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Why “Bonus Baby” is a Derogatory Term

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June 7, 2010

Today is the Baseball Draft and I thought I’d share with you a history lesson about the phrase “Bonus Baby,” where it came from, and why, to this day, it is considered every bit as much a derogatory term for a ballplayer as is the crudest name you can imagine someone calling you.

“Bonus Baby,” in its origins, has absolutely nothing to do with baseball. The term was born out of the social and economic strife of the Great Depression. According to newspaper accounts, a ‘Bonus Baby’ was one of the newborn babies born to protesting World War I veterans, who in 1932, marched on Washington D.C. and erected makeshift slums in front of the Capital. The veterans, known as the “Bonus Army,” were demanding bonus payments of $1.25 for each day served overseas and $1.00 for every day served in the United States. The awards had been granted in 1924 but weren’t to be paid until 1945. The Depression forced Vets to march for their money. Two children who were born to these protestors were thus called in contemporary newspaper accounts, ‘Bonus Babies.’ The protest led to a violent conclusion.

This is not meant as a political statement in any way, shape or form. The term “Bonus Baby,” while first meant for the children, soon grew to apply to the protestors themselves. It was a derogatory term for anyone who stood up for what they thought was their fair value. It also began to be applied to people who were believed to have been overtly entitled. The term gained popularity again in 1941 when baseball writers – always pro-ownership in those days – applied it to outfielder Dick Wakefield. The Detroit Tigers signed him in 1941 for $52,000 from the University of Michigan – an astronomical sum. The “Bonus Baby” term was slapped on Wakefield and hounded him as he tried to get his feet on the ground. Established players derided young bonus players. Wakefield was called the next Ted Williams. The real Ted Williams snarled, “He was never as good a hitter as I am.”

All bonus players were generally called “Bonus Babies.” You can pick any one of them and follow the research and you will find that the term “Bonus Baby” is not put on them in a positive way. A “Bonus Baby” was a player who, somehow, didn’t deserve what he got and should be chastised for being human in a human game.

That aspect of it survives into today. For all the years I have spent around baseball players, I have never once – not in high school, colleges, minors, majors – ever heard a ballplayer say “I was a bonus baby.” No – but they will say it about another player, and it is never in a nice way. Never. As Eddie Mathews once shouted to Paul Pettit, the first player signed for a $100,000 bonus in 1950, one muggy night in New Orleans after Pettit had struck him out: “You Bonus Baby Son of a B-tch!”

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