Minor league baseball players don’t make much money. Since 1976, MLB salaries have risen 2,500 percent while minor league salaries have only gone up 70 percent. Players in low-A ball start at $1,100 a month, while AAA players earn $2,150 per month. Monthly wages slowly increase the longer a player sticks around, but they’re only paid out during the season, and players on the road receive a per diem of $25—less than half of what umpires get. Over a five-month season, only tenured AAA players make enough to clear the federal poverty line. And now, a new bill from the House of Representatives wants to limit their earning power even further.
Cheri Bustos of Illinois and Brett Guthrie of Kentucky introduced the “Save America’s Pastime Act” late last week. The bipartisan legislation—Bustos is a Democrat, Guthrie a Republican—proposes to amend the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and create a specific exemption for minor league baseball players (who are not unionized) so that they are explicitly not guaranteed the minimum wage, and thus not allowed overtime pay.
Minor leaguers are professional athletes, so they’re never going to get widespread sympathy from the public, but MiLB’s wage structure is set up such that that they can barely earn a living while playing baseball. At best, they can break even. It’s tricky to conceive of sports jobs on hourly terms, since the responsibilities of a professional athlete extend so far beyond simply clocking in and out on game days, but minor league baseball players live all of the round-the-clock lifestyle of MLB players, just without getting the pay to justify it.
The bill alleges that MiLB players need their wages locked in at poverty level and that if players start getting paid at least as much as fast food workers, grassroots minor league baseball is at risk:
If the law is not clarified, the costs to support local teams would likely increase dramatically and usher in significant cuts across the league, threatening the primary pathway to the Majors and putting teams at risk.
This is bullshit. Major league owners pay the salaries of their farm teams. MiLB teams don’t need attendance revenue to pay their players, the money comes from the top. As ESPN noted, bumping every minor leaguer’s pay by $5,000 would shake out to 5 percent of Justin Verlander’s salary. MLB made $8 billion in revenue in 2013 (the number is certainly higher now). But the “Save America’s Pastime Act” isn’t about saving money, and it certainly isn’t about saving America’s pastime.
Bustos and Guthrie introduced the bill in response to a 2014 lawsuit, Senne, et al. v. MLB, et al., that alleged MiLB’s wage structure violated the FLSA. A year ago, a federal judge ruled that the lawsuit could be expanded into a class action suit. MLB enjoys federal antitrust status, and the Senne suit threatens that. MLB’s antitrust classification rests on its status as a game, rather than a business. They even justify their pay structure with MiLB’s supposed frivolity, as ATL Redline notes:
However, Major League Baseball claims that its system is legal as it is not bound by the FLSA due to an exemption for seasonal and recreational employers. The Save America’s Pastime Act would remove any doubt as to whether an FLSA exemption applies and would save Major League Baseball from any future costs if the Senne lawsuit is successful.
ATL Redline also points out that Bustos has worked for federal minimum wage increases, so seeing her fight to repress poverty-level wages is rather surprising. Turns out Bustos’ father is Gene Callahan, MLB’s first lobbyist. The idea that minor league baseball teams would fold up and disappear because minor leaguers get paid a living wage is obviously wrong, and this issue is clearly about MLB trying to circle the wagons. Bustos is the perfect congresswoman to introduce the legislation, as she can lend the credibility of someone with a tie to baseball history. She’s still full of shit:
“Whether it was my dad working for the Major Leagues or my late brother Dan who was the head baseball coach at Southern Illinois University, baseball has always held a very special place in my heart,” said Congresswoman Cheri Bustos.
Going for the emotional appeal is the most absurd part of this whole absurd bill. MLB is essentially selling the myth that there’s nothing more heartwarming than a cleat stomping on a human face, and politicians of both parties are here to back them. Set this bill on fire.