Baseball Players Press Lawmakers for Minor League Labor Standards

By: - March 30, 2022 12:00 am

San Jose Giants second baseman Jalen Miller makes a throw to first base on a double play attempt during a California League game against the Modesto Nuts in 2018. Under a new proposed bill in California, minor league players would reach free agency in four years instead of seven. Zachary Lucy Four Seam Images via The Associated Press

Lawmakers in a handful of states are crafting policies to protect a workforce that they say has been exploited by poverty wages, restrictive contracts and onerous federal labor laws: minor league baseball players.

Over the past few years, players and advocates have drawn increasing attention to the poor conditions in which many minor leaguers toil. Most players earn paltry seasonal paychecks for the five months they’re playing games, despite the rigorous year-round commitment in practice and workouts that their profession requires. 

“It’s a few hundred dollars a week paid out only during the season,” said Harry Marino, who played four seasons in the minors as a pitcher and now serves as executive director of Advocates for Minor Leaguers, a nonprofit advocacy group. “Guys struggle with housing, nutrition and making ends meet on a fundamental level. The system is outdated, exploitative and needs to change.”

The state policy efforts reflect growing recognition from lawmakers that minor leaguers are among a rare class of workers whose profession is specifically exempted from federal labor protections. While baseball players don’t endure the same conditions as farmworkers—another exempted group—players say there’s no justification for them not to earn a living wage, citing the dedication their job requires and the billions of dollars in revenues Major League Baseball brings in each year.

MLB officials say that players are seasonal trainees who should not expect minor league play to be a career, and for whom “working hours” defy simple classification.

From Hillsboro, Oregon, to Portland, Maine, MLB oversees 120 minor league teams where the prospects they’ve drafted compete and train. A small percentage of those players will ever reach the majors, and those who do take years to get there. In the meantime, most minor league players earn less than $15,000 a year. Weekly payments for entry-level minor leaguers are less than minimum-wage workers earn in some states for a 40-hour workweek.

Players share stories of sleeping in their cars, living on fast food and taking out loans to get through the season. Many work additional jobs in the offseason. But most fans who attend minor league games have no idea the players they’re cheering for don’t earn a living wage.

“I was really surprised,” said California state Sen. Josh Becker, a Democrat. “I’m a big baseball fan, but I didn’t know. I’ve started to hear a lot of different stories.”

Becker introduced the Minor League Baseball Players’ Bill of Rights earlier this month. The bill would allow players to seek new contracts after four years of service and negotiate wages based on their market value.

That system would supplant the standard seven-year contract with MLB team-controlled wages that players sign after they’re drafted. It also would allow players to profit from endorsement and autograph opportunities once enacted.

Becker’s measure appears to be the first state-level attempt to address minor league baseball’s labor issue, which has been subject to ongoing court battles and federal policy fights for years. It’s unclear whether his bill will advance, but other lawmakers are taking notice. New York state Sen. Jessica Ramos, a Democrat who chairs the Committee on Labor, tweeted that she is working on a similar bill. Her office declined to comment. 

In Iowa, Democratic state House candidate J.D. Scholten, a former minor league pitcher for the Saskatoon Legends and Sioux City Explorers, welcomes the attention at the state level.

“Major League Baseball has done a great job of lobbying D.C., but it’s a lot harder to lobby 50 states,” he said. “[The California bill] is a great first step, and I’m gonna raise hell here if I win my election.”

While only a handful of lawmakers have proposed legislation on this issue, Democrats have so far supported plans to increase player protections, while Republicans have sponsored proposals to increase baseball’s power to skirt wage laws.

MLB officials have long contended that minor league players are trainees, not workers in a standard career, who are pursuing a dream they know requires sacrifice. Officials also point out that the nature of the sport, which includes voluntary workouts and long bus rides to away games, stymies conventional attempts at categorizing “work hours.”

Amid growing pressure from players and advocates, MLB raised pay for minor leaguers in 2021, with Class A minimum salaries rising from $290 to $500 a week and Triple-A salaries increasing from $502 to $700. This season, MLB implemented a policy to mandate team-furnished housing for most players. The league emphasized those changes in an emailed statement to Stateline but would not offer comment in an on-the-record interview. 

“The Clubs are confident that these investments will help ensure that minor league players have every opportunity to achieve their dreams of becoming major leaguers,” an MLB spokesperson wrote.

Marino, of Advocates for Minor Leaguers, said “a Band-Aid would be an overstatement” to describe baseball’s wage and housing improvements. The group, founded in 2020, partnered with Becker in crafting the California legislation and is working on proposals in other states, Marino said, though he declined to offer details.

“The treatment of players is still so far from where it should be,” he said. 

‘Minor League Baseball Got Duped’

A few years ago, minor league owners and MLB successfully lobbied Congress to exempt players from federal labor protections—a measure that was ostensibly crafted to prevent communities from losing their teams. Soon after it passed, MLB cut its support for dozens of minor league teams.

U.S. Rep. Brett Guthrie, a Kentucky Republican, first introduced the Save America’s Pastime Act in 2016 at the urging of MLB. The measure aimed to exempt minor league players from federal minimum wage and overtime rules. Baseball officials said many towns could lose their teams if MLB was forced to pay players under typical wage laws.

The bill drew fierce backlash and failed to advance, but in 2018, the measure was slipped into a massive omnibus spending bill that became law. Yet less than two years later, MLB announced plans to cut its affiliation with more than a quarter of its minor league teams, leaving 42 teams without an MLB-paid roster pool of prospects.

“The ink was barely dry when MLB did exactly what they represented to Congress that they wouldn’t do—cut minor league baseball,” said Stan Brand, who was then the vice president of the minor leagues and had lobbied for the bill. 

Jeff Katofsky was among the minor league owners who backed the bill, only to watch his Utah-based Orem Owlz lose MLB affiliation. 

“The people in minor league baseball got duped,” he said. “All of us owners put up a lot of money for lobbyists to help that act. We thought the intention was to save every team.”

The Owlz relocated to Colorado, where they will debut this season in an independent league. Many clubs that lost their affiliation have shifted to independent or collegiate summer-ball leagues, where they must find and pay their own players, but some have folded, and the long-term viability of the rest remains unclear.

Guthrie, the bill’s original sponsor, did not respond to a request for comment.

While the act gives baseball protection from federal labor standards, teams still are subject to state laws. Owners contend that players should be classified as short-term seasonal apprentices. That argument was rejected by a federal judge earlier this month ahead of a class-action trial over player wages. 

In a long-running court battle, former minor league players have been seeking damages from MLB for violating labor laws in Arizona, California and Florida. In allowing the players to pursue the case in front of a jury, Chief Magistrate Judge Joseph Spero of the U.S. District Court’s Northern District of California ruled that minor leaguers are employees subject to state laws on minimum wage and overtime.

“It is not insignificant that they can proceed under state law,” said Nathaniel Grow, an Indiana University associate professor and sports labor expert. “If you can get a judicial decision that Arizona’s state minimum wage law applies to players, that’s a big part of the battle.”

The legal battle could draw increasing attention to state labor laws and compel lawmakers to establish clear policy on whether minor leaguers should be considered employees or trainees, and just how much of their training and travel requires compensation. 

“The backlash is happening at the state level,” said Brand, the former minor league executive.

Whether or not other states follow, the California measure alone could pose difficult questions for baseball. 

“Just California doing this could be disruptive enough to force MLB to act,” said Grow. “It would be hard to maintain any semblance of competitive balance when some teams control players for four years and others control players for seven.”

MLB is pushing its own state legislation. In 2019, the league urged Arizona state Rep. T.J. Shope, a Republican, to introduce a bill exempting minor league players from state minimum wage laws.   

Arizona hosts many of baseball’s spring training games, which include minor leaguers who aren’t paid for their participation. That has been a focal point in the ongoing lawsuit. Shope’s bill, which failed to advance last session, could have sheltered baseball from future claims that spring training violates labor laws. Shope did not respond to an interview request.

Player advocates say lawmakers are just now starting to understand that even professional athletes can be exploited workers.

“Every politician says they love baseball, but hardly any of them actually follow it,” said Scholten, the Iowa candidate and former pitcher.

‘This Is a Year-Round Commitment’

After MLB’s cuts to the minors, each major league team now has four minor league affiliates and may keep up to 180 minor league players on its rosters. Marino calculated that paying minor leaguers a $50,000 salary would cost each major league team about $9 million a year.

“That’s the cost of one major league relief pitcher to pay your whole [minor league] system a living wage,” he said.

Katofsky, the Owlz owner, acknowledged that MLB-affiliated minor league baseball’s team-controlled, seven-year contract system is unfair to players. He said he’s conflicted on whether they should be paid like full-time workers.

“Do I think they’re underpaid? Sure, of course I do,” he said. “But part of that is nobody’s making them want to be a baseball player.”

Bob Froehlich owns the Kane County Cougars, an Illinois-based minor league team that plays in an independent league after losing its MLB affiliation. He said the team is still succeeding under the new arrangement, and he defended MLB’s wage arguments.

“I don’t believe the model is broken,” he said. “Players know what they’re getting into, they know what they’re signing up for. … You could probably pay these kids nothing; they want to chase that dream.”

But many players say they had little idea when they were drafted that labor conditions in minor league baseball were so bleak. They didn’t expect to get rich in the minors, but they also didn’t realize they’d struggle to make ends meet. 

“This is a year-round commitment,” said Becker, the California lawmaker. “These players have families, responsibilities and lives.”

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Alex Brown
Alex Brown

Based in Seattle, Alex Brown covers environmental issues for Stateline. Prior to joining Stateline, Brown wrote for The Chronicle in Lewis County, Washington state.