Bernie Sanders Is Trying to Save Minor League Baseball — and Get Its Players a Raise

Major League Baseball is threatening to sever ties with scores of minor league teams in an apparent attempt to cut costs. But Bernie Sanders is resisting the plan — and insisting that MLB instead grant minor leaguers a living wage and union representation.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders shares a laugh as he warms up before his baseball game against the Leaders Believers Achievers Foundation at the Field of Dreams Baseball field on August 19, 2019 in Dyersville, Iowa. Joshua Lott / Getty

Last December, Marvin Miller was finally inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Miller, who died in 2012, served as the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) from 1966 to 1982, transforming the union into one of the strongest in the country.

When Miller took over, Major League Baseball (MLB) still had the “reserve clause,” which effectively gave team owners complete control over player contracts. Franchises could trade, release, or sell players, but the players had no leverage of their own. If someone wanted to switch teams, they could only do so if the owner granted them an unconditional release.

In 1969, Miller took up the cause of St Louis Cardinals center fielder Curt Flood. “I do not feel I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes,” Flood wrote to commissioner Bowie Kuhn, asking for free agency. Six years later, the reserve clause was eliminated.

But despite the efforts of Miller, Flood, and other players, minor leaguers still don’t enjoy the same protections. The reserve clause remains in effect — with disastrous results. Many toil in the minor leagues making less than minimum wage. Some of the highest paid players pull in a little more than $2,000 a month, while working between sixty and seventy hours a week. In recent years, the hyper-exploitative system has generated a handful of lawsuits, but it’s predictably been an uphill battle. Minor league baseball players have very little power, no labor union, and little incentive to fight a league that could end up blackballing them.

Last November, minor leaguers received another possible hit to their livelihoods. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred announced the league was planning to sever ties with forty-two minor league teams after the agreement between MLB and its farm systems expires this year. Manfred claims that the move is part of an effort to upgrade minor league stadiums and improve the living situation of the players — but it seems like a clear attempt to slash costs. The plan would put the surviving minor league teams on the hook for more costs and create an inexpensive “Dream League” for undrafted players. One minor league official told the New York Times that the Dream League would be a “death sentence” for some communities that rely on their baseball teams as an economic engine. The plan is backed by every Major League owner.

This potential contraction is facing opposition from lawmakers in the impacted areas — and chief among those opponents is Bernie Sanders. What makes Sanders’s reaction to the plan unique, however, is that he’s also using it to address the league’s labor system.

After Manfred floated the plan, Sanders sent him a letter that reads:

Your proposal to slash the number of minor league teams has nothing to do with what is good for baseball, but it has everything to do with greed. Your proposal to throw about 1,000 ball players out of work comes less than three months after an appeals court ruled that Minor League Baseball players could move forward with a class action lawsuit seeking higher wages.

In other words, instead of paying Minor League Baseball players a living wage, it appears that the multi-millionaire and billionaire owners of Major League Baseball would rather throw them out on the street no matter how many fans, communities and workers get hurt in the process. If this is the type of attitude that Major League Baseball and its owners have then I think it’s time for Congress and the executive branch to seriously rethink and reconsider all of the benefits it has bestowed to the league including, but not limited to, its antitrust exemption.

For the communities that would be negatively impacted, for the people who would be hurt, and for what is good for baseball do not shut down these Minor League Baseball teams. Pay the minor league players a living wage and make it easier for them to join a union.

Part of Sanders’s motivation is personal: the Vermont Lake Monsters would be one of the teams on the chopping block if MLB goes forward with the plan. The New York–Penn League squad plays its games at Centennial Field, one of the oldest minor league stadiums in the country, and last year, the team boasted an attendance of over 83,000. If the proposal goes, minor leagues fans might there might not be minor league baseball for Vermonters within a 125-mile radius.

Sanders is one of the major reasons Vermont has a team in the first place. While running for mayor of Burlington in 1981, Sanders included bringing baseball to the state as part of his platform. After Sanders won that election (by a mere ten votes), he assembled a task force to sell the region as a viable market for a farm team. Burlington eventually landed a Double-A team affiliated with the Cincinnati Reds. The Vermont Reds played until 1987, when they became the Vermont Mariners, but the state had already proven it could sustain a team. Burlington has been home to multiple minor league teams since.

According to Sanders’s former roommate, Richard Sugarman, his initial vision involved a publicly owned franchise. “Our original idea was a community or city-owned team,” Sugarman told the Sporting News in 2015, “Bernie liked the idea. The idea of community ownership would be a civic endeavor that would bring the people of Burlington together. We were told that the league would not allow it.”

Sanders’s relationship with baseball certainly didn’t begin in Vermont. In 1957, when Bernie was just sixteen, his beloved Dodgers moved from his hometown of Brooklyn to Los Angeles. The franchise had captured its first World Series title, defeating the vaunted New York Yankees, just two seasons prior. “You’re a kid and the name of the team is called the Los Angeles Dodgers or the Brooklyn Dodgers, you assume that it belongs to the people of Los Angeles or Brooklyn,” Sanders told Los Angeles Times reporter Andy McCullough. “The idea that it was a private company who somebody could pick up and move away and break the hearts of millions of people was literally something we did not understand. So it was a really devastating moment. I remember it with great sadness.”

In 2015, Huck Gutman, Sanders’s close friend and former chief of staff, expanded on that sentiment in an interview with the Guardian:

Bernie and I were both Dodger fans and we talk about that. It was the [first indication] that those with a lot of money may have an interest that is different than the community’s interests . . . We never understood that he who pays the piper plays the tune. It was a lesson that it doesn’t matter whether people love (a team) it’s all about the money.

Similar thoughts might be on the minds of some Iowans as the Democratic caucus approaches. The state’s Quad City River Bandits, Burlington Bees, and Clinton LumberKings are all on the chopping block. Just five years ago, the Quad Cities were ranked as the minor league’s top market, and their demise would leave the region without a team for the first time in 141 years. “By threatening to rip baseball out of these communities, the billionaires who control America’s pastime are showing their true colors,” Bernie 2020 deputy Iowa director Bill Neidhardt told a local paper recently. “This isn’t about what’s good for baseball. It’s about greedy executives refusing to give even a tiny bit more of their massive wealth to the young people who keep their businesses booming.”

After the MLB’s plan faced a backlash, it released a statement insisting that terminating teams wasn’t its intention. Yet it also called on minor league squads to cough up more money if they wanted better facilities and player pay. Minor leagues teams quickly pushed back, pointing out how much money they’re already shoveling out.

On his website, the journalist Marc Normandin breaks down the differences between the two factions:

It’s not a perfect analogy, but [minor league baseball is] essentially the petty bourgeoisie in this relationship: they strive to be like the true, “high” bourgeoisie — in this case, MLB’s owners — and are willing to throw anyone below their own class status under the bus in order to better cozy up with the ruling class and increase their chances of one day becoming part of it themselves. MiLB’s owners have played a significant role in holding players down, keeping them from eating right or playing in the safest conditions or from unionizing, and because of that, it becomes difficult to sympathize with their current plight as the boot comes down on their necks for once.

Normandin concludes that, while both sides share some of the blame for the current plight of minor league players, Major League Baseball is the organization that’s equipped to actually improve the situation:

MLB is certainly in a better position to do all of the things they supposedly want done in order to improve the minors, be it paying players more, or upgrading facilities, or reorganizing the leagues so travel makes more sense. They, the ones profiting the most from a $10 billion-per-year industry, have the money to fix all of this, and the real problem here is that, like with everything else, they’d much prefer someone else spend their money to do it instead.

Normandin’s point is crystallized in the case of Vermont’s team. The Lake Monsters are currently an affiliate of the Oakland Athletics, a notoriously thrifty team whose current owner is John Fisher, chair of a vast charter school network and contributor to a right-wing dark money group. He’s worth roughly $2.8 billion. These are the kinds of forces that Sanders will be up against as he continues to wage his battle.

Last fall, more than a hundred House members also sent a letter to Manfred expressing concerns about the proposal. “Reducing the number of Minor League Baseball clubs and overhauling a century-old system that has been consistently safeguarded by Congress is not in the best interest of the overall game of baseball, especially when Major League Baseball’s revenues are at all-time highs,” it reads.

Though he no doubt welcomed the bipartisan letter, Bernie’s fight for the labor rights of minor league players is a totally different war, and he’ll have a lot fewer political allies. It’s a daunting task — but Marvin Miller (and Curt Flood) would probably be proud.