Minor League Baseball serves as the initial step towards achieving the big league dream. For roughly four to six years, aspiring players hone their crafts in the most arduous conditions to hope to catch a break that few ever get to achieve. Less than five percent of professional baseball players ever have their dream realized and the odds become more remote with each passing round of the draft. Through it all they are paid lower wages than a salesman, custodian, or a fast food worker at McDonald’s. Despite some attaining a college education, many will fail to develop a post-career and their aspirations end just shortly after becoming legally able to drink alcohol. Insufficient working conditions and the absence of a player’s union prompted 32 ex-minor leaguers to proceed with a lawsuit against Major League Baseball in February 2014. On Tuesday, the United States District Court in San Francisco ruled that the lawsuit has validity and can proceed as currently structured.
Unlike Major League Baseball, players and coaches in the minor leagues are at the mercy of non-negotiable regulations put forth by the parent club. These factors permitted the majors to turn to replacement players during the 1994 strike. Farm clubs serve a subservient role to the major leagues when determining pitch counts, rehab assignments, and promotions. In the short-season New York-Penn League, the second lowest rung of professional baseball, most players receive stipends of $25 for every road trip and $50 for the coaching staff. Base salary comes out to roughly $120 per week to spend on food and living arrangements. Excluding first-round draft picks and top prospects that earn sizable signing bonuses, every player is subject to meager means. Most minor leaguers live hand-to-mouth, and many players either share a quaint studio apartment with multiple players or reside with host families which take pride in being in the presence of a future major league standout and change rents within their means.
After exhausting much of their remaining funds, minor league players are resigned to eat the majority of their meals at a fast food restaurant, especially in the lower levels of the minors where post games are not provided. To address the epidemic of insufficient nutrition during the marathon, which is a professional baseball season, the New York Yankees organization developed a computerized system to assist young players in making the correct food choices. “We have an online program where we can go and click on nutrition, and it gives you a list,” 2012 Yankees second rounder Austin Aune said to the Sporting News as a member of the Staten Island Yankees in 2014. “You get your proteins, carbs, vegetables, and fruits, pretty much a grocery list.” Most clubs however have yet to adopt the systems put in place by the Yankees organization and their players endure exceeding difficulty living on their own for the first time in unfamiliar territory.
As a general rule, minor league baseball is exempt from federal anti-trust laws, due to the infamous anti-trust exception invoked for Major League Baseball by the Supreme Court in 1922 to resist trade. Baseball was considered a business instead of a sport and was not subject to any regulations restraining monopolistic business practices. According to the lawsuit composed by former San Francisco Giants draft pick Garrett Broshuis, major league salaries have increased roughly 2,000 percent since the advent of free agency in 1976, in contrast to a mere 75 percent in the minor leagues. (Hardball Times). Broshuis also cites that total minor league revenues have increased by 50 percent in the last 40 years. Presently, a player aligned with a full season minor league franchise earns between $1,100 and $2,150 during the five months they compete. Players do not earn wages, however, for spring training and offseason team activities and workouts. In a yearly span, a player making the bare minimum salary earns just $5,500 per year, while the average employee at a fast food restaurant finds themselves making just a shade over $18,000 at an annual minimum wage, (Baseball America).
After barely attaining a firm grasp on their personal lives, players in the minor leagues endure inevitable prospects of intense competition and failure as fans struggle to identify with the plight of future big league hopefuls and expect and demand prolific production instantaneously. Rivalries are formed and every step or misstep is compared to their big league counterparts, who earn average salaries upwards of 4000 percent higher during a 162 game season excluding potential endorsement deals.
Classified as non-union workers, minor league players are ineligible to become a part of the Major League Baseball Player’s Association until they pitch at least one inning or receive at least a single at-bat as a position player. Since they are ineligible to become a member of the MLBPA, minor leaguers also cannot have their names or likeness produced on any merchandise produced by MLB Properties nor their associates, including, but not limited to, t-shirts and video games. This arrangement unofficially restricts them the amateur status of collegiate athletes, who are currently in the midst of their own lawsuit regarding compensation led by former NCAA basketball player Ed O’Bannon.
Unlike student athletes, minor league baseball players are listed semantically as “professional” baseball players. They are instructed to conduct themselves as if they were playing at the game’s premier level and in most cases, represent the 30 independent major league clubs. The current relationship between Major League Baseball and its 160 affiliates in professional baseball could have significant alterations in both quality and allotments of the $7.5 billion profit earned by the sport collectively.
Fears of increasing ticket prices and operating costs with a possible player’s union in place are realistic anxieties that major league teams face as they continue to compete for the entertainment dollar without undercutting their own business in the process. For current and former minor league players, the validity of their lawsuit could enable them to attain better working conditions, those granted by federal law. Nearly four decades earlier, St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Curt Flood was a pioneer in helping major league players grant free agency. Today, former minor league pitcher turned lawyer Garrett Broshuis stands to become a pioneer for thousands of future professional players as they continue to pursue their childhood dreams and one day realize their true calling.