In the days before it was routine to sign contracts worth the GDP of a small country, baseball players often had to put down their bat and gloves during the off-season and earn some extra scratch away from the diamond. Each of these Hall-of-Famers found unique ways to fill their pockets when they weren't filling box scores.
1. John McGraw
The temperamental McGraw is best known for his three-decade reign as manager for the New York Giants, during which time he earned the nickname “Little Napoleon” because of his diminutive size and fiery demeanor. His antics often left players scowling in the dugout, but the Truxton, NY native was capable of drawing smiles and laughs, too.
In 1912, McGraw went on a 15-week tour on the B.F. Keith vaudeville circuit, appearing alongside acts like “Odiva the Goldfish Lady.” He immediately became the highest paid performer in vaudeville at the time, but despite the pay, McGraw was lax about rehearsing. Bozeman Bulger of the New York Evening World, who wrote most of McGraw’s material, helped the manager memorize his lines by sticking the skipper in a taxicab and telling the chauffeur to drive around Central Park until McGraw put the lines to memory. Two nights later, McGraw made his debut and didn’t miss a line, with Bulger noting that McGraw “[became] a delightful speaker.”
Performing six days a week in New York, Boston, St. Louis, and Chicago, McGraw survived the experience, but in the end, he felt more comfortable in the dugout than the theater. “I’ll admit I cannot get used to this stress,” he said. “It’s a daily reminder that I have nerves.”
2. Honus Wagner
One of the game's first great players was actually paid pretty well compared to some contemporaries and was constantly trying —and failing—to find successful investments for his earnings. After receiving one particularly big raise in 1908, the Pirates shortstop made what proved to be fruitless investments with Geyser Oil Co. and the Felcht Auto Co.
The most notable of his failed ventures that winter, though, was the Wagner Brothers Circus. Honus Wagner was to bankroll the operation, with brothers Al and Luke set to operate the show. Besides providing the startup money, Honus Wagner’s role with the circus was a little unclear.
Wrote The Sporting News, “His contract does not call for his personal presence with the company, but it has been pointed out to him that it would be a tremendous advertisement and do much to swell the box office receipts to have him lead the daily parades in his big white automobile, or better still, armed with a baseball bat, astride one of the huge elephants.”
Sadly, the Wager Brothers Circus venture collapsed before producing its first show, and The Flying Dutchman never got his elephant ride.
3. Christy Mathewson
In the early days of pro baseball, players were often underpaid by their teams but presented with unique opportunities because of their fame. Among the first players to truly take advantage of his reputation for profit was Mathewson.
Hailing from Factoryville, Pa., the right-hander spent just about all of his 17-year career pitching for the New York Giants. Baseball grew into national interest during his career (1900-1916) and became a matter of the utmost importance in New York. Children impersonated Mathewson’s pitching motion in the streets, men talked of his greatness in pool halls, and thousands came out to see him pitch at the famed Polo Grounds each summer.
Mathewson became one of the first ballplayers to begin signing endorsement deals, using his name to help companies sell their products. Among the goods he shilled were Arrow shirts, collars, leg garters, undergarments, sweaters, and athletic equipment.
The hurler explored other opportunities, too, including the chance to put his name on a saloon, but was shot down by his mother, who asked, “Do you really want your name associated with a place like that?”
4. Babe Ruth
During the 1920s, Ruth became a transcendent star, catapulting himself to become baseball’s most famous player. But before the Sultan of Swat earned his crown and the riches that came with it, he, like most other ballplayers of his time, spent his off-seasons looking for ways to turn his moderate fame into a quick buck.
In 1920, the Babe earned some extra cash and further vaulted himself into the national spotlight by starring in a movie titled Headin’ Home. Ruth, not exactly the most fleet of foot in the outfield, showed comparable range on the big screen. The Yankee slugger starred as a country bumpkin who makes it big time as a baseball player (not too deep of a reach for the star slugger who arrived for his first spring training a quiet country kid).
The film wasn’t quite award-winning material. Per Variety, “It couldn’t hold the interest of anyone for five seconds if it were not for the presence of [Ruth]." Or, as one IMDB reviewer puts it, “Babe Ruth was as wooden as one of his bats.”
5. Mordecai Brown
The long-time Chicago Cubs right-handed pitcher is most remembered for his brutally honest moniker, “Three Finger” Brown. The Nyesville, Ind., native lost most of his pointer finger to a piece of farming equipment as a child, a curse-turned-blessing when Brown discovered his mangled hand allowed him to do unprecedented things while throwing a baseball.
“Three Finger” was only one of two nicknames Brown went by, the other being “Miner.” Indeed, Brown spent his teenage years working as a coal miner and playing on weekend teams against miners from other locations. It was while playing for the Coxville mining squad that Brown was discovered by an opponent from nearby Brazil. The skipper offered Brown more money than what he was making, so Brown jumped ship. The move jumpstarted his ascent to the majors, a journey completed when he debuted for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1903 at the age of 26.
6. Yogi Berra
Berra became famous as a baseball player with a way for words, but he also had a gift for convincing people to take him at his. The Yankee catcher found tremendous success as a salesman throughout his career, a talent he’s maintained into the 21st century.
The backstop spend the early part of his baseball career working off-seasons in various odd jobs, including as a salesman in the hardware section of a Sears Roebuck and also as a head waiter. Then in 1951, he and teammate Phil Rizzuto found offseason work at the American Shops in Newark, N.J.
But in 1955, a stroke of fate—a golf shot, to be precise—helped make Berra the face of a budding U.S. institution. While playing 18 holes on a course in Haworth, N.J., Berra met two members of the Oliveri family, owners of the Yoo-Hoo chocolate drink company. Berra began appearing in ads for them soon after, and by February of 1956, he’d been named a vice president in the company.
Berra didn’t receive compensation for his ads, but instead took stock in the company. Berra convinced fellow Yankees like Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford to do endorsement deals, helping Yoo-Hoo develop into one of the country’s fastest growing beverages.
7. Roy Campanella
Another famous New York catcher, Campanella became one of the first black ball players to find success in the Major Leagues after following Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1948.
Campanella penned his first Dodger contract in 1946, spending two seasons playing in the team’s minor league system. He took a hefty pay cut from his Negro League salary to do so, and was eager to find alternative sources of income.
While playing for Nashua in the Eastern League, Campanella came into some easy cash when a local poultry farmer offered a reward of 100 baby chickens for every Nashua homer. Campanella led the league with 14 round-trippers that year and used his 1,400-chicken reward to begin a farming business, which his father operated for him.
After he reached Brooklyn and found success, Campanella opened Roy Campanella Choice Wines and Liquors in Harlem, where he spent his offseason working daily. It was while leaving the liquor store one day in January of 1958 that Campanella was permanently disabled in an auto accident, effectively ending his career and forcing him to use a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
8. Lefty Gomez
It didn’t take long for Gomez to earn his way to the major leagues, debuting with the Yankees as a 21-year-old in 1930 before embarking on a 14-year career as a left-handed pitcher. The path to earn that big league spot, though, was a messy one.
After the teenage Gomez was turned away by the San Francisco Seals Pacific Coast League team in 1923, he took a summer job with Union Oil, scraping sludge out of the refinery’s stills. His hope was to join up with the company’s baseball team, but Lefty and a group of coworkers were left off the squad by its manager, who referred to the group as a bunch of “screwbeanies.”
Lefty and the group formed their own team instead, adopting the “Screwbeanies” as a team name. The ‘Beanies went on to finish 15-5 and win their league title, while the Union Oil squad reportedly finished last in its own league.
A few years later, Gomez was given an invite to join the Yankees at spring training in St. Petersburg, Fla., but they didn’t give the hurler train fare for the cross-country trip. Instead, Gomez spent the offseason working as an assistant at Universal Studios in Hollywood, where he pitched on Sundays for the Hollywood Hills club team.
As his career wound down, Gomez found himself strapped for cash and worked as a recreational director for a defense company in lower Manhattan while playing semi-pro ball in Brooklyn. After he retired, he latched on as a top salesman with Wilson Sporting Goods, working for the company for over 30 years.
9. Lou Brock
In the mid-1960s, Brock bloomed into one of the game’s most exciting players, leading the league in stolen bases eight times and earning his way into six All-Star Games.
"Larcenous Lou" may have become famous for his lightning-fast legs, but he also boasted something of a green thumb. As the Associated Press’ Charlie Barouh outlined in a 1969 article, one of Brock’s first off-field investments was a flower shop in St. Louis, which he owned and operated.
Brock entered the business without a floral background, but was unfazed by his inexperience—he asked one bemused reporter, “Did anybody ever ask Rockefeller why he went into the oil business?” While Brock’s flower shop never grew to the size of Standard Oil, it did very well, giving Brock a good chunk of alternative income.
10. Pie Traynor
Traynor enjoyed a 17-year career as a third baseman with the Pirates, but was often concerned about his financial security. Prior to signing his first contract, Traynor played ball sparingly while working as a “car checker” in West Virginia during World War I. The future Hall of Famer rode on horseback 12 hours a day, checking arriving and departing railroad freighters for explosives.
After he turned pro, Traynor unwisely decided to invest alongside Wagner, his teammate in Pittsburgh. The pair opened a doomed sporting goods store together that lasted for less than two years, separating Traynor from some of the little money he’d earned playing ball.
Money problems plagued Traynor at the end of his career, but not long after retiring he launched a successful sports talk radio show, “The Pie Traynor Club,” which ran on KQV for 21 years until he was displaced by Howard Cosell’s syndicated sports show.
Honorable Mentions from Outside the Hall:
Rudolph had a six-year career as a pitcher with the White Sox, Reds, Indians, and Senators, but he gained far more fame for what he did during his off-seasons.
In 1954, Rudolph and a few pals ventured into a burlesque show featuring Patti, a popular stripper known nationwide as the “Coed With the Educated Torso.” Rudolph sat through three of Patti’s shows before declaring it “love at third sight.” Patti—full name Patricia Brownell—initially rebuffed Rudolph’s advances, but eventually caved and wound up marrying him.
The pitcher spent his off-seasons working as Patti’s manager and publicist. Among his chief duties: catching Patti’s clothes when she flung them offstage, packing and unpacking the 6-foot-2 mannequin she used in a “Parisian number,” and ensuring her lipstick was the right color.
Hebner spent most of his career as an infielder with Pittsburgh, belting 203 home runs and finishing 21st in the MVP voting in 1974. Good as he was at launching baseballs into the air, it was what Hebner put in the ground that caught the most attention.
Hebner, like his grandfather and father before him, spent a good chunk of his life digging graves at his family-owned cemetery in Massachusetts.
“My grandfather had it first, and then my father had it, and then my brother took it over,” Hebner told MLive in 2011. “I dug graves for 35 years with a pick and shovel.”
As MLive outlined in that story, the West Michigan Whitecaps honored Hebner’s second career with a “Grave Digger” Richie Hebner bobblehead, featuring Hebner in a Detroit Tigers uniform with a shovel in his hands.