In February, three former minor leaguers sued Major League Baseball for violation of wage and overtime laws, alleging that they’re “powerless” in the face of the “collusive power of the MLB cartel.” A month later, the suit was amended to include more former players from 17 different organizations, as well as one current minor leaguer. These men had the courage to put into writing what anybody who has spent time around a minor league team already knows: Players are wildly underpaid for the obscene amount of hours they work.
More specifically, the suit argues that minor league compensation violates the Fair Labor Standards Act, which requires that any employee’s pay not fall below minimum wage and that all employees receive time-and-a-half for work done beyond a standard 40-hour week. Michael McCann has a great legal analysis at Sports Illustrated, which notes that baseball franchises are not exempt from this federal law, and it “may therefore be difficult for baseball to convince a judge to swiftly dismiss the case.” He continues by suggesting that the “longer the case goes, the more willing baseball may be to settle and perhaps change the way minor leaguers are paid.”
Personally, I have no idea if the players can win. But aside from the eventual courtroom outcome, there’s a larger, subtler issue at hand. What interests me about this suit is that it challenges the way we look at athletes, asking us a question that we’d rather ignore: Do we really care about a ballplayer’s rights?
After all, nobody is keeping minor league exploitation a secret. It’s just that we don’t talk about it with words like exploitation, powerless, poverty, and cartel—the kind of language that more often attaches itself to discussions about the NCAA. The baseball world prefers gritty and character and sacrifice. Movies and memoirs revel in those words when they dramatize the minor league experience, with its low wages and interminable bus trips. Current major leaguers love to talk about how they struggled on the way up and how they wouldn’t trade that experience for any in the world. Minor league base salaries are even public information, right there on the official website: a $1,100 monthly maximum for first-year players, with a $25 per diem, all of that paid only during the five- to six-month season. Salaries are “open to negotiation” after the first season, but what leverage do the players have? (There is no minor league players union.) At the highest rung of the minors, AAA, a player can expect to earn more than $2,000 monthly, some a good deal more. Those players, though, have already put a lot of years into the game, and the pay remains a pittance at the lower levels, where most major league hopefuls remain.
So we know. Even if we don’t know all the specifics or the legalese, any baseball fan has a vague idea of how hard it is for a minor leaguer to make ends meet. These aren’t just realities that we tolerate or ignore. They’re a big reason why we love the game. A young player’s poverty (though never described as such) is romantic. It’s tradition. Sit in the stands at a minor league game and someone will bring it up, usually with a smile: These boys are playing for peanuts. The logic, we’ve come to believe, is that if a player isn’t paid the big money, then he must be out there for love or joy or honor.
I spent the 2010 season writing about the single-A Clinton LumberKings. I came to the project because I was enamored by this vague idea of the minors—coltish, gifted young men on borrowed furniture, surrounded by pizza boxes, buoyed by limitless ambition. I got what I went looking for. The only surprise was how quickly the romance of the image began to comingle with the sense that this was all entirely indefensible.
The LumberKings players lived in a small, struggling Iowa town, where many of them (those who didn’t receive big signing bonuses) were among the poorest residents. And they knew it. Every day, they were reminded of it. They lived in the town’s worst apartment complexes. They crammed four or five players into one- and two-bedroom apartments, sometimes studios. On biweekly paydays, they would climb into my hatchback and I’d drive to the Super Walmart at the edge of town, where some would cash their checks, buy groceries in bulk, and try to work out how much extra money they’d need for the next 14 days. They returned home exhausted, some sleeping side-by-side on air mattresses on the floor, got up the next day, and went to work as professional athletes.
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