Major League Baseball says minor league ball is “not a career but a short-term seasonal apprenticeship”

Ed Zurga/Getty Images
129 Comments

Major League Baseball issued a statement about the recent bill proposed in the House of Representatives known as the “Save America’s Pastime Act.” The legislation, H.R. 5580, aims to change the language in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which would allow the league continue paying minor leaguers a pittance.

One of the representatives, Cheri Bustos (D-IL), withdrew her support for H.R. 5580 earlier on Thursday after receiving feedback which was mostly critical of the bill.

J.J. Cooper of Baseball America shared MLB’s statement, which says that minor league baseball is “not a career but a short-term seasonal apprenticeship.”

Obviously, Major League Baseball is trying to justify paying its minor leaguers pennies on the dollar. The league, however, took in nearly $9.5 billion in revenues last year, according to Forbes. And Disney just bought a 33 percent stake in Major League Baseball Advanced Media in a deal valuing it at about $3.5 billion. This is not exactly a league that has to struggle to keep the lights on.

MLB already has it good with minor leaguers because they do not hit the open market until they hit free agency, six years after debuting in the majors. The players are drafted, essentially assigned a signing bonus based on their draft position, and then toil in the minor leagues for multiple seasons. Even a can’t-miss prospect like Bryce Harper spent parts of four seasons in the minors. Early in major leaguers’ careers, their salaries are dictated by their teams, paying them only a fraction more than the major league minimum salary, which is $507,500. This is the case for three seasons, typically, then the players reach arbitration eligibility. They finally receive a significant pay raise based on their skill, and players have three or four years of arbitration eligibility during which they rarely see their salaries slide backwards. Then, after exhausting their arbitration years, they can hit free agency and finally test the open market where they are more closely paid according to their skills.

During the time between being drafted and reaching arbitration eligibility, many things can happen to a player. He can plateau in skill, he can suffer a career- or life-altering injury, he can be blocked by another talented player at his position, he can have off-the-field issues. Despite devoting, let’s say, six years of his life to an organization that paid him below the minimum wage, the team will cut him without a second thought. Because minor league players aren’t protected by a union, they’re not guaranteed a safety net when they lose their jobs. No pension, no healthcare, no nothing. MLB’s stance on paying minor leaguers, which it calls “impractical,” is — as Craig put it — unconscionable.

Major League Baseball could easily afford to pay its players a living wage. Let’s say $50,000, which would allow the players to live comfortably, even if they’re supporting more than just themselves. Adam Dembowitz of Crashburn Alley did the math:

Putting aside the moral aspect of it, MLB dying on this hill is a bad idea for its future. Aaron Gleeman pointed out that Andrew Luck’s recent record contract with the Colts matches that of Giants mid-rotation starter Jeff Samardzija. “Play baseball,” Aaron said, which is what the families and friends of athletes are likely saying in increasing numbers, especially with the NFL’s recent battle over its responsibility for CTE. If you’re a kid choosing which sport to play, are you going to choose the league that treats you like a sweatshop worker or the league that can get you a nice early payday like the NFL and NBA? If Major League Baseball wants to continue contending with the other big sports leagues going forward, it has to provide a legitimate incentive for young people to play. It is already prohibitively expensive for kids in poorer communities to play, and now it’s advertising to them that playing baseball won’t get them out of poverty for at least a decade.

Don’t expect it to happen, but the MLB Players’ Union should go to bat for minor leaguers. They badly need union protection, and the MLBPA is one of the most powerful unions on the planet. It could immediately change thousands of lives for the better, and hundreds of thousands in the long term.