Sports Nut

Minor Leagues, Microscopic Paychecks

Should we care that a huge number of low-level ballplayers make as little as $1,100 per month?

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

In February, three former minor leaguers sued Major League Baseball for violation of wage and overtime laws, alleging that they’re “powerless” in the face of the “collusive power of the MLB cartel.” A month later, the suit was amended to include more former players from 17 different organizations, as well as one current minor leaguer. These men had the courage to put into writing what anybody who has spent time around a minor league team already knows: Players are wildly underpaid for the obscene amount of hours they work.

More specifically, the suit argues that minor league compensation violates the Fair Labor Standards Act, which requires that any employee’s pay not fall below minimum wage and that all employees receive time-and-a-half for work done beyond a standard 40-hour week. Michael McCann has a great legal analysis at Sports Illustrated, which notes that baseball franchises are not exempt from this federal law, and it “may therefore be difficult for baseball to convince a judge to swiftly dismiss the case.” He continues by suggesting that the “longer the case goes, the more willing baseball may be to settle and perhaps change the way minor leaguers are paid.”

Personally, I have no idea if the players can win. But aside from the eventual courtroom outcome, there’s a larger, subtler issue at hand. What interests me about this suit is that it challenges the way we look at athletes, asking us a question that we’d rather ignore: Do we really care about a ballplayer’s rights?

After all, nobody is keeping minor league exploitation a secret. It’s just that we don’t talk about it with words like exploitation, powerless, poverty, and cartel—the kind of language that more often attaches itself to discussions about the NCAA. The baseball world prefers gritty and character and sacrifice. Movies and memoirs revel in those words when they dramatize the minor league experience, with its low wages and interminable bus trips. Current major leaguers love to talk about how they struggled on the way up and how they wouldn’t trade that experience for any in the world. Minor league base salaries are even public information, right there on the official website: a $1,100 monthly maximum for first-year players, with a $25 per diem, all of that paid only during the five- to six-month season. Salaries are “open to negotiation” after the first season, but what leverage do the players have? (There is no minor league players union.) At the highest rung of the minors, AAA, a player can expect to earn more than $2,000 monthly, some a good deal more. Those players, though, have already put a lot of years into the game, and the pay remains a pittance at the lower levels, where most major league hopefuls remain.

So we know. Even if we don’t know all the specifics or the legalese, any baseball fan has a vague idea of how hard it is for a minor leaguer to make ends meet. These aren’t just realities that we tolerate or ignore. They’re a big reason why we love the game. A young player’s poverty (though never described as such) is romantic. It’s tradition. Sit in the stands at a minor league game and someone will bring it up, usually with a smile: These boys are playing for peanuts. The logic, we’ve come to believe, is that if a player isn’t paid the big money, then he must be out there for love or joy or honor.

I spent the 2010 season writing about the single-A Clinton LumberKings. I came to the project because I was enamored by this vague idea of the minors—coltish, gifted young men on borrowed furniture, surrounded by pizza boxes, buoyed by limitless ambition. I got what I went looking for. The only surprise was how quickly the romance of the image began to comingle with the sense that this was all entirely indefensible.

The LumberKings players lived in a small, struggling Iowa town, where many of them (those who didn’t receive big signing bonuses) were among the poorest residents. And they knew it. Every day, they were reminded of it. They lived in the town’s worst apartment complexes. They crammed four or five players into one- and two-bedroom apartments, sometimes studios. On biweekly paydays, they would climb into my hatchback and I’d drive to the Super Walmart at the edge of town, where some would cash their checks, buy groceries in bulk, and try to work out how much extra money they’d need for the next 14 days. They returned home exhausted, some sleeping side-by-side on air mattresses on the floor, got up the next day, and went to work as professional athletes.

For evening games, many of the players showed up to the field around noon. If the game started at 7 p.m., they’d be done playing at 10 p.m. at the earliest. Then it was back to the clubhouse to shower, listen to any last announcement from the manager, maybe answer questions from a local reporter. They’d be out on the street by 11 p.m. at the earliest. That’s an 11-hour shift repeated at least six times weekly. The only way to mark off time was to note how far away you were from the next paycheck and to try to figure whether your supply of cash could last that long. Ask a minor leaguer what day of the week it is; he will have no idea. That’s because it doesn’t matter. He is always working, and when he’s not working, he’s traveling to work on bus rides that can be up to 10 hours long.

But again, these are all things we know, right? Players are forever in the clubhouse. Baseball runs on an impossible schedule. Road trips are long. Buses are uncomfortable. The necessary shift happens when we see all this as labor. Young men who make less than a full-time fast-food employee are asked to work overtime without overtime pay, taking hardly any days off, and if they refuse to do what they’re told, they will be fired without severance. Sure, there’s a lot complicating this basic truth. These guys play a game, one that many of us love so much that we pay to watch them do it. They have agents who represent them, who supply them with free gloves and, in the case of a very lucky few, multimillion-dollar signing bonuses. A handful of them, usually the same lucky few, will make the majors. That aspiration is what they all play for. But aspiration does not change working reality.

Part of what draws us to the minor leagues is a sense of timelessness. You can pay $6 for a ticket, buy a cheap beer, sit with your family in old-school bleachers, and watch baseball at its purest, whatever that means. The players’ struggle fits into that sense of nostalgia and simplicity. They’re paid just like they were paid half a century ago. They find off-season work to get them from September to March, just like major leaguers did before their salaries exploded. I knew one player who sold paper at Staples, another who worked on his father’s landscaping crew. They did their jobs well and did not complain.

I remember interviewing one coach, a former player then in his mid-50s, at a picnic table overlooking left field. He was talking about the financial options available to his players, thinking back to his own waning playing days. He reminded me that some players already had college degrees, and some could find a way to go back and finish. Then he gave me a hypothetical scenario. A player returns to his small American hometown and applies for a post office job. It’s between him and another guy, but the player has the edge because he was in the minor leagues, carries himself with a certain pride and work ethic, and is maybe even locally famous. Nine times out of 10, the coach told me, the ballplayer gets that job.

Even without the particularly poignant choice of postal work as the sample secure profession, it’s a telling line of logic. The coach was offering me an ideal that a lot of us have, about baseball being tied to promise, fairness, and functional small-town America. It’s an ideal that had nothing to do with any of his players’ lives. The modern minor leaguer isn’t some talented local kid giving the game a whirl; he’s a pro who has been groomed in this single-minded pursuit for most of his life. Often there are a lot of people financially dependent on his talent. Some LumberKings actually saved part of their meager monthly salaries to send home to their families. Some had children to feed. Many came from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, having been moved from their hometowns in pursuit of baseball when they were 14 years old. They had committed everything to a game that committed far less than minimum wage to them.

I still love the minors. Watching single-A baseball gave me some of the best experiences of my life. Players battled admirably, local fans supported them with a level of care that I’ve never seen at any other sporting event, and beer was cheap. But none of those things would change if the players received a fair wage, and that’s something worth remembering, even as the 2014 season begins and there are major league superstars to watch on TV. In baseball’s multibillion-dollar ecosystem, most of the players, highly skilled workers who have trained extensively for their jobs, are paid wages that are illegal in any conventional industry. Yes, they have aspirations that we celebrate. We shouldn’t punish them for those aspirations.