A week before reporting to spring training, Justin Verlander played a round of golf at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro Am in California. For JV, it wasn’t a case of taking a brief winter vacation, it was more of the same for the All-Star pitcher and former AL Most Valuable Player. It’s not like Verlander had a grueling off-season. The most stressful part of his off-season was probably his reportedly on-again, off-again relationship with supermodel Kate Upton.
But there was a time – not as far in the past as you may think – when baseball players took jobs in the winter to make ends meet. That includes the superstars, and some of their jobs were odd.
Yes, baseball fans, Al Kaline – “Mr. Tiger” – held a job in the off-season for most of his playing career. Kaline was the first Tiger to earn a salary of $100,000, but for many years he worked at a sporting goods store in his hometown of Baltimore when he wasn’t making the All-Star team during the summer. Somewhere there are some folks in Maryland who probably bought sneakers from a fresh-faced Kaline.
After his dazzling rookie season in 1976, Mark “The Bird” Fidrych oumoed gas in a service station in Massachusetts. The Tigers had given their wildly popular pitcher a bonus (though it was modest), but Fidrych still needed to make money to survive in the off-season. At that time, though free agency had started, few players had contracts guaranteed beyond one season. Therefore, they needed a safety net. Not so today, of course, when the MLB minimum salary is nearly $500,000, and the average salary is over $4 million. Prince Fielder will not be asking you “Do you need fries with that?” at a McDonald’s in the Detroit suburbs during the winter.
Famously, Denny McLain worked night clubs as a lounge singer in the 1960s and early 1970s, making very good money as a headliner. In fact, many athletes turned to the entertainment industry to make extra money over the years, though that was usually reserved for the biggest stars or those with some special talents. Detroit pitcher Earl Whitehill worked as a magician for a brief time in the 1920s. Mickey Lolich, after vaulting to stardom with three victories in the ’68 World Series, worked a winter as a singer in Las Vegas. Reportedly, Mick had good pipes.
But, most players had to settle for less glamorous occupations. Before he received his first bog contract from owner Frank Navin, Ty Cobb was a farmer in Georgia. His teammate Davy Jones was a pharmacist in Detroit during the off-season. Bobby Veach, who played along side Cobb in the outfield for years and was the Tigs cleanup hitter during the 1910s and early 1920s, worked as a coal miner. Manager Hughey Jennings was a successful and sought-after trial attorney during the winter months. Detroit first baseman Dale “Moose” Alexander, who is the only player to win a batting title in the AL in a season when he was traded, was a chicken farmer.
Mickey Cochrane became a Hall of Fame catcher and managed the Tigers to their first World Series title in 1935, but baseball was actually his second athletic passion. Mickey loved football, and during some of his off-seasons when he was a player, he earned a paycheck as a football coach in Boston at various colleges. One of the stars who played with Cochrane – second baseman Charlie Gehringer – ran an automobile parts company in the off-season. It was inevitable that many Tigers would be lured into the car industry, as that was the off-season job of other Detroit ballplayers like Charlie Maxwell and Gates Brown.
Norm Cash, one of the most colorful players to ever wear the Old English D, tried his hand auctioning hogs during the off-season, and he also served time as a rancher. Several players gravitated to sports-related jobs, like Kaline, working in sporting goods stores. Willie Horton, Jim Price, and Mickey Stanley, other members of the ’68 championship team, took jobs in manufacturing.
Perhaps one of the oddest off-season jobs was that of Richie Hebner, a Tigers third baseman from 1980-1982. Hebner’s father owned a graveyard in Massachusetts, and Hebner kept himself in shape (and covered in dirt) by digging graves. Swinging a shovel didn’t seem to hurt Hebner’s ability to swing the bat – he belted more than 200 home runs in his career.
By the mid-1980s, most major leaguers abandoned their off-season occupations, since they either made enough money to get by, or they played winter ball to keep their career prospects sharp. Still, some marginal major leaguers, players who haven’t yet established a career as a ballplayer at the highest level, and haven’t won that first big contract, they might still be logging on to Monster.com to find a job for the winter months.