For many hardcore baseball fans (like me, before I began researching this story), the idea of playing in Minor League Baseball is like the dream before the dream comes true. Sure, we know there are long bus rides, the pay is lousy and there’s a good chance you can end up at Sears selling Lady Kenmores and never sniff The Bigs. But the payday if they make it? Well, that can be life-altering money. So it’s all worth it in the end.
According to a class-action lawsuit by actual ex-minor leaguers that the Supreme Court just allowed to proceed: No. No, that is not at all “right.”
It’s more like “forced to buy-your-own-equipment, sleep-in-bed-bug-infested-motels, pick-up-odd-jobs-to-supplement-less-than-minimum-wage-incomes” wrong — and doing all of that while locked into a seven-season contract that limits any ability for players to leverage a better situation for themselves.
“It’s a pretty common topic of conversation in clubhouses or in the outfield in practice … any time [lack of] money comes up, you have to joke about it,” said Aaron Senne, one of the primary plaintiffs in the case, who played three seasons at first base for Marlins affiliates after being drafted in the 10th round in 2010.
“One thing we’d do is calculate how many hours on the field or on buses or baseball activities we spend, and what we’re actually getting paid on an hourly basis. Having enough of those chats with so many players from so many diverse backgrounds … it’s angering to know how taken advantage of you feel, how wrong and unjust the structure is that is allowed to be that way, and that baseball has maintained that for so long.”
“I was basically making about 4 bucks an hour,” said Garrett Broshuis, another ex-minor leaguer who is now an attorney at Korein Tillery LLC, the firm representing the plaintiffs: Senne, Michael Liberto, and Oliver Odle.
Broshuis, a former All-American pitcher at the University of Missouri, was selected by the San Francisco Giants in the fifth round of the 2004 MLB Draft. The elation of that moment quickly evaporated after he reported to the minors.
“I was coming from college, where equipment like batting gloves were taken care of for me,” Broshuis said. “I didn’t live lavishly [in college] — I had a normal apartment with three other guys, but my own bedroom at least, dirty dishes, McDonald’s bags, all that … then I get into pro ball, where I’m expected to buy all that equipment myself, and at the same time living on a futon in a host family’s house. I had several host families throughout six years in the Giants organization and I am indebted to them — but why are we asking random people in the community to take in ballplayers instead of paying them where they can live above the poverty line?”
The reason, according to the suit, filed in a California federal court back in 2014, is Major League Baseball’s “longstanding exemption from antitrust laws.”
“MLB has a long, infamous history of labor exploitation dating to its inception. To hoard players and depress salaries during its early years, the cartel inserted a provision (known as the reserve clause) into players’ contracts that allowed teams to retain the contractual rights to players for their entire careers. Moreover, it quickly quashed any rival leagues, which preserved MLB’s system of artificially low salaries and nonexistent contractual mobility.”
To understand where we are today, there is a LOT from the past to be unearthed and examined. To cut to the chase, MLB existed as an all-powerful behemoth for most of its existence. Players held no power and made what they were paid, which could be decent or menial, but hardly what we’d call extravagant today. Babe Ruth led the league with a $35,000 salary in 1934 — that’s $679,835 today adjusted for inflation. That’s barely above MLB’s current minimum wage of $500,000.
But power to the players all changed with Curt Flood’s challenge of the reserve clause, which kept players bound to their franchise at its whim. Trade or cut — those were the only ways out. When he was traded to the Phillies from the Cards, Flood stepped up and did something unique — he challenged the status quo. In a letter to Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, Flood eloquently explained:
December 24, 1969
After twelve years in the major leagues, I do not feel I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes. I believe that any system which produces that result violates my basic rights as a citizen and is inconsistent with the laws of the United States and of the several States.
Flood’s 1970 lawsuit, which lasted two years and eventually came before the Supreme Court, was unsuccessful. But it paved the way for the elimination of the reserve clause three years later, opening the doors to free agency in 1976 — but only at the major league level (of note, Jackie Robinson, Hank Greenberg and Bill Veeck testified on his behalf, but no players of Flood’s time). The 1998 Curt Flood Act finally revoked MLB’s antitrust exemption, but once again, not for the minors.
“Imagine if 25 media companies got together and all said they were going to pay journalists just $10,000 a year — that would not survive an antitrust, anticompetitive challenge,” Broshuis said. “It would be struck down. The MLB has protection here, but that doesn’t mean they can get by with breaking [federal and state] wage and hour laws. This suit would have zero effect on antitrust laws — ‘wage and hour’ is a different body of law with different obligations.”
“We’re fighting to make sure that MLB is held and obligated to the same laws that any employer is, down to McDonald’s and Walmart,” Senne said.
The complaint notes that most minor leaguers earn between $3,000 to $7,500 over the five-month season, with players often putting in 50- to 70-hour work weeks. Since 1976, major league salaries have skyrocketed 2000 percent, while minor leaguers have only seen a seven-percent increase (inflation alone has risen roughly 400 percent over that time). The complaint notes as well (though calls for no implicit action on) the fact that minor league players are not represented by a union like the Major League Baseball Players’ Association:
Players at the highest level of the game (“major leaguers”) eventually unionized to counteract MLB’s collusive power. Since negotiating sports’ first collective bargaining agreement in 1968, major leaguers have enjoyed increased contractual mobility and an explosion in salaries. For instance, the most recent collective bargaining agreement negotiated by the union representing major leaguers — the Major League Baseball Players’ Association (“MLBPA”)—requires Defendants to pay major leaguers a minimum of $500,000 per season.
Unlike the major leaguers, players in the minor leagues (“minor leaguers”) have no union, even though they comprise the overwhelming majority of baseball players employed by the Defendants.
Since it is a class-action suit, a successful outcome would not only affect current players and of course future players, but potentially former players, as well, as it seeks retroactive compensation. In rejecting MLB’s appeal without comment, the Supreme Court cleared the way for the lawsuit to proceed to trial in the Ninth Circuit, which is based in San Francisco. The class-action is a multi-state suit, covering players in California, as well as Arizona and Florida (the spring training sites). The Ninth Circuit ruling from last year (tacitly upheld by the SCOTUS declination) means that all players in those states are eligible to sue.
Players at rookie and short-season levels will see their minimum weekly pay raised from $290 to $400, and players at Class A will go from $290 to $500. Double-A will jump from $350 to $600, and Triple-A from $502 to $700.
Broshuis balked at the implication that these figures represent a living wage.
“It’s worth noting that those wages are still only going to be paid during the season,” he said. “One of the things we’re arguing in our case is that players need to be paid at least the minimum wage under state law for all work performed in spring training and other training periods — no more unpaid labor.”
Of course, MLB also announced in April they’d be cutting 40 affiliate teams, which of course means fewer slots for players. Pile on to this gloom the fact that the 2020 season was cancelled due to COVID-19, and players were given a stipend of just $400 a week as the pandemic surged.
“That money has now run out for most of them,” Broshuis said. “And even with the planned increase, many players will make less than $10,000 per year, placing them well below the poverty line. And it does nothing to solve a major problem: Players aren’t paid for months of required work, such as during spring training, extended spring, and other training periods.”
That lack of pay in spring is noted in the suit as well:
Worse still, the Defendants have conspired to pay no wages at all for significant periods of minor leaguers’ work. Consistent with MLB’s rules, the Defendants do not pay minor leaguers their salaries during spring training, even though the Defendants require minor leaguers to often work over fifty hours per week during spring training.
Senne talked about how hard it was for players who report to spring training to get by for that month without any income, forcing many players into offseason jobs to save up.
“I gave batting lessons back in Minnesota and even sold women’s shoes at Macy’s in the holiday season once,” he said. “Anyway you can find a way to make a paycheck. A lot of guys drive for Uber nowadays.”
One thing they need to save up for is equipment. Most if not all teams supply basics, but often of questionable quality.
“Team-supplied bats are kinda on the lower end,” Senne said. At one point I convinced my agent to get me bats, and I had a game where I broke two ... and you kinda wanna cry.”
MiLB specifically includes a reference to this on their FAQ page, and the wording is covert enough to make it sound like refusing team equipment is a vanity project (emphasis mine):
Players, both at the Major and Minor League levels, are provided equipment like helmets, uniforms and such, but most opt to use their own bats and gloves. Often those pieces of equipment are custom-ordered by that player so they can be manufactured to his liking. If you look closely, many players have their names embroidered on their gloves and etched on their bats. In many cases, agents will provide their players with bats and gloves made to the player’s specifications.
Unsaid there is the fact that many MiLB players do not have an agent. Nor embroidered anything.
Both Senne and Broshuis say they “absolutely” believed they were going to make The Bigs at the onset but it wasn’t to be. Senne never cracked Double-A, while Broshuis had two stints in Triple-A, five years apart, and went no further. They both walked away from the game saying they saw the writing on the wall.
“I watched players in the training room with me rehabbing from injuries hanging on with no financial support, only that dream of making the big leagues,” Senne said. “As soon as someone told them that their dream was over, they were crushed and had nothing else to fall back on. I saw enough of those guys shown the door that I would not allow it to happen to me.
“We’re trying to make this case more digestible and real for people who aren’t as close to the game and haven’t experienced [how bad it can be],” he continued. “We’re not asking for players to make huge amounts of money … merely what the case is fighting for is to make sure that MLB is held and obligated to the same laws as any employer — to pay a minimum wage. We’re fighting for what’s right — not about being right, but doing what’s right for us and for future generations.”