IF YOU feel that multimillion-dollar salaries for ballplayers have gotten out of line, there is at least one objective measure that confirms your impression.
Remember the old saying, intended as high praise, that someone is "worth his weight in gold"?
Well, Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio were paid almost exactly that in their peak years, and so were many other star players until the early 1980s.
In 1928, Babe Ruth was in the second year of a three-year contract worth $70,000 a year, by far the highest baseball salary ever paid. The year before, he had set his record of 60 home runs, and his fame transcended baseball. He was a world figure in the Jazz Age.
In 1927, the average price of gold was $20.67 an ounce. Gold is measured in troy ounces, defined as 480 grains. Ordinary ounces have 437.5 grains. Therefore, an ordinary pound equals 14.6 troy ounces. To get a person's weight in gold, you multiply the price per ounce by 14.6, and that result by the person's weight in pounds.
Ruth played at 215 pounds, so he was worth $64,883.13 in gold -- not out of line with his $70,000 salary. In 1930 and 1931, Ruth's salary peaked at $80,000, which was $5,000 higher than President Herbert Hoover's.
This prompted Ruth's much-quoted remark, "I had a better year than he did."
But in 1934, under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the price of gold was fixed officially at $35 an ounce. That meant (using round numbers for simplicity) a 200-pound man would be worth $102,200. No player made that much until 1949, when DiMaggio got the first $100,000 contract. Since he actually weighed only 193 pounds, worth $98,623, he was a few bucks ahead.
Through the 1950s and 1960s, mild inflationary times, salaries kept rising slowly while gold remained fixed. Only in 1972 was the official price raised to $38, and by then Hank Aaron of Atlanta, on his way to breaking Ruth's career record for home runs, was making $200,000 -- at a playing weight of 176 pounds.
That was more than double his gold value of $97,644.80.
This imbalance may have contributed to the government's decision to let the price of gold float on the open market.
The accompanying chart shows what happened since then, with lots of rounding off, averaging of multi-year contracts with bonuses and approximations.
Gold's present level is around $350 an ounce while a 1993 salary commitment for $7 million (to Ryne Sandberg, the Chicago Cubs' second baseman) has already been made.
Three points should be noted:
1. In 1975, player salaries, like gold, were allowed to "float" as a form of free agency replaced the old reserve system
2. Gold fluctuates day by day, while a top salary in a five-year contract remains unchanged for five years.
3. If you want a hedge against inflation, don't buy gold, adopt a nice young ball player.
Leonard Koppett, a former sports reporter, is editor emeritus of the Peninsula Times-Tribune, Palo Alto, Calif.