24/7 Wall St.'s Highest-Paid Players of All Time

5. Joe Montana
> Salary ratio: 11.23
> Sport: football (quarterback)
> Highest salary: $4,000,000 (1990)
> Average player salary: $356,000 (1990)

Joe Montana spent 16 years in the NFL between 1979 and 1994. He spent the last two years of his career with the Kansas City Chiefs, but he is known primarily as team leader and starting quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, a position he held for more than a decade. In 1990, the last year he played a full season with San Francisco, Montana earned $4 million. The average NFL player salary at that point was just $356,000. Montana, nicknamed “Joe Cool,” was famous for his ability to deal with postseason pressure. Over a seven-year period stretching from 1981 through 1990, Montana led the 49ers to four Super Bowl championships, and was himself voted MVP for three of them.

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4. Mario Lemieux
> Salary ratio: 11.5
>Sport: hockey (center)
>Highest salary: $11.32 million (1997)
>Average player salary: $984,000 (1997)

Mario Lemieux is considered by many to be the second-greatest hockey player of all time, trailing only Wayne Gretzky.  Despite a career plagued by health problems–including a fight with cancer and chronic back injuries–and an early retirement, he finished #3 in goals/game, #7 in all time points, #9 in goals, and #10 in assists.  He was the rookie of the year, won 5 MVP awards, skated in 10 All-Star games, and led the Pittsburgh Penguins to their first two Stanley Cups.  Upon his first retirement after the 1996-97 season, he was immediately inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, and became the 3rd player ever to play after being inducted when he returned to the ice in 2000. In 1992, having led the Penguins to back-to-back Stanley Cup championships, Lemieux signed a 7-year, $42 million contract, which would pay him over $11 million in the 1996-97 season.

3. Ty Cobb
> Salary ratio: 12.59
> Sport: baseball (outfielder)
> Highest salary: $85,000 (1927)
> Average player salary: $6,750 (1927)

Ty Cobb played 24 years of baseball between 1905 and 1928. The first 22 of those years were with the Detroit Tigers, with which he never won a World Series. However, over the course of his career, Cobb was outstanding, setting 90 separate records. To date, Cobb still holds the lead in several major categories, including the record for the highest lifetime batting average, at .366. Cobb also led the league in batting average a record 11 seasons, far more than any other player has done. In 1927, after leaving the Tigers, Cobb signed with the Philadelphia Athletics. That year, his second to last season, he earned $85,000, more than 12 times the average player’s salary at the time. Cobb was voted in as one of the first five Baseball Hall of Fame inductees, with 98.2% voting in favor.

2. Michael Jordan
> Salary ratio: 13.98
> Sport: basketball (shooting guard)
> Highest salary: $33.14 million (1998)
> Average player salary: $2.37 million (1998)

By all rights, Michael Jordan deserved to be the highest-paid basketball player of all time. During the 1997-1998 season, in the middle of leading the Bulls to three straight NBA Championships, Jordan was paid $33.14 million, more than 14 times the average NBA player’s salary at the time, and the highest NBA salary ever. Jordan played 13 of his fifteen NBA seasons with the Bulls, winning 6 Championships while with in Chicago. Over his career, Jordan was playoff MVP six times, the NBA MVP five times, and was voted All-Star 14 times. “Air” Jordan holds numerous records, including the most points scored in a single playoff game (63), the most seasons to lead the league in scoring (10), and the most average points per game (30.1). Jordan was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009.

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1. Joe Sakic
> Salary ratio: 14.56
> Sport: hockey (center)
> Highest salary: $17 million (1998)
> Average player salary: $1.17 million (1998)

It should probably come as a surprise that Joe Sakic is the highest-paid player in one of the four major sports. Sakic played his entire 20-year NHL career with the Quebec Nordiques franchise, which became the Colorado Avalanche in 1995. During his tenure, Sakic won two Stanley Cups with the Avalanche, was league MVP during the 2000-2001 season, and was voted to 13 All-Star games. Sakic currently holds the record for the most playoff overtime goals, at 8. In 1998, two years after the Avalanche won the Stanley cup in their first year as a team, the New York Rangers made a substantial offer that Colorado was forced to match. As a result, Sakic earned $17 million that season, more than 14 times the average NHL salary that year of $1.17 million. This deal, arguably more than any other in hockey, made NHL salaries higher than possibly sustainable for small-market teams. This drove the league down the path to its missed 2004-5 season and the subsequent salary cap system that it now has in place.

-Baxter B. Allen, Ashley C. Allen, Michael B. Sauter

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