The Houston Astros currently have 292 players spread across the organization’s various minor league rosters. Of those 292 players, 15 are counted as part of the Astros' 40-man roster, which leaves 277 players, many of them from foreign countries, and many who were selected in the lower rounds of the draft. That 277 is an important number for this reason: Many of those players are paid at or near a poverty-level wage (as are the large majority of minor league players throughout baseball). And if Major League Baseball has its way, Congress will soon be passing legislation that legalizes this practice.
The legislation, introduced last week, is called the “Save America’s Pastime Act." Its purpose is simple — to exempt minor league baseball from being subject to the Fair Labor Standards Act. This arises out of a lawsuit filed in California by 20 former minor league players that seeks to apply minimum wage and overtime laws to minor league baseball.
"But they’re playing baseball, and it’s a game, and players make millions of dollars a year" are probably the shared thoughts of lots of fans. That it’s a sport shouldn’t matter. What should matter is that these players earn less than people who work at McDonald’s. Meanwhile, the minimum salary in the major leagues is $507,000.
For players who are not part of the 40-man roster and/or who did not sign contracts with large signing bonuses upon being drafted or signed as free agents, salaries start at $1,150 per month for the lowest minor league levels and escalate to as high as $2,700 per month for players who are in their third year of AAA-level baseball. They get $25 a day in meal money. And they’re only paid from April through September — the length of the season. They’re not even paid for spring training. (These are based on 2015 numbers.)
The Save America's Pastime Act was introduced as bipartisan legislation, and the stated intention of the sponsors was to save minor league baseball. “If the law is not clarified,” the sponsors stated in a press release, “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.”
The basic problem with this statement being, of course, that player salaries are paid by the major league teams, not the minor league teams. That raises another issue: Since 1976, major league salaries have risen 2,500 percent while minor league salaries have increased 70 percent (numbers courtesy of Deadspin and Mother Jones). Which brings up the issue of MLB grossing around $8 billion annually. (In fairness, one of the bill’s sponsors, Democrat Cheri Bustos, has withdrawn her support and sponsorship of the bill.)
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Playing minor league baseball is far from a part-time job. Players often report to the ballpark around one o’clock for workouts and drills and often don’t leave until around midnight. Off days are spent on team-mandated charity events or meeting with fans and sponsors or on some other way for drawing fans to the ballpark. Players often room with each other to cut costs, with some lower-level players living seven guys to an apartment. And though they’re not paid by the team during the off-season, players are expected to continuing working out, staying in playing shape and striving to improve.
Major League Baseball released a statement on Friday calling minor leaguers seasonal apprentices and stating that it would be impractical to pay them as professional athletes. “There are approximately 7,500 players in Minor League Baseball,” the league said. “MLB pays over a half a billion dollars to Minor League Players in signing bonuses and salary each year.” Left unsaid is that a large amount of those signing bonuses go to the first 60 players drafted each season — for instance, the Astros recently signed first-round pick Forrest Whitley for $3.1 million — or to an elite level of foreign-born players coming out of Cuba.
Further left unsaid is that there are 40 rounds in the first-year player draft, and many of those players get a signing bonus of about $2,500. Also not mentioned was that, at the time MLB was releasing its statement in support of the act, the league was entering into a deal that finds Disney purchasing a one-third ownership stake in the video streaming unit of MLB’s Advanced Media arm for $3.5 billion.
Major League Baseball is doing just fine as a moneymaking entity. And major league players are doing rather well, too. So there’s absolutely no excuse for minor leaguers to be treated as they are. It shouldn’t matter that these people are participating in a sport, or that on the slight chance they’ll earn millions of dollars if they can reach the majors. What should matter is that a highly profitable industry is once again seeking to have its poor treatment of employees legalized by Congress. Which is just not something that should be allowed.