Being a North Dakota sports hero has become much more lucrative

FARGO — Roger Maris was coming off back-to-back American League Most Valuable Player awards and just finished a season in which he hit a record 61 home runs, yet still found himself scraping for every dollar from the vault of the New York Yankees. Maris, according to New York Times reports, made about $18,000 in 1960 and, after a season in which he belted 39 home runs and batted in 112 runs to win the MVP, received a massive raise to $37,500 in 1961. That was the season Maris made history, hitting his 61st homer at Yankee Stadium on the final day of the regular season to eclipse the coveted mark of 60 set by Babe Ruth. Maris also drove in 141 runs and scored 132 himself, winning the MVP voting by a shade over teammate Mickey Mantle. For his output and contribution to another Yankees’ World Series title, Maris wanted to be paid his worth. So he and general manager Roy Hamey spent the offseason haggling over the slugger’s 1962 contract. This was long before baseball free agency, so players negotiated deals yearly. They had very little leverage, even coming off a 61-homer season. Word in New York was that Maris was demanding a 100-percent salary increase. Helping Maris’ case, at least in terms of contract comparison, was that Mantle signed in December for $85,000. That topped the $80,000 maximum Ruth made decades earlier, but fell short of the $100,000 top salary the great Joe DiMaggio made in the 1950s, according to the Times. Maris didn’t double his salary as he had hoped. After a protracted back-and-forth, he finally signed on Feb. 26, 1962, for $70,000 and opened spring training with Yankees in Florida two days later. It was the highest raise, percentage-wise, in club history at that point. The two-time MVP and all-time single-season home run record holder signed for a salary, adjusted for inflation, equal to $592,000 in 2019 dollars. That’s good money, but it’s not wealth. Maris’ big pay off came in 1968 when Anheuser Busch gave Maris and his brother Rudy a distributorship when Roger retired from the St. Louis Cardinals, which the brewery owned at the time. The Florida distributorship provided the Marises with a very comfortable existence while the family owned it, and even moreso when they lost it. The family won a $120 million defamation settlement from Anheuser Busch in 2005 after the brewer terminated its contract with the Marises, claiming the family’s business practices were deficient. Roger Maris remains North Dakota’s No. 1 sports hero, but he could never claim to be the best paid. Even if Roger had lived to see the big settlement (he died in 1985), he couldn’t make that claim. Carson Wentz, the Philadelphia Eagles quarterback via Bismarck Century and North Dakota State, owns that title. Probably for a long, long time. Wentz agreed to a four-year contract extension with the Eagles this week worth $128 million. Of that, $66 million is said to be guaranteed at the signing of the contract with another $41 million guaranteed after the 2022 season. It’s not like Wentz wasn’t already wealthy. His original contract after being drafted No. 2 overall in 2016 was four years, $26.7 million. The Eagles picked up his option for 2020, worth $22.8 million. So by the time Wentz hits his extension in 2021, he’ll have earned nearly $50 million in salary already. If Wentz is paid all the money available in his current contract and his extension, he will have earned about $177.5 million by the time he’s 32 years old. Just in salary. Not counting endorsements or other deals. Sports fans have become numb to the dollar figures used in professional sports these days. But $177.5 million is an astounding figure, even if it seems like Monopoly money with all the huge contracts being tossed around. Look at this way: $177.5 million in 1962 would be worth $1.5 billion today. Wentz has yet to achieve Maris’ success on the field, but the Eagles are betting he will. And Wentz didn’t even have to fight for the cash like Maris did. The Eagles gave it to him, based on the relatively limited body of work they’ve seen and what they project him to be. Good for him. What a country. But it does illustrate how dramatically things have changed for North Dakota heroes and other pro athletes. After getting his “big” contract in 1962, Maris had what was considered a substandard season for him. The question he faced for 1963 was whether the Yankees were going to cut his salary. They did not, instead giving him the same $70,000 salary. “It has never been the policy of the Yankees to cut a top-flight player who happened to have an off season,” Hamey the GM told the New York Times. An “off season” for Maris constituted 33 home runs, 34 doubles and 100 RBIs in 157 games. The Yankees won the World Series again. That seems like it’s worth more $592,000 in today’s dollars.