Like Al Kaline's status back in the day, Tigers rightfully treating Miggy Cabrera like today's "Mr. Tiger"

Leon Halip

The Tigers' reported contract extension offer to Miguel Cabrera is for about $30 million a year. All things considered, they got off cheap.

Jim Campbell was a button-downed, no-nonsense baseball executive---a curmudgeon who didn't give a damn what people thought about him, particularly the paying customers.

But Campbell, the Tigers GM from 1963 to 1983 before becoming a team VP, bled Bengal Blue. He was loyal to his boss, owner John Fetzer, and he managed Fetzer's money like it was Campbell's very own.

Campbell was GM in the days of baseball's infamous Reserve Clause, which shackled players to their teams at the ankles with a ball and chain. The clause basically said that a player was under team control for perpetuity, unless traded or released. The contracts were pretty much just renewable, one-year "pacts."

In the matter of trades, the player's new team simply became the player's new master.

The Reserve Clause didn't stop the star players from trying to leverage their teams with holdouts. Sometimes those holdouts were even moderately successful in squeezing a few more bucks out of the owners. Sometimes.

Campbell, freshly named GM after serving the Tigers in various capacities since 1949, went toe-to-toe with Rocky Colavito in 1963. Colavito was the reigning home run champ when Campbell's predecessor, Bill DeWitt, and Cleveland's Frank Lane engineered a trade that turned baseball on its ear just before the 1960 season.

The Tigers traded Harvey Kuenn, defending batting champion, for Colavito, the home run king. It remains, to this day, the only time a batting champion has been traded for a home run champ, even up.

Lane, chomping on his cigar, bragged to the press that he had traded "hamburger for steak."

Colavito, whose eye-popping home run swing was augmented by a powerful and deadly accurate right arm that was a defensive bonus in the outfield, nonetheless drew some ire from fans and his own teammates when he balked at his salary following the 1961 season.

Colavito wanted to be the Tigers' highest-paid player, a distinction the team had always given to Al Kaline. This demand didn't set well with the paying customers, nor with some of the Tigers players.

The holdout played out in the papers---the Tigers versus the Hollywood handsome, crowd-pleasing Colavito, whose moon shots dented Tiger Stadium's left field seats with remarkable frequency.

The Tigers stood firm with their offer, and Colavito finally had no choice but to sign.

So when Campbell was elevated to GM in 1963, having watched the Colavito drama play out as a junior executive in the scouting department two years earlier, one of Campbell's first moves was to trade Colavito, to the Kansas City A's.

The notion of a player who had been a Tiger for just two seasons, daring to ask to be paid more than Kaline, rankled team loyalist Campbell.

Six years after trading Colavito, Campbell called Kaline into his office during the off-season to offer the Tigers legend, then 34 years old, the team's first-ever $100,000 per year contract.

Kaline, despite all he had done for the Tigers, demurred.

"I don't feel that I am worthy of such a salary," Kaline told Campbell.

Two years later, in 1971, Campbell again offered Kaline $100,000, and this time the GM didn't take no for an answer.

That was a long time ago.

Even after the Reserve Clause was legally blasted out of baseball's waters like a hydrogen bomb explosion in 1975, the Tigers didn't get involved in the brand new free agency craze that swept the sport.

Fans were frustrated that Campbell didn't place any bids on players that were getting crazy (at the time) money to switch allegiances. Campbell, adding to the frustration and rancor, couldn't care less what the fans thought. He felt that the salaries being offered at the time would have been a gross mismanagement of his boss's cash.

The Tigers' first free agent in the post-Reserve Clause era was second baseman Tito Fuentes, who Campbell signed for one year at $90,000 in 1977. Campbell got lucky; Fuentes hit over .300 for the first and only time in his long MLB career with the Tigers in ‘77.

Miguel Cabrera, if the numbers that are being reported about his new contract extension are accurate, is slated to make what Al Kaline once rejected, by playing the first five innings of the 2014 season.

Kaline's famous $100,000 salary can be made in about 55% of Cabrera's first game. Cabrera's reported $30 million per year, when divided by 162 games, equates to about $185,000 per game.

Oh, Jim Campbell, what would you say about baseball's finances today?

The salary of a pro athlete has long moved past the age-old complaint/question of "Who is WORTH that kind of money?"

No one, obviously.

Cabrera's extension, however, isn't about worth. It's about stature.

Campbell sneered internally when Rocky Colavito, after just two years as a Tiger, wanted to make more money than the homegrown, humble Al Kaline.

As soon as he had the power to do so, Campbell traded Colavito, banishing him to the then-awful KC Athletics. No one would supplant the great Kaline as the team's highest-paid player.

The Tigers have rightfully announced to the baseball world that Miguel Cabrera, in his prime, is a player who shall never play for another team again. He is the game's best hitter, one of the best of all-time, and he shall be paid as such.

Cabrera is the second coming of Ty Cobb, and then some.

Cabrera, the Tigers are saying with the extension being reported today, isn't merely a ballplayer, he's the 21st century Mr. Tiger.

When Cabrera is honored at Cooperstown by being a first ballot Hall of Famer, sometime in the far future, there will be no mistake as to what baseball cap will be depicted on his plaque.

So some baseball executives around MLB are pissed off about Cabrera's extension.

Tough.

This isn't about "worth," in the narrowest definition of the word. And stop with the complaints that heart surgeons and teachers and even the president don't make anywhere near $30 million per year.

Hasn't it already been established that pro sports salaries aren't to be compared, pound-for-pound, to those of other Americans?

It's time to move past the apples-to-oranges comparisons.

Miguel Cabrera is today's Mr. Tiger. He's the best baseball hitter on the planet, and he's still shockingly young. In two years he could have been a free agent, and one of those disgusted executives from another team would have broken off a check for at least what the Tigers reportedly are prepared to do, had Cabrera hit the open market.

Don't kid yourselves.

Cabrera was going to get his money anyway, from someone, somewhere.

The Tigers would have been derelict to let arguably their greatest player in franchise history walk away.

Yes, the contract extension is huge. It will run past Cabrera's 40th birthday.

But it makes him a Tiger for life.

You can't place a "worth" on that.

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