Emancipation of the Minors
Hundreds of pro baseball players make just $1,100 per month. Where is their César Chávez?
Wollett, who is 92 years old and disabled, is the only person left who’s pushing for a minor-league union. Though he can’t get around anymore, his thoughts are clear. Like the minor leaguers who put up with poverty because of the potential to make the big leagues, Wollett thinks there's something special about the dream of baseball. But he thinks that specialness means it's even more important to have a union. “It’s a game we love and revere,” he said, “but we tolerate injustice to our minor leaguers.”
Wollett says players are ready to organize, that “they’re like a ripe plum,” ready for the right person “simply to pick off.” He says he sees signs—the Occupy movement, for example—that now may be the time. He’s just too old to do anything about it himself.
There are reasonable arguments against minor-league unionization. For one thing, all that cheap labor allows teams to spring up around the country. With a union, there might be less baseball and fewer roster spots for players on the game’s fringes.
On the other hand, hundreds of players like Garrett Broshuis have to choose between taking a chance on baseball and launching a more remunerative career. Though top amateur players like Bryce Harper get multi-million-dollar signing bonuses, hundreds of draftees per year get no more than $1,000 when they sign their pro contracts.
Jim Bouton, whose 1970 memoir Ball Four was admitted as evidence of mistreatment of players at the 1975 hearings that ended the reserve clause, says this is just capitalism at work. “[Minor leaguers] bargain for their talent in a free market like everybody else does,” he says. If you’re a believer in laissez-faire capitalism, you can argue there’s no such thing as an unfair salary in baseball. Although Bouton admits that many young players get remarkably low wages, “they don’t have to accept the team that drafted them. They can continue playing amateur baseball; they can go back to college.”
In other words, they can choose not to be pro baseball players because pro baseball players don’t get paid enough. For the ones with little talent, perhaps it’s best that they drop out of the game early and get started on another career. For the ones at the top, this is just a fleeting hardship. But the players in the middle, those who just might be good enough, are stuck with the sports world equivalent of an unpaid internship. Just as a college student’s ability to afford a paycheck-free summer is not an accurate predictor of whether she could be successful in a particular industry, a young man’s willingness to accept less than a living wage is not an accurate predictor of whether he could become a major-league second baseman. And many of those potential players drop out before they know the answer to that question.
Photo courtesy Lily Rothman
But there will always be players like Tom Zebroski, a 45th-round draft pick by the Kansas City Royals in 2010. As a first-year player, he made $1,100 a month before taxes, and his bonus wasn’t any bigger. Zebroski had promised himself he would never play in an independent league, with no direct route to the big leagues and even less money than you get in the minors. But when he got released by the Royals last year, Zebroski changed his mind. He decided to work in the offseason to save up for the chance to have a chance. “It's one of those things that, if you give it up before you're ready to, you'll be questioning yourself,” he says. “Like, what if I'd done this, what if I'd done that, what if I'd given it one more year?” He now plays for the Traverse City Beach Bums in the Frontier League, where the salary cap is $75,000 per team and the minimum salary is $600 a month.
Baseball is the losingest game around: Getting a hit one-third of the time takes great skill. Even so, every batter believes he’ll connect. Holding onto baseball means believing that you can beat the odds. It means believing you don’t need a union.
“Every single player you talk to, even if they realize [a union] would be a good thing, is also scared to death to talk to another player about it,” Garrett Broshuis told me. “This is your dream you’re talking about.”