Some no doubt love it so much they think they’d pay for the privilege to play — like other exceptional amateurs in athletics or the arts. Some may feel a calling to the game, a vocational devotion that requires sacrifices, like the clergy or teaching.
However, some minor-leaguers realize that playing is working, too. They have bills, some have families, and for the amount of hours they work, they’re paid less than the minimum wage — violating the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).
At least, it was a violation, arguably, until this spring, when Congress passed and President Trump signed the $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill. There, starting on page 1,967 of the 2,232-page measure, is a “rider” that ensures thousands of ballplayers will be underpaid.
The provision slipped into the law amends the FLSA by making baseball players “seasonal workers” not subject to overtime laws, to be paid minimum wage based on 40-hour work weeks “irrespective of the number of hours the employee devotes to baseball related activities.”
Maury Brown, who covers the business of sports for Forbes magazine, writes, “Minor League Baseball players are about to become second-class citizens. This rider has the flagrantly inappropriate title of ‘Save America’s Pastime Act.’”
The National Pastime changed over the decades, and though today’s minor leagues try to tap nostalgia for times past, 21st century minor-league baseball is a funhouse-mirror image of its heydays, when there were many more players, leagues, fans and stakes.
After World War II, with the spread of television, baseball’s minor leagues became more of a developmental subsidiary of MLB than local efforts to win games and pennants. So teams like the Chiefs are marketed as inexpensive family entertainment with a chance to see some future major leaguers. The minors are modestly successful, attracting about 41 million fans last summer. However, they aren’t really thousands of guys showcasing their talents to get called up to the Bigs but actually a couple hundred men competing to play for major-league opportunities, with thousands of teammates providing pitches and batted balls, competition and a familiar environment.
“Minor-league baseball players have little to no economic value on their own,” writes Joe Sheehan of The Athletic. “It sounds demeaning [but] minor-league players have no individual leverage, because the games in which they play aren’t meaningful.”
Sheehan says minor leaguers aren’t like interns as much as human fixtures that contribute to pro-baseball’s experience. Or illusion.
“Most of them aren’t apprentices, but rather extras that provide a context for the actual apprentices,” Sheehan said. “Most minor-league baseball players have jobs because the actual prospects need a context in which to do their jobs, the way professional actors need unpaid extras walking on the street behind them to give a scene verisimilitude.”
Maybe that comparison could lead to a compromise. The motion picture industry’s “background players” — the extras that lend credence to scenes — can earn pay and eventually progress. The union representing actors — the Screen Actors Guild/American Federation of Television and Radio Artists — has contract language requiring companies to employ a minimum number of paid extras, and after extras work on so many projects, they’re eligible to join SAG-AFTRA.
After all, the successful and relatively powerful Major League Baseball Players Association may support minor-league players’ attempts to improve their compensation, but it cannot directly help. They’re legally obligated to represent major league ballplayers. And organizing a minor-league union is difficult, says St. Louis attorney and former Giants minor leaguer Garrett Broshuis, who’d filed a class-action lawsuit against Major League Baseball over the issue.
“Guys are afraid to unionize,” Broshuis said. “Long-term, I think it would be a great solution. The short-term part is these guys are chasing a dream and they are afraid to stick their necks out.”
For now, Major League Baseball’s owners — who set the pay for minor leaguers — pay a maximum of $11,000 to a minor leaguer for almost six months of work, mostly six or seven days a week, not including Spring Training, pre- and post-game workouts, travel, etc. – about $65 a day.
MLB owners can afford to pay better, but no one should expect them to, Sheehan said.
“This is a group of people that thinks nothing of lying relentlessly so as to gain access to the public purse,” he said. “To expect them to spend money they’re under no legal or competitive obligation to spend is a fool’s errand. They’ve literally spent millions to help exempt themselves from labor laws rather than spend those millions on solving the problem.”