- Last month, minor league baseball players nearly had to sleep in their cars because of low pay and no housing.
- That’s part and parcel for how minor leaguers are treated around the industry.
- The way baseball treats workers is symptomatic of the way American labor is treated across industries.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
On June 15, player advocacy group Advocates for Minor Leaguers called out the Baltimore Orioles for their treatment of Double-A affiliate the Bowie Baysox.
Baysox players, Advocates for Minor Leaguers tweeted, were “considering sleeping in their cars” because the team wouldn’t pay for housing and the cost of a hotel would come to 80% of their two week paycheck after taxes.
Hours later, players were that the price was now actually half of what they had been initially told to expect. Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias denied to the press that the players had ever been in danger of sleeping in their cars, telling reporters that was just “not accurate.”
It’s hard to take that denial seriously, however. Minor League players have been subjected to mistreatment and poor pay for decades. Congress codified that maltreatment in 2018, including a provision in the $1.3 trillion Consolidated Appropriations Act that exempts teams from having to pay minor leaguers overtime or for spring training. The deck is stacked against minor league players, who are fighting for an elusive chance to make it to the majors and a real paycheck.
This is the American way. Around the country, workers are subjected to poor conditions, worse pay, and sold unrealistic promises of better futures. Rich owners of baseball teams deny their employees in the minors adequate pay and shelter despite the relatively low cost of doing so — just like billionaires like Jeff Bezos overwork and underpay their employees in other industries.
Food and Shelter
Minor League players face difficult working conditions, Advocates for Minor Leaguers executive director Harrison Marino told me. Most players make about $15,000 a year — seasonal pay that comes with a contractual obligation to perform services all year. Many, if not most, minor leaguers have to find other jobs in the offseason just to make ends meet while they continue to train.
Housing is extremely difficult given the rung-by-rung movement of most minor leaguers towards the majors and for the pittance they are paid. While teams pay for player accommodations on the road, players are expected to provide for themselves and find housing as needed when playing at home. This presents myriad issues, not least that a player can bounce around from city to city as they advance in their career because a team’s affiliates will not be all in one region.
For instance, a player in the San Francisco Giants organization would in theory have to travel from its Low-A affiliate team — the first rung on the minor league ladder — in San Jose to its High-A team in Eugene, Oregon (562 miles away) to its Double-A team in Richmond, Virginia (a 2,873 mile trip ), and finally to the Triple-A team in Sacramento (a 2,783 mile trip). All while finding new housing every time they move up (or down) levels.
The food situation is often hardly better. On June 1, Advocates for Minor Leaguers posted photos from Oakland Athletics minor leaguers showing their post-game meals: a cheese sandwich from May worthy of the infamous Fyre Festival and, more recently, what appeared to be an attempt at a taco. The A’s claimed they had ended the relationship with the vendor, “several weeks ago.”
There’s not much players can do.
“Because players are tied to their MLB club for seven seasons, they can’t seek a better deal with a different club,” Marino told me. “When it comes to MLB teams’ treatment of Minor League players, it really is a race to the bottom.”
Because of its monopolistic position over the sport of baseball, Major League Baseball is the only viable buyer for baseball player labor. That gives the league outsized power and control over its labor pool to an extent most other companies can only dream of. In practice, this means a relationship between worker and boss that is tilted overwhelmingly toward the powerful.
Minor leaguers have faced an extreme version of that relationship for decades. Steve Hamilton, a major leaguer, told Studs Terkel in 1974’s “Working” that the unbalanced relationship between players and owners was even harder on the players in the minors — who didn’t , and don’t, have a union, unlike major league players.
“They insist on knowing you as a thing,” said Hamilton. “It’s easy for them to manipulate.”
Poor treatment and low pay are endemic in nearly every US industry, and the tension between how workers are treated and business owners are compensated has become more and more apparent in recent years. Conversations around income inequality that exploded into the mainstream more than a decade ago have matured and begun to target the systemic underpinnings of the American economic system.
Baseball isn’t even the worst offender. The gig economy, particularly driver services like Uber and Lyft, has led to a less stabilized and less secure workforce even as the people at the top of those companies rake in profits. Hourly pay for a driver at Uber — like Minnesota Twins pitcher Randy Dobnakout did before getting signed — comes to a little under $10 an hour after taxes, according to an EPI study; the company further depresses wages by refusing, unless forced, to provide benefits for workers.
Companies around the country dangle the opportunity of promotions and power in front of workers in order to entice them into dead-end jobs because, technically, the possibility exists that they can advance — though only around 10% will. But for the majority of working people in the US, the American dream seems barely worth imagining.
No wonder, then, that there’s a labor shortage. The service industry is facing severe difficulty in getting people to return to work, and the response from many restaurateurs and caterers is to call for an end to COVID-related unemployment benefits. The song remains the same: for bosses and owners, the workers are disposable, whether they’re short order cooks, drivers for Uber, or minor league baseball players,
“Baseball occupies a unique position in our cultural landscape,” Marino said. “For the past 150 years, labor relations in baseball have both reflected and shaped labor relations in the United States more broadly.”
Today, conditions are better than they were in the past — the plight of the Minor League players notwithstanding. But the deck is still stacked against workers, just as it is across almost every industry in America.