We’ve written multiple times in these digital pages about the longstanding battle over minor league wages. More recently, it looked like the battle might be on the verge of ending with the passage by Congress of the Save America’s Pastime Act, a statute that had the dual effect of capping minor league players’ pay and threatening the existence of Independent Leagues. Then MLB moved on to state-level lobbying, working in Arizona to cap minor league wages there. In short, MLB seemed to be winning the right to pay minor leaguers far below minimum wage on a broad scale.
The issue of minor league pay is one that baseball writers have been raising in earnest for almost twenty years. Local newspapers detailed how the low wages impact minor leaguers in their towns. Dirk Hayhurst wrote multiple books about it. Russell Carleton has covered the issue extensively, including discussing how low minor league wages can impact minor leaguers’ health and nutrition for their entire lives.
When the body is malnourished (or tired), the brain begins playing a game of triage with cognitive functions. The first ones to go are the higher neurological functions, like attention, pattern recognition, and planning/decision-making centers, followed by fine motor control… things that might be helpful in playing baseball.
These are the hidden cognitive effects of poor nutrition. They’re hard to observe because a player will still show signs of development and will still perform, and it’s hard to make the argument that “well, he could be a little better.” It’s the slow creep of what might have been, but didn’t happen that’s the hardest to guard against. Over a day, it won’t be apparent. Over a few years…
Chris Mitchell talked about low wages disincentivizing baseball careers. ESPN and baseball blogs have weighed in. National news publications called minor league pay “poverty-level wages.” In the legal community, lawyers have been discussing the issue even longer, with one 1996 law review article calling for unionization of minor leaguers and drily noting that “life in the minor leagues leaves much to be desired.” And major leaguers have begun calling for increased wages too.
8 cont’d) less than minimum wage. We did the math on our checks one year and it was like less than $2 an hour or something. PS.. rent isn’t paid for, car not paid for, gas? Nope. Clubhouse dues, nada. Benefits… laughable. Minor league motto, “don’t like it, play better).
— Adam Wainwright (@UncleCharlie50) February 16, 2019
Most recently, Emily Waldon wrote a piece for The Athletic that explained that even discussing the low compensation in the minors is enough to end minor leaguers’ careers.
“You talk about this, you’re canned,” an AL West High-A player told The Athletic. “Nobody wants to have you in your organization anymore. You can’t talk about it.
“If you come up in arms about fair wage or just being able to put food on the table for yourself, you’ll get released,” he continued. “I know 100 guys that would wanna talk to you about this, but they won’t.”
“We can’t say anything,” one Class-A player shared. “Like, I don’t want that to be me. I just got picked, I want to see if I can make it.”
Years of work and diligent reporting from across baseball seem to have finally had some impact. Last week, the Toronto Blue Jays announced that they were voluntarily introducing a 50% increase in their average compensation for minor league players. The Jays’ decision was lauded by many, and prompted praise from the MLB Players’ Association.
Representatives from the players’ association visited the Blue Jays’ spring training camp a day after The Athletic reported the team planned to boost pay for all minor leaguers, with some making as little as $1,100 a month in recent seasons. The Cubs, too, are already discussing following suit.
At first, Major League Baseball was evidently “not thrilled with the Blue Jays’ decision,” and Maury Brown wrote that “the Commissioner’s Office has no plans to seek the pay increase across all 30 clubs.” But within days, the league had changed its tune, at least publicly, and revealed that it had raised the idea of minor league wage increases with the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, which operates and manages the minor leagues.
The decision represents the culmination of what ESPN’s Jeff Passan called “years of weathering criticism and lawsuits regarding minor league pay[.]” Major League Baseball, it seems, is no longer willing to consider the storm of negative press arising out of the poverty wages minor leaguers receive as part of the cost of doing business. And some industry observers have speculated that Kyler Murray chose football over baseball, at least in part, due to minor league pay and working conditions.
Ordinarily, paying minor leaguers more would be an unqualified good thing. That said, there are a couple of catches here. For one thing, the Jays’ decision itself didn’t really make that big of a practical difference for the players who stand to benefit. Fifty percent sounds like a big number, but the increase doesn’t even make Toronto’s farmhands the highest-paid in the minor leagues and the new average salary will still be under $12,000 annually. (It will be interesting to see if their decision prompts other clubs to raise their salaries, and thus, raises the average salary across the board, though given teams’ past resistance to increasing minor league compensation, we would be forgiven for being skeptical that such a trend will emerge.) Second, MLB’s proposal to pay minor leaguers more requires those salaries to be paid, at least in part, by the minor league teams themselves, instead of (as is the current setup) by their far wealthier major league parent teams.
The complexity of such fundamental changes to the system could complicate bargaining, particularly with regard to the cost and how much each side is responsible for. MLB’s position on progressive policy for minor leaguers has strong support among major league owners, an owner familiar with the discussions told ESPN, but the expectation is that minor league affiliates would pick up at least some of the burden of the various improvements. Minor league teams, which lack the resources of a major league team, may well be unable or unwilling to shoulder those additional costs. And MLB likely knows this, which means that their proposal may be nothing more than an attempt to seek good public relations and shift the blame for low salaries elsewhere. After all, major league teams could afford to address the issue now, and on their own, if they were motivated to do so.
At the same time, the mere discussion of increasing minor league salaries is a significant step forward that cannot be understated. And MLB isn’t saying that minor league affiliates must pay all of the salary increases, which means that the league may well be open to funding pay raises on some level. This isn’t going to solve the minor league salary problem and lift minor leaguers out of poverty. But the league and some teams participating in the discussion about why these raises are needed is, in and of itself, a substantial shift in the public conversation about the issue.
Sheryl Ring is a litigation attorney and General Counsel at Open Communities, a non-profit legal aid agency in the Chicago suburbs. You can reach her on twitter at @Ring_Sheryl. The opinions expressed here are solely the author's. This post is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.