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The Plight of the Minor League Baseball Wage Slave

A pair of lawsuits focused on minor league baseball's wage system are looming, but even a former player turned attorney says unionization is the real solution.

Howard Megdal

Photo by Matt Ryerson-USA TODAY Sports

Listen to Major League Baseball players past and present, and almost all of them will tell you similar stories, often with a smile, about how hard they had it in the minor leagues. Not coincidentally, it isn't just the stories that have remained the same over the last four decades—it's the disturbingly low salaries, too.

To hear Garrett Broshius tell it, that's no reason to smile.

A former minor league pitcher turned attorney, Broshius represents 21 other former minor leaguers who have filed a lawsuit against MLB and its 30 teams, alleging that players make less than required by state and federal laws governing minimum wage and overtime. Among their supporting points? Since 1976, minor league salaries have risen 75 percent. Which sounds pretty sweet, at least until you consider that inflation over the same span has risen more than 400 percent.

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In other words: when Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter talks about pocketing just $13,000 for a single season in Sarasota some 30-plus years ago, he was still earning more than three times in relative purchasing power than what he would be making today. The numbers are stunning. All minor league players are paid by big league clubs, the same ones earning millions and even billions from ever-increasing television rights deals. Yet according to the Wall Street Journal, most minor leaguers earn between $1,100 and $2,150 a month during a five-month, 140-game season. Moreover, the players receive no overtime pay or salaries during spring training or for playing in off-season instructional leagues. This is deeply unfair.

While MLB did not respond to a VICE Sports request for comment on the lawsuit, the league previously has argued that minor leaguers are seasonal employees, and therefore exempt from minimum wage and overtime pay laws. Perhaps that was once a reasonable argument, but not anymore. For aspiring major league players, spring training is essential. So are instructional leagues. Both draw fans, and both require, you know, work.

If anything, a good case can be made that minor leaguers are more than full-time employees, at least if they're doing their jobs right. Baseball excellence requires practice and repetition, countless hours of fielding grounders and grooving one's swing, all in addition to playing actual games. It requires physical conditioning, too, which means working out and eating well, neither of which is cheap.

Brian Wilson being consoled by a minor league mascot. Photo by Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Indeed, even as the actual value of minor league salaries has declined, the total amount of time and effort baseball franchises expect minor league players to put in during the aforementioned and inaptly named off-season has greatly increased. Yet teams expect players to prepare and get fit largely on their own dime.

By comparison, consider NFL and NBA prospects, who also are bound by a deeply unfair amateur system, but at least receive room and board while on campus. Some minor league players—the ones making four figures(!) over a whole year—only wish they could be exploited in the same way.

"That's a key difference here," Broshius told VICE Sports in a phone interview last week. "Keeping the body in shape is actually a fundamental part of the job here."

If it sounds like major league teams are being penny-wise and pound-foolish by keeping minor league salaries so low—essentially, starving their own seed corn to save a few bucks—well, there's some truth to that. After all, baseball is made up of 30 teams looking for absolutely any competitive edge they can find. More and more of them are aware of the role that nutrition plays in the development and maintenance of athletic performance. Lawsuits and basic fairness aside, those teams have every incentive to pay their future major league workforce well enough to focus on the sport alone.

Instead, they skimp. When minor leagues talk about buying healthy food, they usually mention a tough choice between eating adequately and spending beyond their meager per diems. Besides, have you ever attempted to find something healthy to eat in a small town at 1 AM?

"Going to Applebee's was splurging," Broshius said with a laugh. "I can remember numerous times when I had to make a decision whether I was going to eat someplace like Applebee's, or eat someplace like McDonald's. And a minor leaguer has to make that choice day after day after day."

Whether it's meal money or salaries, Broshius claims in his suit that MLB sets the salary structure for all minor league teams, and that the big league clubs who pay those (low) wages are colluding. This brings up another question: if teams are conspiring to reduce player pay, where is the MLBPA on this?

Ah, read that acronym closely. Major League Baseball Players' Association. Not Minor League Baseball Players' Association. Baseball players join their union once they make it to the major leagues. Until then, they're represented by ... nobody. And that's a problem.

Remember those smiling major league players, recalling their difficult minor league days? They're the people in the best position to change minor league pay going forward. Only they've repeatedly ignored the issue while reaping the benefits of unionization. So much so that major league players have seen their salaries increase by more than 2,000 percent since 1976.

Responding to a VICE Sports request for comment on the minor league baseball lawsuit, MLBPA spokesperson Greg Bouris gave a non-committal statement: "We are aware of the lawsuit and are monitoring the issue closely. We have no additional comment at this time, other than to state that as a union we support the rights of workers everywhere."

Broshius wasn't surprised.

"There are a lot of major leaguers who view [low salaries] as a right of passage," he said. "The major league union, certainly, has not been there for the minor leaguers. And the primary reason is, they don't represent them... so there is a little bit of a failure there. And that's a big reason why I think a great solution to this problem would be for minor leaguers to have a union."

Could that be done without the MLBPA's help? It wouldn't be easy. As Broshius points out, if he had pushed for a minor league union during his time as a player, he quickly would have become a former player. Aside from the very best prospects, few minor leaguers are talented enough to have any sort of individual leverage, and anyone who does typically becomes a major leaguer in short order.

By contrast, major league players have leverage. They have a megaphone. Of course, they've also made it—and that may explain the MLBPA's reticence. Ultimately, the money in baseball is finite, and the MLBPA wants as much as possible to flow to its members.

Still, the union's failure to act has consequences. MLB has been able to use its near-limitless power over minor leaguers to drive a wedge between players on issues ranging from how long it takes minor leaguers to become free agents to testing for performance-enhancing drugs. Look at things systemically, and it's a pretty easy jump from minor league suspensions lacking any sort of due process to the aggressive, ethics-flouting investigation MLB pursued against New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez and other Biogenesis clients.

Currently, Broshius' lawsuit is slowly moving through the legal system and may be turned into a class action after being consolidated with a similar, separate suit filed by other minor league players. If the consolidated suit survives MLB's expected legal challenges, it reportedly could go to trial in 2016.

No matter the outcome, Broshius said, there's ultimately a better option for minor league players than going to court.

"Having a minor league union in place would be the best long-term solution," he said. "I'm confident that this lawsuit is going to bring forth some good change. It's going to help a lot of guys, I'm very hopeful of that. But in the long run, yeah, for other types of power grabs, there definitely needs to be a minor league union in place."