BY Art Thiel 06:00AM 07/10/2019

Thiel: Baseball’s minors have worse pay problems

At the same time USWNT was making a statement at the World Cup about pay equity with men, MLB continues to pay its minor leaguers worse than summer interns.

Baseball owners had to threaten Congress with the demise of Annie Savoy and Crash Davis. / Orion Pictures

Not only did the U.S. Women’s National Team defend its World Cup title, they appear to be taking rental of the crown as the globe’s hottest celebs. After a ticker-tape parade Wednesday morning for the champs in New York City’s Canyon of Heroes (webcast here), the team will immediately depart for a flight to Los Angeles, where in the evening, the soccer champs will be hailed at the annual ESPY sports awards.

The USWNT is also in the forefront of business and politics.

During the the tourney in France, team tri-captain and Reign FC star Megan Rapinoe was engaged by President Trump in a Twitter spat over her unwillingness to attend any White House honors ceremony as long as he was the building’s main tenant. She is now a national hero to the left and condemned by the right, which means she is known in our hyper-politicized culture by nearly as many people as have heard of LeBron James.

Additionally, she and her 27 teammates in March sued the U.S. Soccer Federation over inequalities in pay, facilities and support compared to the men’s team, which helped the symbolic part of the women’s claims by failing to even make the 32-team World Cup field in 2018 after being thwarted by the powerhouse from Trinidad & Tobago. (Rule No. 1 for big countries in international sports: Never lose to a team with an ampersand in its name.)

While numerous arguments about inequity have merit, it is worth noting that the pay scales for both genders, based on a traditionally large disparity in revenue streams, were a result of several-years-old collective bargaining by separate unions with the USSF. Meanwhile, the prize money distribution for the World Cup is done by FIFA, the global governing body, and not a party to the lawsuit.

The point is that there is more to this disputation than the imposition of random cruelties by the sport’s patriarchy, which doesn’t absolve them, but makes matters more complicated. A more comprehensive look at the facts can be found in this Washington Post story here.

Coincidentally, the latest episode in the long-running dispute in soccer came to the fore during All-Star Game week for MLB, which also has a pay-inequality problem. But it’s not about gender.

It’s between major-league pay scales and minor-league pay scales.

The gap is shockingly abysmal, and has been so for decades. It is the subject of current negotiations between MLB and the 244 minor-league affiliates across the country.

Prior to the Home Run Derby Monday in Cleveland, Commissioner Rob Manfred was asked about the talks, and offered a non-specific answer.

“The game’s about young players right now,” he told The Athletic. “The clubs want to develop players in an environment that’s positive, and to have that positive environment, you’ve got to have good facilities. You’ve got to pay correctly, and make sure you got the right people teaching. So that’s what the negotiation’s really about.”

I don’t think I want Manfred as an arbiter of “correct” pay. Because he and his predecessor, Bud Selig, and Fay Vincent before him, and Bart Giamatti before him, etc., have been helping owners operate a hustle that started out bad and has grown worse as the cost of living climbs steadily.

Here’s a quick snapshot of minor league salaries, exclusive of signing bonuses, compiled by The Athletic:

AAA first year: $2,150/month; second year, $2,400/month; third year, $2,700/month (about $12,000-$15,000 a year).

AA first year: $1,700/mo., increasing $100/month for each subsequent season.

High A/Low A first year: $1,160-$1,500/month, increasing $50/month for each subsequent season.

While it’s true that numerous top picks in each year’s draft class get multi-million-dollar, one-time bonuses, it’s also true that nearly every signee in the bottom 40 percent of the 40-round class gets a bonus of $10,000 or less.

In 2019, the federal poverty line for single-income households is $14,380. Imagine making a go of things playing ball for less than $15,000 with Mariners’ minor league teams in Everett or Tacoma, where the cost of living is only a step or two down from Seattle’s stratospheric expense. And some of these players are married with kids.

The raw numbers do not reflect other odious aspects of the work: No union protection, long bus rides, poor quality clubhouse food, inadequate per-diems and little or no allotments for equipment.

Yet MLB owners had the stones to lobby Congress in 2016 for an exemption from federal laws requiring overtime pay for work beyond 40 hours. It worked.

The perversely named “Save Our National Pastime Act” was passed by Congress in 2018. It had bi-partisan support, so Chuck and Nancy get to share the overripe vegetable matter normally hurled at Republicans from outraged taxpayers.

Sure, MLB can say the job is the equivalent in another industry of a four-month summer apprenticeship, and hey, it’s living the dream with cute girls offering their phone numbers. What they also say is that if they can’t keep salaries lower than that of entry-level food-service workers, minor-league park revenues won’t cover increased expenses and (sigh) the owners will have to close cute little parks across America.

So, you know . . . support the troops or we’ll kill Crash Davis and Annie Savoy.

The fact is that MLB TV revenues are more than enough to subsidize a tripling of salaries and logistics support for every minor league player and facility, probably at a total cost equivalent of one year’s salary ($24 million) for Robinson Cano.

But since the owners run a monopoly with an exemption from federal anti-trust law that is as outdated as crank-handle telephones, no one can make them do anything they don’t want to do.

So at a moment in sports-business history where a collection of women champs seem near to creating some momentum and leverage for a culture change, it seemed worthy to keep in mind that there are 28 of them and more than 5,800 minor league ballplayers, about 20 percent of whom get cashiered annually.

When it comes to discrimination in sports, sports oligarchs often don’t discriminate.


  • tor5

    More great reporting, Art! It has me thinking about your position on paying college football players. How would this be different from baseball minor leagues and avoid replicating the exploitation you describe here? At least college players have the potential to get an education out of the deal (though still exploited in most cases, for sure). Maybe that’s a bigger question than can be addressed here. But it seems the problem of exploiting dreamy-eyed wannabes crosses all sports. Does a good real-world model that avoids this exploitation exist somewhere? Or is it ultimately a political/regulation problem?

    • art thiel

      I’d really like to keep government out of sports, but I don’t see another mechanism that could keep big-money interests from exploiting cheap college labor. The long-term solution is to do what every other industrialized country has done — create sports academies for talented young athletes who have their academic pursuits built around training schedules, and eliminate revenue sports from college. But reforms like that would be too honest. We Americans love our mythologies.

      Regarding MLB, there’s nothing but a lack of conscience that’s stopping owners from establishing mandatory minimums for minor leaguers that are above the poverty line. But no one has demanded that they do so.

      Let’s start.

    • Kirkland

      Virtually every other country in the world, including industrialized first-world countries, has a Ministry/Department of Sport, like they do for defense, state, transportation, etc.. Besides developing Olympic athletes and facilities, these ministries also keep an eye out for anti-doping compliance, corruption, and other regulations. I’m beginning to wonder if we should establish our own Department of Athletics to overlook and regulate these troubling issues, and not just college sports (the USA Gymnastics scandal, for one). Self-regulating isn’t working anymore.

  • Joe_Fan

    Art, we don’t need no stinking regulations! We don’t need no stinking “govmint” telling us how to run our businesses! We are job creators! Get off our backs!!! LOL

    • Matt Kite

      Ha! Indeed, the owners’ largess should be trickling down to the bus leagues any moment… ;)

      • Husky73

        Trickle down has never worked…..

      • art thiel

        Don’t believe I’ve even seen a trickle. Just dust.

        • Larry StoneB

          That trickle is clear to yellow in color.

    • art thiel

      You have down the ownership rhetoric for the hundred years since they received the anti-trust exemption from Congress.

  • Husky73

    Of all the players who sign a professional baseball contract, around 94% will never play in the major leagues. For those fortunate 6%, the average major league career is around 5-6 years, but one in five last a year or less. Considering time at the ballpark (practice, games, conditioning), travel, hotels, meetings and events, the beer vendors in the stands are making more money than the minor league players on the field. By the way…Jim Bouton R.I.P.

    • art thiel

      Thanks for the data. It’s kind of remarkable that no one in MLB management seems ashamed.

      • Husky73

        I was a friend of Stan Naccarato. It was amazing to see guys in AAA (often in their 30’s) with no money, couch surfing, or sleeping 3, 4 or 5 in a one bedroom apartment. They ate ballpark fare, McDonald’s or tavern food every day. Many didn’t have a car with them, so they were constantly bumming rides just to get back and forth to the ballpark. Simple things like washing their clothes, getting a haircut or going to the grocery store were difficult to arrange. But, you know who had it worse? The umpires. They were paid even LESS, and they were on a continual six month road trip. They never had a “home game,” and they did a lot of driving. They’d do a series in Portland, then up I-5 to Tacoma, and then they’d hit the road to Calgary. What a life.

        • art thiel

          Thanks for the umpires’ story. An even more neglected group who really love the game for itself.

          I knew Stan too. At least he lived well.

  • Chuck Henry

    And it’s such a crap shoot for these kids. All the promise in the world can get wrecked by bad coaching. They should be able to put at least something in the bank for filling up the hopper of the sifting machine. The ones out of high-school are just kids. Thanks for making me think about this ART, ouch. It makes me a little sad.

    • art thiel

      Well, that’s kinda been my point all these years. Glad you enjoyed.