The first to $10 million
With the end of the 1994-95 strike, salaries began to escalate at a previously unseen pace. In a few years that pace would bring player values to a level matching — and in some cases surpassing — current standards when inflation is factored in.
Only five seasons were required for the game’s top earner to double Bonilla’s $5 million salary of 1992. That barrier-breaker was slugger Albert Belle, who in 1997 hit free agency following several stunning years with the Cleveland Indians.
Belle was the AL RBI leader three times between 1993 and 1996, leading the league in home runs with an even 50 in 1995. He finished second in that year’s MVP voting and was a principal reason why the Indians won 100 of their 144 games and went to the World Series.
His value on the open market came as no surprise, the White Sox offering the precedent-setting two-year, $20 million contract.
Belle had two good seasons in Chicago, averaging .301 with nearly 40 home runs and 134 RBI. But it turned out that the Sox needed more than just Belle; they finished a distant second to Belle’s old team, the Indians, both seasons.
The $10 million Belle earned from Chicago in 1997 adjusts to $17.29 million by today’s standards, and for the first time that adjustment produces players who — considering inflation — begin to justify by performance their earning power. The closest financial comp in the current game is Yankee first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who will make $17 million in the second season of a four-year deal.
Rizzo’s 2022 average was a disappointing .222, but he did deliver power in the form of 32 home runs and an .817 OPS. At age 32, he also remains a more-than-competent first baseman.