Organize the Minor Leagues

Minor league baseball players get paid little and enjoy even fewer labor rights. The only solution is organizing.

A Memphis Redbirds player on June 24, 2017. Minda Haas Kuhlmann

The Major League Baseball season is winding down, and the athletes not fortunate enough to have a spot on playoff squads will soon be golfing, planning vacations, or preparing for the 2018 season. For minor leaguers, however, who play a shorter season and who earn a fraction of major league salaries, late September usually means returning to a second (or third) job.

“We don’t make a ton of money,” Anthony Gallas, an outfielder in Cleveland’s system, told a local news outlet in 2016, “Most people would think, ‘Oh, you’re a professional baseball player. You just take it easy in the offseason.’ Well, the fact is, most of the guys, we work.”

Gallas said he had found employment at a movie theater and taught hitting before heading to Venezuela for winter ball.

Another Cleveland farmhand at the time, pitcher JP Feyereisen, described his offseason: mornings ripping out carpet for his father’s flooring company, evenings behind the front desk of a fitness company. He said he gave pitching lessons when he had extra time.

Gallas and Feyereisen’s offseasons are typical of players far from the big-league lights. Most minor leaguers make between $3,000 and $7,500 over their five-month season. The highest paid players pull in around $2,150 a month, while those at the lowest levels earn just $1,100. Regardless of pay rates, they work between sixty and seventy hours a week.

The minor league’s poor labor standards grew directly out of the MLB’s poor labor practices. Despite its hefty salaries today, Major League Baseball was for many years a quasi-feudal system, with teams enjoying unmitigated control over players and the league elbowing out any threats to its turf.

Only after decades of lawsuits and player unionization were major league ballplayers able to win basic labor protections and recoup some of the profits they generated for owners.

Minor leaguers are still waiting for their payday.

Feudalism and Monopoly

In 1903, the American and National Leagues unified to create a new professional baseball organization.

As part of the merger, the American League adopted the National League’s “reserve clause,” which effectively forced players to stay with the first team that signed them. The rule nullified player autonomy and significantly depressed wages. Players across the nascent MLB could be traded, but they couldn’t sign for a higher offer from a different team when their contracts expired.

In 1912, promoter John T. Powers created a rival organization called the Federal League, which compensated players better and didn’t impose a reserve clause. The new league sent shockwaves through the MLB. Some big names defected, and MLB officials sweetened the deal for stars like Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker, fearing they might follow suit.

But despite offering more lucrative contracts, the Federal League struggled to survive. While it managed to briefly sign pitching superstar Walter Johnson, he ultimately reneged on the deal. The failed coup dealt a devastating blow to an organization that had been branded an “outlaw league.”

Still smarting from the abortive deal, the Federal League sued the MLB in 1915, arguing that it was a monopoly in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis — who would go on to become the MLB’s first commissioner — purposely delayed the case for the rest of the year, and the Federal League essentially fell apart.

But another challenge to the MLB quickly sprung up.

After being denied a decent buyout offer — and prevented from purchasing an existing team and moving it to their city — the owners of the Federal League’s Baltimore Terrapins filed another lawsuit, once again claiming that the MLB was contravening the Sherman Act.

Again the upstart league lost, this time before the Supreme Court. Oliver Wendell Holmes, writing in a unanimous decision, argued that baseball games should “not be called trade of commerce in the commonly accepted use of those words.” The decision legally exempted Major League Baseball from all antitrust laws. The reserve clause remained intact.

The next shot fired at the MLB came not from incensed owners but from exploited players.

In 1950, George Earl Toolson, a minor-league pitcher for the New York Yankees, sued his bosses, asserting that the reserve clause was limiting his career prospects. The Yankees were so good, he argued, that he had little chance of being called up to the majors. And the reserve clause prevented him from inking a deal with a less competitive team.

After being demoted to the Yankees’ club in Binghamton, New York, Toolson refused to report, contending that baseball should follow the same laws as other businesses. Three years later, the Supreme Court upheld the antitrust exemption, ruling 7-2 in favor of the MLB.

The major-league owners faced one more legal test before the baseball players union killed the reserve clause for good.

When the St Louis Cardinals traded their star centerfielder, Curt Flood, to the Philadelphia Phillies in 1969, Flood declined to go. He didn’t want to leave St Louis, play for a bad team, or work in a city run by the notoriously racist Frank Rizzo. He penned a letter to Commissioner Bowie Kuhn asking for free agency.

“After twelve years in the major leagues,” Flood wrote, “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.”

Kuhn denied Flood’s request, so he took his case to Marvin Miller, founder and head of the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA).

The MLBPA had been recognized as a union just three years earlier, when Miller — a former economist for the United Steelworkers of America — was hired to lead the fledgling organization. When he showed up, players were fixated on pension plans. But Miller saw much deeper issues. The league’s minimum annual salary had increased by a mere $1,000 over the previous twenty years. The reserve clause was holding players back.

As soon as Flood reached out, Miller knew the case was the perfect opportunity to target the rotten provision. But he was also sober about Flood’s chances.

“I told him that given the court’s history of bias towards the owners and their monopoly, he didn’t have a chance in hell of winning,” Miller later recounted. “More important than that, I told him even if he won, he’d never get anything out of it — he’d never get a job in baseball again.”

Flood was unfazed. He asked if the fight would benefit other players. Miller confirmed that it would, and the ballplayer agreed to continue. “You’re a union leader’s dream,” Miller told him.

Unfortunately, Miller’s prediction about Flood’s future was completely accurate: the Supreme Court upheld the antitrust exemption, and Flood never played in the major leagues again.

The next year, however, the players struck over the reserve clause, and during its first collective bargaining negotiations, the union won a 40 percent increase in the minimum annual salary and independent arbitration for player-owner disputes (rather having to appeal to the owner-friendly commissioner).

Under Miller’s stewardship, the MLBPA grew into one of the country’s most powerful labor unions.

By 1976, the reserve clause was dead.

No Deal for the Minor Leagues

In 1998, President Clinton signed the Curt Flood Act, a largely symbolic piece of legislation that declared that the MLB’s antitrust exemption didn’t apply to employment after all. By this time, the clarification had become moot — free agency and collective bargaining had already swept the league, and unionization had sent salaries soaring.

But if the act was symbolic for major leaguers, it reaffirmed minor leaguers’ subordinate position.

Over the preceding two decades, more and more fans had flocked to minor-league games, making owners rich off of ticket and concession sales as well as investments by municipal governments. Granting players labor rights would’ve cut into those profits.

So minor league owners pressured elected officials to cement the status quo and, as sports lawyer Edmund P. Edmonds has put it, “refrain from changing the delicate balance that exists between major league and minor league baseball.” Lawmakers obliged: the final legislation explicitly stipulated that minor leaguers didn’t have the same protections as their major league brethren.

Very little has changed for minor league players since.

One ongoing lawsuit, Senne v. MLB, contends that Major League Baseball consistently violates federal law by paying its minor-league players less than minimum wage and denying them overtime pay. Its lead defendant, Aaron Senne, began his career with the Miami Marlins’ short-season Class A team. Never called up to the majors, Senne says that the most he ever made playing baseball was $7,000. He’s now seeking back wages from the MLB.

Senne’s modest demand has jolted federal lawmakers into action. Last year, Representatives Brett Guthrie (R-KY) and Cheri Bustos (D-Ill) sponsored the Save America’s Pastime Act, a nauseating piece of legislation designed to permanently exempt minor-league players from minimum wage laws. The bill is a direct response to Senne v. MLB and Miranda v. Selig, a parallel lawsuit challenging the antitrust exemption.

“The game provides an affordable, family-friendly environment while bringing revenue to host cities and contributing to broader economic development,” Guthrie said upon introducing the bill, adding that “the Minor Leagues offer the best opportunity for players to pursue their dream of one day playing in the Big Leagues, as several local players have done over the years.”

Minor league owners rushed to praise the bill, warning of dire consequences if players’ legal challenges prevailed. “Should [Senne v. MLB] be successful, teams like the Louisville Bats, Bowling Green Hot Rods and Lexington Legends may well disappear, along with a source of wholesome entertainment for Kentucky families, and an economic generator for those cities,” Louisville Bats president Gary Ulmer warned.

This is nonsense, of course. For one, minor-league owners don’t pay their players’ salaries: their parent major-league team does. Senne got his paycheck from the Miami Marlins, not his farm team, the Jamestown Jammers. And while the Marlins have one of the lowest payrolls in the major leagues, the team is still valued at around $940 million. In addition, player salaries don’t dictate ticket prices — demand does. Minor-league games would cost the same even if players made decent money.

Bustos has since dropped her sponsorship of the bill, backpedaling after a backlash. But Guthrie has bravely declared he will continue the fight.

Meanwhile, the Senne case hit a snag in May, when federal magistrate judge Joseph C. Spero allowed the defendants to appeal his earlier decision establishing the lawsuit as a class action. It wasn’t the suit first setback. In 2015, Spero certified a preliminary plaintiff class of over ten thousand current and former players, only to reverse his decision the following year, reducing the group to the thirty-two players who originally filed suit. Spero revived it again this March after the players dropped some of the specific unpaid wage claims and he discovered more reliable evidence.

The lawsuit’s rocky progression is a reminder of just how hostile the US court system has been to players seeking a fairer shake. For many years, the history of the MLB was the history of judges siding with team owners.

The most obvious — if daunting — solution to unjust treatment is to form a minor league players’ union. Yet a union drive would quickly run up against staunchly anti-union front offices. A whiff of organizing would be enough to endanger players’ future prospects. Curt Flood’s crusade cost him his career — what incentive does a kid playing low-A ball have to challenge the system?

Minor-league players not only don’t have a union to foster solidarity and improve their conditions — they don’t have the support of the MLPBA. At times, the major leaguers’ union has lobbied against minor leaguers’ economic interests because gains for young prospects could hurt major-league salaries. As recently as 2007, the players’ union agreed to contract language that kept minor-leaguers out of free agency for an extra year.

Is there an alternative to organizing internally?

A 2008 book, Getting on Base, lays out one intriguing path. Written by the late labor lawyer and baseball salary arbitrator Donald Wollett, the book argues that, rather than wait for players to take action, an outside force could organize the minor leagues:

How about a “members only” strategy where instead of the acquisition of power by going to the National Labor Relations Board and winning an election, a group of employees . . . work together for mutual aid and protection with an idea that maybe they can improve their lives? . . . If this is going to happen, realistically, it needs a shove in funding by an established organization, such as the Brotherhood of Teamsters or the Service Employees International Union.

No matter how these two lawsuits are decided, or whether unionization finally comes about internally or externally, it’s clear that Curt Flood’s fight must be replicated if minor league players are going to win better labor standards. Senne and Miranda, the two men leading the legal charge, will hopefully inspire their fellow players, and maybe outside organizations, to push for fair pay and decent working conditions. Perhaps the MLBPA will finally shown some solidarity.

Until then, thousands of workers will labor in the playing fields of America — living out their childhood dreams, but with little in their pockets to show for it.