Earlier this month, baseball restarted in South Korea, with teams competing in empty stadiums. In the United States, however, sports leagues remain shut down indefinitely as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.
While the stoppages haven’t generated any financial anxiety for major league athletes, minor league baseball players — who receive a small stipend during spring training and poverty wages during the season itself — are feeling the financial heat. For a time, minor leaguers were caught in an economic limbo. “They can’t take a part-time job, because they don’t know when they’ll have to depart suddenly to head back to spring training,” the Wall Street Journal explained in March. “They can’t collect unemployment, because they are technically still employed by their baseball teams. Now that they aren’t in spring training [any]more, they will no longer get the team-provided lodging and meals.”
Major League Baseball (MLB) has since announced that farm system players will get $400 a week through the end of May — a pittance that merely dramatizes the year-to-year plight of most players. Thousands of minor leaguers take home as little as $290 after sixty- to seventy-hour workweeks. The main reason: unlike their major league counterparts, minor league players don’t have a union.
The group Advocates for Minor Leaguers (AML) is trying to change that. Launched earlier this month, the organization is mainly composed of retired ballplayers (including Garrett Broshuis, a pitcher-turned-lawyer who is representing a group of players suing MLB over low wages) as well as the labor activist Bill Fletcher Jr. In a press release announcing the group’s establishment, AML notes a key difference between minor league baseball players and minor league hockey players: the latter are part of a union. That has yielded a starting salary of $47,500 a year (most MiLB players make less than $7,500 a year, according to AML) and a per diem three times higher than their baseball counterparts.
One of the AML’s cofounders is former utility player Ty Kelly, who had stints in the major leagues with the Philadelphia Phillies and the New York Mets. He told me in an interview that public awareness of minor leaguers’ poor working conditions is increasing. “A lot more people have been talking about it recently even before this,” Kelly said. “There’s a lot more information for people now, and it’s a lot easier to develop a following of people.”
Kelly wasn’t always on board. When Broshuis launched his lawsuit against MLB in 2014 claiming that conditions in its farm system violated federal law, Kelly was intrigued but didn’t get involved for fear of what it might do to his career. It’s a common problem: in a league full of kids chasing their dreams and trying to get their big break, there’s plenty of apprehension about ruffling feathers.
“A lot of guys don’t want to complain,” Kelly told me. “Whatever you have to put up with in the minors, in some ways, guys think they deserve it. I didn’t want to be in [the lawsuit]. I didn’t want to rock the boat.”
Under the current system, every player signs a seven-year contract upon entering the league. Most don’t play long enough to see the end of it, but those who do become free agents, able to bargain for their own salary. But because minor league players lack the collective heft of a union, free agents are still at the mercy of ownership.
The AML website features testimony from an anonymous minor leaguer whose contract was set to expire this year. The situation remains dire, he explains, despite the aforementioned stipend.
I realize many might say, “at least you are being paid $400 per week and aren’t completely out of a job.” My response would be that, after grinding through seven years of injuries, personal sacrifices, long bus rides, and enough PB&J sandwiches to last a lifetime, I earned the opportunity to sign a contract that would finally pay me enough to get by. And so did every other free agent that is being underpaid by MLB. We made major life decisions based on our free agent contracts; maybe we bought our first home, or an engagement ring, or even just paid off some student loans. For some, $400 per week may now mean postponing a wedding, remaining in debt for another year or two, or defaulting on a loan.
Whatever the case may be, our lives are being put on hold because we are voiceless. The MLBPA [Major League Baseball Players Association] chooses not to represent us. But now more than ever, minor leaguers need a union, or something like the MLBPA, to ensure that no one is left behind.
Last November, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred floated a plan to improve conditions for minor league players and upgrade stadiums — but it came with a catch. Manfred said that if minor league owners didn’t pony up more money, he might be forced to eliminate forty-two teams. The announcement generated opposition from many lawmakers in affected towns and cities. At least one member of Congress also complained about players’ working conditions. In a letter to Manfred, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders threatened Minor League Baseball’s antitrust exemption and insisted that players have a voice on the job: “Pay the minor league players a living wage,” Sanders wrote, “and make it easier for them to join a union.”
Advocates for minor leaguers make clear that they are not a labor union. But perhaps they’re planting the seeds for a bona fide union in the future. It couldn’t come soon enough.
Last month, Baseball America reported that Minor League Baseball might be on the verge of negotiating a deal that would accept the forty-two-team cut. With a pandemic currently gripping the nation, political opposition to the plan has clearly weakened. MLB has already reduced the amateur draft to five rounds, a clear segue to eliminating actual teams.
Minor league players have had no say in any of this. “In cutting forty-two teams and shrinking the draft down to five rounds, Major League Baseball is cutting hundreds of minor league jobs while minor leaguers get no say in it,” Kelly told me. “Major League Baseball has no one to hold them accountable for their treatment of minor leaguers — and they will continue to take advantage of them until those players have representation.”