Tuesday, March 5, 2024

The Exploitation of Minor League Baseball Players

By Max Gamarra

Minor league players work hard to make money for a big organization in the MLB. There is no reason for them not to be treated like actual workers. Yet they continue to be exploited by the MLB and its owners for profit.

Photo credit: (MiLB.com)

In 2019, the average salary for a minor league baseball player ranged from $6,000 in Single-A to $15,000 in Triple-A. To put that into perspective, the U.S. poverty line was $12,490 in 2019, as according to the United States Department of Health and Human Services. Around 86% of minor leaguers are currently below the poverty line, while the other 14% are hovering right above it. Since 1976, the minimum salary in the MLB has increased by around 2500%, while the minimum salary in the MiLB has increased just 70% since 1976. Some players have to resort to working a second job and rationing their meals just to make ends meet. In 2019, Minnesota Twins pitcher Randy Dobnak was working as a driver for ride share companies because he was not able to live off of his minor league salary. Not only are minor league players not paid living wages, many struggle to find proper housing and experience terrible conditions during travel, all while the MLB and its owners are exploiting players for profit. 

The inadequate pay of MiLB players is not due to a lack of resources in MLB. In 2019, Major League Baseball brought in $10.7 billion, shattering the record for revenue in a season. It would cost each major league team around $15 million to raise the salaries of all of their minor league players to $60,000 a year. To put that $15 million into perspective, it would be 0.45% of the net worth of John Middleton, the owner of the Philadelphia Phillies. It would cost roughly $450 million, or 4% of MLB’s total revenue in 2019 ($10.7 B), to pay every minor league player $60,000 a year. For some players, $60,000 is the difference between living in their own apartment or sleeping on the floor of someone else’s. So why do MLB owners choose to not pay their players a living wage? Greed. In 2018, Congress passed the “Save America’s Pastime Act”, which exempts minor league players from federal labor law, essentially allowing MLB teams to pay minor leaguers below minimum wage. The reasons owners don’t pay minor league players more is not because they can’t, but because they would rather have the extra money in their pockets instead of it being in the pockets of someone who needs it more. 

In the minor leagues, housing can be a very big problem for players. In 2014, Dirk Hayhurst wrote about his experience in the minor leagues in an article for Bleacher Report. He wrote that, “In Triple-A, after six years of playing in the minors, I slept on an air mattress on the living room floor of a two-bedroom Portland apartment because I had the least service time of the three players who were living there. One of us slept on a sleeping bag on the floor.” The last time that Hayhurst played in Portland was in 2008. When I spoke with Oakland A’s top prospect Jesús Luzardo about his time in the minor leagues, he said, “In High-A, one of the most difficult times was when we were finding housing. We had four guys sleeping on air mattresses on the floor of a two bedroom apartment.” From 2008 to 2018, when Luzardo first played in High-A, housing conditions have seemingly gotten worse, as the cost of living continues to rise and minor league pay stays the same. Minor leaguers face many challenging problems when it comes to housing. When a player gets traded to a new city, he has to figure out a way to cover the rent for his previous situation and then find a new place to live in the next city, all while being paid poverty-level wages. In any other work environment, these conditions would be considered unfair and severe, but in MiLB, it is considered the way of life. 

There are no easy days in the minor leagues. During spring training, players do not receive a paycheck, only getting $120 a week in meal money. For the players that have to adhere to strict rules about staying in shape and being healthy, this is not enough money to eat healthy meals every day. Instead, a lot of minor league players that are invited to spring training are forced to either eat fast food all week, ration the healthy food that they do get, or sneak out for food out of the complex. Some players have to go through what is called “extended spring training.” During extended spring training (or EST), players are cut off from society for around two and a half months until short-season leagues start up in June. Most of these players are young international kids or are high school kids in the United States who were recently signed. Despite not receive paychecks during this time, these player train rigorously for the majority of the day and have very little contact with the outside world.

During the season, travel can be extremely rough for players. When I asked Luzardo what travel was like in-season, he said, “It was a lot of long bus rides. When I got to Triple-A, we’d take the first flight out of wherever we were and then got on a connecting flight. We’d wake up around 3 am and then play that day. In every league under Triple-A, we would leave on a bus after a game and get to the next place sometime in the morning before the next game. Every player and staff member would be on one bus.” It seems unethical of a multibillion dollar organization to have its workers packed into buses for long rides across the country when they have more than enough resources to change that. I conducted a short interview with Alex Faedo, a pitcher in the Detroit Tigers organization. When I asked Faedo about the travel conditions in the minor leagues, he told me that, “It’s a lot of long bus rides. It’s definitely a grind but I’ve made a lot of cool memories.” 

This grind that most minor league players experience is not your typical “hard work and dedication” grind. It’s about struggling to pay bills or finding a place to sleep at night. Frankly, it’s about a lot of unnecessary things that have nothing to do with baseball. I think that part of the reason that we are not seeing improvements in MiLB is the lack of a players union. The MLBPA frequently bargains away the rights of minor league players and amateur athletes even though MiLB players do not have a say in that decision. Hopefully, we will see MiLB unionize sometime in the near future because the MLBPA does not seem to care about working on the minor league player’s behalf.

It’s hard for minor league players to be taken seriously when they try to fight for better things. They are often dismissed when they complain about these issues because they are “living the dream” or they “play baseball as a job.” But for a lot of these players, this isn’t “the dream”; it is simply their job. They rely on their skills to make a living, just like almost everyone else, so there is absolutely no reason for them to be treated like they aren’t workers. I hope that the minor league players unionize sometime in the near future, because if not, they will continue to be exploited for profit by MLB and owners. 

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