“Yeah, I was in The Show. I was in The Show for 21 days once -- 21 greatest days of my life. You know you never handle your luggage in The Show? Someone else carries your bags. It’s great. You hit white balls for batting practice. Ballparks are like cathedrals. The hotels all have room service…”
-- Kevin Costner as “Crash Davis”, in “Bull Durham”
BY DENNIS RICHARDSON
19 August 2021
ORLANDO, FL – The Show. The Majors. The Bigs. Big Time. Whichever nickname you want to use, playing in the major leagues has been the dream of most every player who has worn a baseball uniform, be it Little League, high school, independent league, or the minor leagues.
Major League Baseball, with its multi-million-dollar salaries; where players travel by chartered jet instead of a well-used team bus; stay in five-star hotels instead of three-star accommodations; play on pristine lawns in iconic ballparks like Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, and Dodger Stadium; and walk among the ghosts of players like Ruth, Gehrig, Cobb, Mantle, Williams, Aaron, Seaver, Gibson, and DiMaggio. And, yeah, someone else carries your bags. It is the game’s summit.
Just one-half of one percent of high school baseball players will play one day of professional baseball. And fewer than 1 in 11 of those minor-league players make it to the majors – The Show -- for even a single day. Still, they chase the dream.
Every baseball fan has heard the stories of the greats like Gehrig, Ruth, DiMaggio, and Aaron. Then there is the other side. The stories that fans don’t hear, but should -- like Jeremy Wolf.
After helping Trinity University (San Antonio, TX) win the Division III College World Series, the Scottsdale, AZ, native was drafted by the New York Mets in the 31st round of Major League Baseball’s 2016 June Amateur Draft.
As the 940th player taken, there was no fanfare surrounding Wolf’s selection. No million-dollar bonus, no press conference announcing his signing. Just a simple here’s your contract, and here’s when and where you report.
Still, “it was a dream come true,” to be picked by the team he rooted for as a child.
It didn’t take long for that dream to sour, though. In his second season, Wolf played for the Brooklyn Cyclones in the short-season, low-Class A New York-Penn League. The Brooklyn ballpark is in the shadows of the famed Coney Island Boardwalk, just 20 miles from the Mets’ Citi Field. Might just as well have been in another universe.
Wolf said he made $4,500 a year playing baseball. “I’d work 70 hours a week, and I would get paid $45 per game, so that comes out to like $3 an hour. The bat boy and hot dog vendor make more.”
Meanwhile, the average rent for a one-bedroom, one-bath apartment in Brooklyn was $2,970 a month in June 2017. As Wolf told PennLive.com, “I would play hungry, and I would go to bed hungry. I played in front of 10,000 people a night, and I wouldn’t have food to eat after a game, and I wouldn’t have enough money to go get food.”
Wolf’s professional baseball career was brief. While playing for Brooklyn, the first baseman-outfielder suffered a herniated disc sliding into second base. It was so bad, he couldn’t even get out of bed. A few weeks later, he had surgery. After the season, on Oct. 13, 2017, the Mets called him with the news: he was being released. He was out of professional baseball at age 23.
“I was thinking, ‘What the hell am I going to do?’ I had no backup plan. None of us had a backup plan. Fortunately, I had a degree to fall back on,” said Wolf, who graduated with a degree in communications from Trinity, and would go on to start More Than Baseball (www.morethanbaseball.org), a non-profit that supports minor league players in a variety of ways, including helping to pay bills and find housing.
His story is one of many from Major League Baseball’s “other side”: the financial struggles of minor league baseball players. They are “Professional Baseball’s Paupers”: grossly underpaid and frequently lacking a financial support system to help deal with the challenges they face.
There have been a lot of Jeremy Wolfs in professional baseball. The road from the minor leagues to the major leagues is strewn with broken dreams and tapped out bank accounts. According to information compiled by Wolf, 37 percent of minor league players went into debt to play baseball in 2019. That figure, he added, is expected to approach 50 percent this season. In essence, they are paying to play baseball instead of being paid.
Living the Dream?
When fans meet a minor league baseball player, the common reaction is, “Man, you’re living the dream; playing baseball for a living.” But, that “dream” is like the proverbial duck on water: appearing calm on the surface, but paddling like crazy underneath. For the player, the calm is being on the field; the “paddling like crazy” is dealing with everything else.
Major League Baseball is a $10-billion-a-year industry. Billionaire team owners have watched their teams’ average valuations soar past $2 billion. Baseball is awash in cash, yet pays many of its minor leaguers a pittance.
According to the More Than Baseball organization, the average income of a player for the first seven years of his baseball career is $6,884. Little wonder, then, that many of the approximately 6,000 players that make up the minor leagues struggle mightily to make ends meet.
Stories abound of players sleeping in their cars or living in camper vans at trailer parks; of six and even seven players sharing a two-bedroom apartment; players sleeping on air mattresses in kitchens, attics, and living rooms; players having to take on second jobs in season as Uber or Lyft drivers, or for meal-delivery businesses like DoorDash; of 10-hour workdays, six – and, often seven -- days a week; of diets heavily reliant upon fast-food restaurants because they provide the best value for cash-strapped budgets; of players having to take out loans in order to pay the rent; and players living below a subsistence level. Not exactly the carefree life that a number of people view professional baseball to be.
Minor league baseball players have skills that something like only 0.0001% of people have. Even if they never reach the majors, they are among a select number in the world. Yet, these players make a salary that puts a vast majority below the national poverty level of $12,800 a year.
“It doesn’t seem like too much to ask for, for players one step away from the major leagues (Triple-A), playing often in front of 9,000 or 10,000 fans, to make $50,000 for a year of work,” Scott Broshuis, a St. Louis attorney who pitched in the San Francisco Giants minor league system for six years, told Ryan Fagan of sportingnews.com. “Those guys should be paid a livable salary.”
Many people struggle early in their careers. Some later wear it as a badge of honor, calling it “paying your dues.” But, minor league baseball players face some serious and unique challenges, the biggest two obviously being pay and housing.
A Drop in the Ocean?
When MLB took over operations of the minor leagues this winter, one of the moves it trumpeted with great fanfare was increasing minimum player salaries from “38 to 72 percent” for minor leaguers across all levels. (It also agreed, as reported by sportingnews.com, to upgrade amenities, facilities, and working conditions for players and staff.)
Under the new arrangement, the weekly minimum salary for Triple-A players rises from $502 to $700, from $350 to $600 at Double-A, from $290 to $500 at the Class-A leagues, and from $290 to $400 at rookie level. Those salaries are before taxes.
It is a welcome and much-needed step in the right direction. Most people in any industry would dearly love a 38 percent raise. Unfortunately, when you get past those percentages, it really isn’t that much of a pay bump.
“Salaries have been ignored for so long, that even with this increase, there are a lot players below the poverty line,” Broshuis pointed out. “The percentages hide the fact that the amounts are actually fairly small. Because they haven’t increased wages in so long, you’re only talking about a few thousand more per player, for an entire year of work.”
To be fair, some players, especially at the Triple-A level, can make significantly more than the minimum. As Fagan points out, a player on an MLB club’s 40-man roster can earn $46,000 in his first season in Triple-A. The second season, it doubles to $93,000 minimum. And, players who sign minor league free-agent deals can make even more at that level.
Still, the pay for many players in the minors falls below the federal poverty level of $1,073 a month for a single person. So, saying the new minimum pay scale addresses the issue is like cleaning debris from one square mile of the Pacific Ocean and saying, ‘OK, we’re done. We cleaned up the ocean’. Every little bit helps, but it’s a long way from solving the problem.
Compared to other leagues, MLB’s pay for minor leaguers lags woefully behind. According to Fagan, baseball’s pay ranks last among the three major North American professional sports that have developmental leagues (basketball and hockey are the other two; college football is the de facto minor league for the National Football League). The National Hockey League’s AHL (American Hockey League) pays its players a minimum of $52,000, plus an on-road per diem of $81. The National Basketball’s G-League has a minimum salary of $35,000 and a $50 on-road per diem. Meanwhile, compensation for MLB’s Triple-A player is an embarrassing $14,700 minimum salary and a $25 per diem.
Minor league players are paid twice monthly for the five-month regular season, which generally runs from early April until the last week of August or first week of September. They do not receive pay during the off-season, during spring training, or the postseason.
After their rookie season, they must pay for their own equipment (gloves, bats, cleats, batting gloves, etc.) – which is like requiring office workers to purchase their own computers, cellphones, and office supplies. When you’re making less than $7,000 a year, replacing broken baseball bats at $150 apiece is tough.
Some players have the luxury of having received a large signing bonus or financial assistance from family as a buffer. But, for many others without those advantages life in the minor leagues can be a real hardship.
It is not the dream job many fans believe it to be. The players often work more than five days a week, or eight hours a day. During the five-month season, there are games six days a week, and seven in many cases. In addition to the games, there’s on-field practice, batting cage (or for pitchers, bullpen) work, strength-and-conditioning work, and of course travel – most often via bus -- none of which players are paid for. Add it all together, and it regularly amounts to tiring, 10-hour days.
Stress of Spring Training
Few things illustrate the plight of minor leaguers better than spring training.
Every year, baseball fans across the nation look forward to the start of spring training, the unofficial sign that winter is coming to a close, and that brighter, warmer days filled with baseball are ahead. It’s a moneymaker for big-league clubs and the cities that host them.
But, for the minor league player, it is the worst time of year. As Baseball America points out, the only money that players who are not on a big-league team’s 40-man roster receive during spring training are “whatever housing, food and allowances, stipends and/or per diems their teams issue from the time they report to camp through the start of the minor league regular season.” That amount varies by team.
A player can report in mid-February and not see a paycheck for six or seven weeks, until the minor league’s season opens in early April. What would you do if your boss told you, “Hey, we need you to work for six or seven weeks for free”? That’s essentially what minor leaguers do during spring training, aside from a per diem. While major league players are in the same boat, they have much larger salaries, bank accounts, and per diems to ease their burden.
“Most fans don’t know that minor league players have to work 31 straight days for no pay,” Broshuis said. “If you are requiring someone to work, you should pay them the minimum wage. It’s a fairly basic principle.”
In Need of Assistance
As challenging as it is to live on a woefully inadequate salary, finding affordable housing can be even more trying. Major League Baseball is failing on that count, too.
“Finding a place to put your head at night is the hardest, most stressful thing to do as a minor leaguer,” Caleb Joseph, a catcher in the Seattle Mariners’ organization, told Brittany Ghiroli of The Athletic.
Affordable housing long has been a problem for minor leaguers. And, it’s getting worse. The nation’s sizzling real estate market has spilled over into the rental market, further squeezing players’ already-strained budgets.
Rent can take up a huge portion – even exceed – a player’s pay. For instance, rent for an apartment in Lake Elsinore (CA), home of the San Diego Padres low Class-A league team, can run around $3,500 a month. And, rent in Brooklyn can be about $2,800 these days. The minimum salary for players playing in both of those places is $2,000 a month. No wonder players are stressed, and living six or seven to a two- or three-bedroom apartment.
In most cases, players are responsible for finding and paying for housing for what is generally a five-month season. That means a short-term lease, which is almost always more expensive; plus, short-term leases often are for six or seven months, meaning players pay for months they don’t need or use.
In addition, players can be traded, promoted or demoted at any time, which starts the process of finding and paying for housing all over again. It’s not unusual, then, for players to be responsible for multiple leases.
In the past, some players have been able to trim costs by staying with “host families,” team fans that supply room and board during season. But, health and safety protocols mandated by the COVID-19 pandemic have eliminated that option for the time being. Those same protocols also prohibit having so many players share an apartment, again squeezing player budgets.
To be fair, teams do offer some housing assistance -- teams also have increased the food budgets at their affiliates -- although the degree varies with the organization. For instance, this year, because of the pandemic, the Houston Astros are providing furnished apartments for their minor leaguers.
Many clubs offer discounted rates for staying in a hotel. But, even with the discount, living in a hotel can be expensive. Some teams pay monthly housing stipends, and some others pay for housing for their players at or below Double-A level.
“I can’t imagine what it would have been like not worrying about where I was sleeping (in the minor leagues),” Caleb Joseph told The Athletic. “If you alleviate that issue, it just makes it a little more dignified to chase a dream. I get the grind. I don’t think every minor leaguer needs to make $100,000, but they shouldn’t have to stress about where they’re resting their heads.”
Baseball’s Wage Exemptions
An obvious question is why baseball is able to get away with paying such paltry wages. The simple answer is because it can, thanks primarily to support from the courts and Congress.
Minor league players that are not on a big league team’s 40-man roster are not part of the Major League Baseball Players Association, or any union, so they receive no protection there.
Plus, the courts have, by and large, upheld the 1922 Supreme Court ruling that grants baseball’s exemption to the Sherman Antitrust Act, which has enabled baseball to control player wages for years.
In 1968, Congress passed the Curt Flood Act, which stated that Major League Baseball could not suppress salaries, beyond what was collectively bargained, for major league players. It explicitly excluded the minor leaguers, though.
Then, in 2018, Congress passed the “Save America’s Pastime Act.” This bill, tacked onto a federal spending bill that averted a government shutdown, stated that minor league baseball players were exempt from federal pay protections as long as they were paid a minimum wage for 40 hours a week. The bill said teams only have to pay for 40 hours a week, regardless of how many hours of “baseball related activities” minor league players engage in. In other words, no overtime, and no pay for spring training or the off-season.
Major League Baseball, in lobbying for and supporting the Save America’s Pastime Act, argued that minor leaguers are seasonal workers and as such should not be covered by minimum-wage laws. Plus, baseball argued, players have months between seasons in which they can acquire other jobs.
Lawsuit Seeks Wage Compliance
Broshuis, the former University of Missouri first-team Academic All-America pitcher turned attorney, wants that to change. He is the lead counsel in a class-action lawsuit against MLB seeking better pay for minor leaguers.
The suit, filed in 2014 and still in litigation, seeks to require baseball to pay players at least minimum wage. It also asks for millions in back pay, and compliance with wage laws. It’s estimated that the suit could impact 10,000 players.
Major League Baseball counters that hourly wage laws were not meant to cover athletes who play games and take trips that have no set hours, and spend their own time working out at gyms, and in baseball-related activities.
“The ultimate goal is pretty simple: to get MLB to comply with the same laws that Wal-Mart and McDonald’s comply with,” Broshuis told Kris LaGrange of ucommblog.com. “Whenever they ask players to go to spring training, they should be paying their employees for it. During a season, there’s no reason for players to be making $7,500 or $8,000 a year.”
There are other options to assist players, such as the More Than Baseball non-profit. Wolf said something as simple as getting beds for players can make a big difference. “If I can help them get equipment, if I can help them get food, if I can help them get a bed instead of sleeping on an air mattress…if they actually have a bed to sleep on maybe they’ll get another hit that week. Maybe they’ll be more relaxed and they’ll get another hit.”
Two extra hits a week may not sound like much. But, over the course of a five-month season, with a player getting 400 official at-bats, it can mean the difference between hitting .250 and hitting .300. That could be the difference between playing in a league with a $14,700 minimum salary (Triple-A) or one with a $570,500 minimum (Major Leagues).
So, how does baseball solve the problem? As crass as it may sound, the answer is to throw money at it.
Baseball players are assets, investments. How can teams get the most out of that investment if the player has to survive on fast food, or skip meals altogether; sleep on an air mattress in a kitchen and share a one-bedroom apartment with four other players; worry about how he is going to pay for his baseball bats or cleats; or take a second job during season? The stress of the need to perform on field can pale next to the stress of dealing with distractions off the field.
As a $10-billion-a-year business, MLB certainly can afford to pay minor leaguers even more, especially after baseball disbanded 40 minor league teams over the winter, cutting 1,000 players. If baseball would pay each player on the 120 minor league teams a $50,000 salary, the bill would come to $150 million. Divided among the 30 major league teams that comes to $5 million apiece – or just a little more than the average salary of one major league player.
In addition, baseball should, at the very least, help subsidize a player’s housing costs. Better yet, pay for the accommodations.
Hopefully, this winter Major League Baseball teams will continue to make improvements in assisting their minor league players. MLB has the means; it also should have the desire. Because what those players must endure to pursue their dream of reaching the majors is shameful. A $50,000 salary would, as Caleb Joseph said, make that chase more dignified.
There is no reason why minor league players must continue being “Professional Baseball’s Paupers.”
Dennis Richardson is a writer/editor with Words Matter. He has an extensive background as a reporter, copy editor, sportswriter, sports copy editor, and Senior Special Sections Writer with newspapers in Missouri and Florida. He lives outside of Orlando, FL.