Pitchers and catchers report to spring training this week, the first sign that Major League Baseball’s Opening Day is drawing near. But amid the hope that springs up with every new baseball season is an unacceptable fact: Many of the players at spring training aren’t being paid.
“Each year, every major league team has their minor league players report to spring training. Most fans don’t know those minor league players have to work 31 straight days for no pay,” said Garrett Broshius, a former minor league baseball player and current attorney who is attempting to sue Major League Baseball to ensure that minor leaguers receive fair pay for not only spring training, but all year round.
“If you’re requiring someone to work, you should be paying them the minimum wage. It’s a fairly basic principle,” he said.
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Low wages, though, are the reality for most minor league players. At the lowest end of the pay scale, they make about $1,150 per month during the season, which lasts about half the year, and receive nothing during the offseason or spring training, even though they are expected to stay in shape and train.
All that unpaid and low-paid time adds up; many players make about $7,500 annually, or even less. And because they spend so much time practicing, traveling, and playing games without being eligible for any sort of overtime pay, their hourly compensation dips far below minimum wage.
“I’d work 70 hours a week, and I would get paid $45 per game, so that comes out to like $3 an hour,” said Jeremy Wolf, a former minor league player who now runs More Than Baseball, an organization that aids minor leaguers. “The hot dog vendor makes more than the players do.”
This is possible because minor league baseball players are exempt from most minimum wage and overtime pay protections. A federal spending bill that averted a government shutdown in March 2018 included the positively Orwellian “Save America’s Pastime Act,” which explicitly exempted minor league baseball players from federal pay protections in the Fair Labor Standards Act, so long as they were paid the equivalent of the federal minimum wage of $7.25 for a 40-hour week, which comes out to about $1,160 per month. The bill also explicitly said players are only paid for 40 hours of work during the season “irrespective of the number of hours the employee devotes to baseball related activities,” and that players don’t need to be paid for spring training or the off season.
Major League Baseball had been pushing for something like the “Save America’s Pastime Act” to become law for years, in order to blunt legal efforts such as Broshius’. After spending just half a million dollars or less annually on lobbying Congress between 2009 and 2015, Major League Baseball spent more than $1 million annually from 2016 to 2018.
Now the league is aiming to do the same thing at the state level, since states are allowed to exceed federal minimum wage and labor protections. At the behest of MLB, Arizona Republican state Sen. T.J. Shope introduced a bill that would exempt minor league players from that state’s minimum wage law, which requires pay of $12 per hour by 2020, with few exceptions. He introduced it despite having clear misgivings about its legality, calling it “not ready for prime time.”
Not coincidentally, Arizona is one of the two states in which the bulk of spring training takes place (the other being Florida, where the state minimum wage is just $8.46 an hour). Broshius’ suit also brought claims under Arizona law, which the bill’s sponsor explicitly says would be undermined by his legislation.
“It’s just a preemptive strike by Major League Baseball,” said Wolf. “There a group of people that are just trying to cement not paying these employees.”
As Broshius explained, the month they work without pay in the spring can really hurt minor league players who don’t make it onto a major league roster — which entitles them to not only a minimum salary of more than $40,000 but also union protection — when they get shipped off to a new minor league team. “You go to a new place and you have to pay for your first month rent, put down a security deposit, a lot of players have student loans, and obviously you have your regular bills too,” he said.
Major League Baseball teams, not the minor league affiliates themselves, pay minor league players. They claim that paying fair wages to everyone in the minor league system would cause financial ruin, and also isn’t necessary because players have months of offseason in which they can work other jobs. Plus, they argue, minor league players are more akin to struggling actors going on auditions than daily workers who should receive steady pay.
“Their core argument is that it’s not practical to pay the players based on how long the games last or the hours they spent practicing because a minor league player isn’t doing it for a career, they’re doing it to see if [making it to the majors is] viable,” explained Lindsay Brandon, an attorney who specializes in sports law.
But, Brandon added: “Are these athletes generating revenue for these minor league teams? Absolutely.” The Texas Rangers, for instance, made $1.2 million from spring training last year. Brandon likened the case of minor league players to that of NCAA athletes, who are also attempting to earn a fair share of the revenue they generate. (Other professional sports leagues, such as the NBA or NHL, tend to pay their minor league players better.)
Compensating unpaid players for their month in spring training would amount to a rounding error for most major league teams. In fact, paying them at least minimum wage all year round would barely put a dent in the bottom line.
“If you give every player minimum wage for a 12-month season — each team has 200 minor leaguers — each team raises their payroll by $4.5 million,” said Wolf. “$4.5 million is one average major leaguer.” Indeed, average pay in MLB in 2018 was about $4.5 million, while the league made $10.3 billion in revenue.
Why do minor leaguers put up with such shabby treatment? They don’t want to step out of line because they know that the dream of the majors, and its vast riches, is not that far away.
“I got to wear a Mets uniform. Players who are playing are blinded by that sort of thing,” said Wolf. “No one’s going to strike, no one’s going to scream union, no one’s going to do anything to make themselves stand out.”
So baseball gets to keep paying its players next to nothing, because it can.