There are three axioms about professional athletes. One: The faster they run. the slower they walk. Willie McGee can go to first base in less than four seconds, but take along a cot and a book if you want to watch him make it from his couch to the fridge. Two: The easier the sport, the uglier the sport coat. The day you see a golfer dressed up is the day you find out what happened to Secretariat's old blankets. And three: The more money an athlete makes, the more strong men it takes to pry a $5 bill from his fingers.
Big-bucks jocks are among the cheapest creatures in the hemisphere. I've known guys pulling down $1 million a year who have never read an unwrinkled newspaper. Guys who have stared at more open palms than a storefront gypsy. Guys who have an uncanny ability to disguise themselves as shrubbery every time the check comes.
Ask Victoria Benson, a waitress in Pittsburgh. In a letter to The Pittsburgh Press, she said that on three consecutive nights she received the following tips from Steelers: $1.86 on a $108.14 check, $3 on $90.38, and nothing on an $86.09 check. Here's a Christmas idea for the Steeler in your life: a handy wallet-sized tip chart.
Baseball players are famous for squeezing nickels into quarters. For instance, at the end of the season it's customary to bestow generous tips on the equipment manager and clubhouse man. Two years ago, Texas Rangers equipment manager Joe Macko opened his tip from one of the pitchers and found the grand sum of $9. Paint the town beige, Joe.
I once went to dinner with an NFL cornerback making more than $600,000 a year. He drove an extra block and a half so he could park his car in the 75-cent lot instead of paying $2 to a valet. After dinner—and after I had picked up the $100-some-thing check—the maitre d' wanted to meet the famous athlete.
"Oh, Monsieur, it iz ze great-est plaizure to meet you," said the maitre d'. To which the cornerback pulled out the parking ticket and said, "Do you validate?"
One reason people found it hard to believe that Pete Rose had a big-time gambling jones is that Rose is so tight that if he winks, his kneecaps move. A former Cincinnati Reds teammate of Rose's, Bernie Carbo, remembers a meeting at which the players decided to pool the money they would receive for being named the star of the game and use it to throw a big party after the season. Rose refused to go along. According to Carbo, Rose said. "I'm going to be the star of the game a majority of the times, so why should I pay for the party?"
From that day on, Reds would pitch pennies into Rose's locker. What did Rose do? He got a big piggy bank and kept it in his locker. By the end of the season, it was filled.
Golf also has more than its share of tightwads. It is said that Sam Snead has the first dollar he ever made—buried in a tomato can in his backyard. George Low, a fringe golfer of the 1940s and '50s, who was also known as America's Guest, was famous for always having to borrow a dime to mark his ball. Low probably never played a round where he didn't make at least $1.80.
Nowadays, all you have to do is switch on one of the home shopping networks to see how low athletes will go for dough. Take our heroes who appear on the Cable Value Network. What they do is sit on a chair in the studio and hawk their signatures for an hour or two. And what bargains! A ball signed by Reggie Jackson, for instance, goes for only $39.92. It won't have your name on it, and you won't get to talk to Mr. October when you phone in your order—thanks to CVN, now athletes don't even have to meet you to cash in on you—but it does come with a handsome stand. Why do Reggie and other athletes demean themselves in this fashion? Because, says Jackson, "it's $75,000 to $100,000 for three days of work. You can't pass that up."
Rose (surprise!) had a hand in the worst example of this sort of thing: Hours after being banned from baseball for life, he was on CVN hawking autographed jerseys, balls and bats.
Anyway, I bring all this up only because something weird happened with the planets last week and the world uncovered a few exceptions to Axiom Three. One was Wayne Gretzky, who announced that he was giving to the Hockey Hall of Fame the sticks he used when he tied and then broke the alltime NHL scoring record. He's donating 11 other sticks to charities, which will get thousands for them. Gretzky wants nothing. Can you imagine if Rose had broken that record? He would be cutting up the ice in square-foot chunks and selling them out of a freezer truck.
Then came word that in the days after the Bay Area earthquake, many of the Oakland A's and San Francisco Giants were writing checks to relief organizations. Well done, gentlemen. Thanks. You have lifted hearts. And if you're ever in Pittsburgh, we know this great restaurant....