earned an increase to $88,000. In 1970 he got a raise to $90,000 — a sum that proved controversial that offseason. Pitcher Denny McLain won 31 games in 1968 and won the Cy Young Award and MVP, then in ’69 he won the Cy Young again. As he entered the 1970 campaign, the 25-year old McLain wanted to be compensated like a superstar. He wanted to be the highest-paid Tiger. But GM Jim Campbell refused to pay anyone more than he paid Kaline. McLain, who was representing himself in negotiations, demanded to be paid at least as much as Kaline, an offer which Campbell refused. Finally, faced with the possibility of a protracted holdout by their ace, the Tigers offered McLain $90,000, “the same as Al” according to Campbell. McLain inked his name on the contract but learned years later that Kaline earned a special $2,000 bonus in 1970, ensuring he as still the top Tiger on the payroll.

In 1971 as he prepared for his 19th big league season, Kaline received a contract from Campbell that called for a $100,000 contract, a milestone for the franchise. Amazingly, Kaline would have none of it.  He refused to accept the generous offer, citing a poor season (by his lofty standards) in 1970. “I’d prefer to get that much money when I rate it,” Kaline said. Kaline finished eighth in the league in batting in 1971 and the following year he got his $100,000 contract, becoming the first Detroit ballplayer to earn that much. The $100,000 was nothing to sneeze at, it equates to $564,000 in 2015 dollars.

Detroit tries to stay out of the free agent era

Baseball’s finances were altered forever in December of 1975 when players finally earned the right to be free agents when the reserve clause was struck down. The reserve clause bound a player to a team for his entire career and gave the club all of the power. But as free agents, players could sell their talent on the open market. Very quickly, star free agents started to sign big contracts and salaries all over baseball started to skyrocket. The Tigers were no exception, though they stubbornly tried to cling to the old economics.

While the Yankees, Angels, Dodgers, Phillies, and even the Astros bid on high-price free agents in the 1970s, the Tigers buried their head in the sand, refusing to believe that players deserved to earn more money. But the rising tide did lift the payroll, and in 1976 they had two players over $100,000 — newly acquired Rusty Staub and fan favorite Willie Horton. But even so, the Tigers generally got rid of their best players during that era before they could become free agents. Jason Thompson, Steve Kemp, and Ron LeFlore were all jettisoned before they could demand big bucks. Meanwhile the Detroit payroll was one of the lowest in the game. Kemp won an arbitration case and earned a hefty $600,000 salary in 1981, but it was his last season in Motown, Campbell trading him to Chicago the next season for Chet Lemon.

Detroit didn’t sign an expensive big name free agent until the 1983 offseason when they inked a deal with veteran corner infielder Darrell Evans for a checkbook-breaking sum of $825,000. A year later, Evans became the first Tiger to top the $1 million mark, but more would join him in the millionaire club. Kirk Gibson ($1.2 million in 1986), Jack Morris ($1.8 million in ’87), and Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell, all topped the $1 million mark for Detroit within a few years.

Trammell was noteworthy in that he signed a seven-year “lifetime” contract before the 1981 season and never renegotiated it despite putting up several great seasons and winning the MVP in the 1984 World Series. Trammell was underpaid for several years, not topping the $2 million mark until 1991 and earning “only” $3 million at his peak earning salary in 1994. Both were pretty low figures in his era for a player of his caliber.

Big Daddy and the era of absurd money

With the load of talent the Tigers had on their roster in the 1980s you would have assumed that one of the stars of the ’84 World Championship team would have been the first Detroit player to top the $3 million mark. But it was a little-known fat guy from Japan who did it. Cecil Fielder clubbed 51 homers in his first season with the Tigers (after a season in the Japanese Baseball League) and after playing out his contract he signed for $4.5 million in 1992. “Big Daddy” eventually earned as much as $9.2 million with the Tigers, the first Detroit player to top those levels. When he was traded to the Yankees in 1996 the Bombers took over that contract, which was chump change for them.

In the 1990s the salaries kept rising and rising, and even though the Tigers were going through the least successful period in their history, they made some players incredibly wealthy with big deals. Dean Palmer ($5 million), Juan Gonzalez ($7.5 million) and Bobby Higginson (as much as $11.85 million) were the top-paid Detroiters of this era.

In the early 2000s, Ivan Rodriguez, Magglio Ordonez, Kenny Rogers, Placido Polanco, and Carlos Guillen all got big paychecks from owner Mike Ilitch, with Ordonez the first Tiger to get $15 million. Detroit shocked the baseball world in 2012 when they signed free agent Prince Fielder and gave him the first $20 million per year deal in franchise history.

With great players like Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Justin Verlander, and Ian Kinsler on their roster, it’s a certainty that Detroit will have one of the highest payrolls in the sport for several years.