I’m a longtime fan of minor league baseball. It’s local. It’s great family fun—inexpensive, engaging, and entertaining. And it has personal meaning, too. Going to the ballpark was a central feature of my youth—memorable experiences that I’ve written about (“When Minor Becomes Major”).
Minor league baseball also produces economic benefits for hundreds of cities and towns with teams. It creates jobs in sports administration, facilities management, marketing, and food-customer service. It generates local tax revenues.
What could be better?
Well, lurking beneath all the positives is a chronic dark space. In exchange for a shot at “The Bigs” most minor league players earn next to nothing. Baseball America estimates that players make between $275 and $550 a week during the minor league season. The average salary works out to be between $3000 and $7500 a year, depending on player and league level. The Mets’ Curtis Granderson was quoted in USA Today as saying that a minor league friend of his has $100 a month left after paying for living expenses and taxes.
MLB, which governs Minor League Baseball, has an anti-trust exception on its side: it pays what it prefers. And the players don't have a union to represent them.
Granted, MLB pays some players very well: there are signing bonuses ($224 million last year, USA Today reports) and money for college scholarships. But big-money incentives are a central feature of baseball’s business model. It’s critical to sign the best players with the greatest potential. Then, let them—and all the others—compete for roster spots on teams at all levels … from short-season Class A ball to Class AAA. Those who don’t make it will be replaced and those who get to The Majors will make big money. It’s a classic example of survival of the fittest.
Minor league baseball needs large numbers of low-paid workers—year after year—to keep operations alive and to ensure that club owners make enough money to keep the doors open.
How many make it? The Wall Street Journal reported that only about 17% of players drafted and signed from 1987 through 2008 played at least one game in The Majors (source: 2013 survey by Baseball America.)
What about all the others? In several, fundamental ways the minor leagues resemble a sweatshop. Minor league baseball needs large numbers of low-paid workers—year after year—to keep operations alive and to ensure that club owners make enough money to keep the doors open. Players work long hours (factor in travel-time bus rides). They don’t have job security. Pay is low. The average minor leaguer gets $25 per diem in food money.
And with American kids focusing more and more on other competitive sports (football and basketball in particular) many professional baseball players are Latinos who migrate to the US from Central and South America—and now Cuba—in search of fame and fortune. The migration amounts to about 1 in 3 Latin players in Major League Baseball.
But this is a business, after all, and Minor League Baseball (MiLB) acts the part. There is talk that League executives will seek Federal action to add baseball to the list of occupations where workers are exempt from receiving the Federal minimum wage. The move, which some see as a reaction to the national trend to raise hourly pay, is onerous for minor leaguers. If the concept becomes law, minor leaguers will be in the same pay category as—get this—seasonal agricultural workers and babysitters.
It’s no surprise, then, that a group of former minor leaguers has filed a lawsuit against the MLB. It’s about pay. One of the arguments: the inflation rate in this country has increased 400% since 1976, USA Today reports, but the pay for minor leaguers has increased by 75%. Salaries for major leaguers, on the other hand, has increased over 2000%.
A trial date is scheduled for February 2017. If former players win the case, that outcome could change the landscape of Minor League Baseball. Some speculate it could lead to MiLB’s contraction, that is, force some teams in smaller markets to close their doors.
But business closings are always a possibility whenever there are significant pay issues between labor and management. The difference this time may be the attitudes of those most affected—the players.
How many minor leaguers are likely to speak up with their careers on the line? That’s especially the case in an occupation where workers have gone through identical experiences, generation after generation, with low pay, long hours, and uncertain futures. Perhaps that's why some major leaguers don’t have much sympathy for their minor league brethren. As Jorge Ortis wrote in USA Today: “Many current major leaguers see the grind of the minors as a rite of passage and even an incentive to work on their game to earn a promotion.”
But that type of thinking only galvanizes a system that’s in great need of reform—a system that goes through players like they’re part-time workers at McDonald’s. A better option is fixing what’s wrong.
Let’s make sure that summer fun for baseball fans doesn’t come at the expense of fair compensation for baseball players.
The Sports Column