The recent announcement of H.R. 5580 into the United States House of Representatives brought justifiable outrage at the institution of Major League Baseball. The proposal, which would exempt minor league baseball players from specific labor laws and certain legal powers against their employer, comes in an era of economic growth and is also well-timed to potentially strengthen the MLB’s own position in a lawsuit involving minor league pay. Minor leaguers mostly earn wages that are comparable to minimum wage (or worse), and the MLB professional monopoly further ostracized the minor league development structure by publicly calling prospects “seasonal apprentices.” The anger against the MLB ownership and monopoly structure is rightful because MLB could pay each and every minor leaguer a salary of $50,000 without exhausting their revenue growth that occurred in the 2015 season. When a $9.5 billion monopoly bristles at the suggestion of paying some 19 year old prospect more than $6,000, it’s easy to feel visceral gut anger.
However, one can argue that the position of MLB ownership is certainly logical, and even to be expected, given their sole purpose: sell cable and media subscriptions, and keep as much of the money as possible. Riffing on the regrettable but astute statement by the Atlanta Braves ownership, MLB is now a fairly major media enterprise as opposed to just a baseball league. This has been the operating mode since a major cable bubble in the late 1980s, and especially since the 1994 strike and ensuing “Steroid Era” popularity surge and cable television price bubble.
Following this train of thought, it is worth arguing that the MLBPA response to the MLB position is even more noteworthy, and perhaps exceptionally more problematic than the ownership response. The MLBPA is acting as another impediment to fair wages and benefits for Minor League players. The players’ union spoke to the importance of labor laws, but issued a relatively weak statement on Minor League pay (really, they failed to issue much of a statement whatsoever):
“The Major League Baseball Players Association believes that all workers, including athletes who are directly employed by the Major and Minor League clubs, are entitled to the statutory protections afforded them by all of the employment laws of the United States and the various states and municipalities, including the protections for both minimum wages and overtime work.”
It is a non-event when ownership decides to keep revenue away from labor; the Players Association should be scrutinized, then, in this battle, since one can expect that their own motives for selling minor leaguers up the creek is to improve their own chances of (1) grabbing back revenue shares, and (2) ensuring that the largest possible share of that revenue reaches each member of its protected class. Here, the MLBPA finds themselves in the unenviable position of addressing the problem of underpaid MLB players (a legitimate problem) while effectively arguing against the labor rights of their potential future members, thereby remaining silent on the expansion of professional labor representation throughout the entirety of the MLB monopoly.
The position of the MLBPA is undoubtedly one that has formed out of six decades of polishing the professional status of MLB players. MLB players have not always been professionals in the sense of maintaining an unchallenged claim on a body of knowledge and using their unique body of knowledge to create social stratification or prestige for their body of members. As late as the 1950s, the Pacific Coast League was an open league that featured independent players that played an extremely high level of baseball without always reaching the MLB; this was an extension of some glory year stars from the 1930s and 1940s. The PCL is only one such example of an independent “minor” league that succeeded to produce stars. For reasons of institutional sexism and racism, respectively, the Negro National League, Negro American League, Mexican League, and All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, among others, also functioned as popular professional leagues apart from the MLB well into the 1950s. Former United Steelworkers negotiator and economic advisor Marvin Miller helmed the most successful iteration of an MLB players union, which won crucial working condition gains by organizing and drawing on the potential of a professional baseball class.
One could write volumes on the impact of professionalism in baseball, which (depending on who you ask) diminished some of the “character” of the game, created a schism between the press and the players, increased the sense of professionalism among other classes of people in the game (from managers to scouts to analysts to broadcasters, and others still), removed MLB players from any previous recognition of their relatively “blue collar” status, all of which occurred in perfect tandem with (or were bolstered by) the explosion in television and electronic media revenues throughout the last thirty years (at least). Ironically, the professionalization of ballplayers shifted the claims of empowerment from a class of ballplayers that legitimately needed improvements in stadium conditions, pay, retirement benefits, etc., to a class of owners that have increasingly used recent revenue gains to wrest a larger control of the game from the players themselves. Unionizing and creating a professional elite among MLB players alone insulated both the MLB and MLBPA from larger institutional concerns regarding professional baseball.
In retrospect, the MLB Players Association could have potentially landed a larger share of future revenue for their ranks had they extended their bargaining to include minor leaguers. This could have been especially helpful during an era of stagnating integration among Minor League clubs in the southern USA, where official segregation still was a reality in many baseball affiliates. Issues with working conditions extended into the Minor Leagues at the same time that MLB players were fighting for their own gains. While Miller and many of the player representatives were visionaries of professional ball, their vision did not extend to the largest possible labor class involving professional ballplayers.
However, one might be inclined to argue that some of the “old west attitude” of the Minor Leagues lingered well into the MLBPA’s organizing years. There were plenty of Minor League teams, but they were scattered into relatively small leagues. For example, in the MLBPA organizing year of 1966, there were at least 22 affiliated minor leagues including 156 teams (two AAA leagues, four AA leagues, eight A leagues, two short season A leagues, three rookie leagues, and three winter instructional leagues). By contrast, including the Dominican Summer League, there are 18 affiliated Minor Leagues with 233 teams operating in 2016. While MLB management of affiliated ball has consolidated Minor Leagues themselves, the number of teams has greatly expanded (incidentally, as MLB professionalism and revenue grew, as well). Of course, there were also 20 MLB teams in 1966, so the proliferation of leagues in that year arguably looks more extreme than in 2016 (incidentally, the rate of minor league affiliates per MLB club remains unchanged, however).
Granted, Miller had a difficult time winning over many players to the benefits of unionization, and the early MLBPA fights with ownership were tenacious at their easiest level. The MLBPA also clearly benefited by defining their membership in a specific, exclusive manner; if the players capped their membership in a particular manner, they would conceivably be able to distribute larger revenue shares among their membership, and also more effectively define an agenda and win clear concessions from ownership. It could be argued that adding minor leaguers to their ranks would potentially water down the bargaining aims of labor at the highest levels, while almost certainly decreasing the redistribution of revenue among a larger pool of players. (One can certainly imagine that many contemporary MLB players are not champing at the bit to add 7,200 “seasonal apprentices” to their elite professional ranks).
The undeniable outcome of the MLBPA’s historical development is clear stratification within one class of a profession. Minor leaguers are as much professional as MLBers; they enter the MLB structure through the same means (draft, international free agency channels, and undrafted free agency channels), they have their livelihood provided by the same infrastructure, and there is a clearly defined developmental pattern for each player. Yet, minor leaguers share little of the elite status with their MLB brethren, as they are often touted as “developing” or “projectable” potential as they hone their tools. Of course, this is a flaw in language and ideology that suggests that players cease developing at the MLB level, which is patently absurd (witness, on the Brewers alone, Carlos Gomez’s power and discipline explosion, Ryan Braun’s extreme plate approach shifts, Jimmy Nelson’s addition of a curveball and honing of a change up, etc.). By unionizing MLB players, the MLBPA created the structure for potential stratification (and therefore potential control over revenue and knowledge), and the concurrent development of television and other media forms delivered the revenue gains necessary to reify that structure.
Unfortunately, the MLBPA maintains considerable control over Minor League players. Terms of Minor League assignments are negotiated in the Collective Bargaining Agreement; contractual terms are negotiated in the Collective Bargaining Agreement (including split contracts); termination pay is negotiated in the Collective Bargaining Agreement; and even living expense reimbursements are negotiated in the Collective Bargaining Agreement (including Article VIII.C, which stipulates that players assigned to the MLB roster after September 1 cannot elect to be reimbursed for moving costs or living costs, which on the letter robs Minor League call-ups a chance to cover their previous expenses incurred en route to the MLB). There is no question, in this regard, that Minor Leagues are indeed professional leagues, for the reach of a Basic Agreement between the MLB and MLBPA into the minors validates the professional status of those leagues. There is no doubt that MLB players can use such negotiation terms to maintain their elite share of knowledge and revenue by excluding minor leaguers from these terms.
Through this lens, even elements of the Basic Agreement and league structure that ostensibly empower labor are elements that enhance and protect the elite status of MLB players against Minor League players. This double lens can be used to criticize the MLBPA, while also holding the centrality of these practices to their modern labor movement:
- The 40-man roster is ostensibly a tool that keeps MLB teams from hoarding Minor League players, thereby exposing unprotected players to the Rule 5 draft and potential movement into advanced roles. However, this tool is also the locale for collectively bargained changes in pay, benefits, and other protections that categorically exclude Minor League players. This is one basic tool for stratification.
- The Rule 5 draft is ostensibly a tool that forces MLB teams to quickly and swiftly assess and move Minor League players on a clear path to the MLB. However, the draconian requirements to keep Rule 5 draftees on the MLB roster for the entire season effectively deter teams from selecting many draftees, thereby creating a class of advanced minor leaguers that is clearly distinct from their protected MLB organizational depth counterparts.
- Salary arbitration is ostensibly a tool that allows an MLB player to dispute his team’s suggested salary, in order to seek a raise congruent with industry standards. This labor tool is held unavailable to Minor League players, which solidifies their legal inability to challenge their employer for better wages. (By contrast: Minor League players should be eligible for salary arbitration on an annual basis).
- Free agency is ostensibly a tool that allows MLB players to seek employment at the highest possible wage (or in their most desired role or locale). Through this double lens, Minor League service requirements of seven years prior to free agency obstruct the swift movement of prospects either to the MLB, or to suitors that would place them on a more desirable developmental path (By contrast: Minor League players should be eligible for free agency after three or four seasons, not seven).
This double lens exposes a clear categorization of professional baseball players that builds a well-defined elite class. A player can be a Minor League player, a 40-man roster member, a Rule 5 draftee, an Arbitration Eligible player, a Free Agent, etc. Each of these terms seeks to further distance the ranks of professional MLB service time from professional Minor League service (which is thereby unrecognizable within MLB and MLBPA bargaining arrangements).
One could conceivably use this double lens to address many other labor practices that are developed under the auspices of benefiting MLB players. Under this description, it should at least be more acceptable to shift the locale of the MLBPA from a previously righteous labor organization to an exclusive organization that has created an elite division and stratification of knowledge and resources between professional baseball players. That Minor League players are not assumed under the umbrella of protected interests within the MLBPA is a regrettable shortcoming of the contemporary game, and another burden in the fight for increased pay and benefits for Minor League players.
On the one hand, in their quest for increased pay and benefits, the Minor League players must fight the obvious interests of ownership to deter revenue from reaching labor. On the other hand, the Minor League players must fight for professional recognition against another class of workers within their own professional field. The MLBPA can rectify this situation; that they choose not to include Minor League players among their own protected ranks clearly outlines the extent to which labor and ownership collude to create a second class of players in the Minor Leagues. So too, the MLBPA might as well serve as an arm of Ownership for the purpose of subjecting Minor League players to substandard and potentially illegal labor conditions.
Helyar, John. The Lords of the Realm. New York: Ballantine, 1995.
Macdonald, Keith. The Sociology of the Professions. London: Sage, 1993.
- It is worth noting that baseball may not fit “the professional project” in the manner defined by Macdonald (p. 1), but that MLBPA exhibits social class, bureaucratic, and asset formation practices that mirror the goals or outcomes of professional stratification (pp. 36-55).
MLB Advanced Media. 2012-2016 Basic Agreementm [MLB & MLBPA Collective Bargaining Agreement]. Accessed via PDF on July 17, 2016.
Mann, Samuel. “The Lawsuit Pitting 2,200 Minor Leaguers Against MLB.” BaseballProspectus, July 6, 2016.
Minor League Baseball. FAQs: The Business of Minor League Baseball. Minor League Baseball, 2016. Accessed July 18, 2016.
Morrell, Peter. “Some Notes on the Sociology of the Professions.” A Selection of Peter Morrell’s Work, June 2006. Accessed July 18, 2016.
Morrison, Kate. “The 7,500 Apprentices.” BaseballProspectus, July 1 2016.
Morrison, Kate and Russell A. Carleton. “The Perils of MLB’s Sorting System.” BaseballProspectus, three parts, June 21-23, 2016.