Major pains in the minor leagues

Photo by Casey Gomez

Baseball. America’s pastime. Maybe not as much in terms of popularity anymore but it is still officially American in one thing: antitrust immunity. Since its inception, baseball has been immune to antitrust laws because baseball is a game, not commerce. It is so pure as a sport, that it is immune to the same laws that govern the other major sport leagues. From Supreme Court rulings dating back to 1922 to as recent as 1972 baseball has kept its sanctity as just a simple game.

The origins of this immunity stems from reserve clauses that were in place at the inception of Major League Baseball (MLB). Reserve clauses essentially allow teams to “own” players even after their contracts end. Meaning that the team can renew a player’s contract without any approval from the player or trade them with no warning. While those clauses no longer exist and players generally enjoy a high quality of life in the major leagues there is a steady number of players who still suffer from the iron grip MLB can wield when it sees fit.

These are the minor leaguers of baseball, a group of players that outnumber players in the major leagues a few times over. There are 30 major league baseball teams and a staggering 256 minor league baseball teams. From young, developing players to older falling stars looking for one more shot at the majors, the minor leagues are full of players chomping at the bit to reach the major leagues. This is mostly for the love of the game and the competition, but there is something to be said of the dichotomy between a major league player and a minor league player.

The main difference stems from the type of contract the player signs with a team. While seemingly simple, the type of contract, major or minor, leads to way different results. First, there’s the money. There is no doubt that major league baseball players should be paid more than their minor league counterparts, but the difference in pay is larger than the difference in talent.

According to Statista, the average major league salary is $4,520,000 per year, while the average minor league salary is $12,000 a year. This $12,000 is pay spread across up to 5 months of season play and 2 months of extended spring training.

The federal poverty line for 2017 for a single person was $12,060. On average, minor league baseball players are being paid a wage below the poverty level. While they do only play, and therefore work, for a portion of the year they are still expected to perform at the highest level for a large for months of the year.

It’s difficult if not impossible to achieve and maintain the level of fitness and nutrition required to be a professional athlete on a poverty level salary.

Why don’t the minor league baseball players rise up? Why don’t they go on strike like their major league counterparts have as recently as the mid 90’s? To put it simply, they don’t have nearly enough control.

While major leaguers enjoy things such as free agency and freedom from reserve clauses, the same cannot be said for those toiling away in the minor leagues.

This doesn’t stem from the fact that the majors have faced litigation and lost, it stems from the player’s union. The MLB Players Association (MLBPA) has enjoyed success in raising pay and quality of life for major leaguers over the past few decades. Minor league baseball players, on the other hand, enjoy none of these freedoms, including a player’s association or union.

To put it simply, they have no one to come to the bargaining table to vouch for them.

The MLBPA has often been touted as the most successful American sports union, if not general American union. Even after the case of Flood v. Kuhn was lost in the 70’s and the reserve clause continued to persevere, the players were able to negotiate a clause allowing a player with ten years of experience and five with one team could veto any trade. Soon after, limited free agency would be granted and we would arrive in the world of the MLB we know today.

I know paying minor leaguers the same amount as their major league counterparts is not feasible. It is not good business to pay them that much when only around 10% of minor leaguers will ever see the major leagues.

But to expect them to develop and prosper in the minor leagues living at a poverty level wage is insane.

Moving forward, the owners and the players that take part in professional baseball need to sit down and decide how to move forward.

Whether it is streamlining the minors and decreasing the number of teams in each farm system or raising the average salary to a level that could provide a player with the means to live and provide for themselves to perform at the highest level, something needs to be done.

Otherwise, minor league players will continue scraping by with the meagre offerings of their community ball club.