Opinion | I’m a minor-league pitcher. Why can’t baseball pay a living wage?
Since I was a kid, I’ve dreamed of doing what Oller did. I worked my way from being a skinny high-schooler with a good curveball to attracting the attention of big-league scouts. In 2018, I was selected in the 19th round of the major-league draft. After my first game as a professional ballplayer, I went home to a cot squeezed into a 10-by-12-foot room that I shared with a teammate in a house set up by our team. A few weeks later, I received my first check, for two weeks of work: $550, before taxes and clubhouse dues.
Was that worth it for a shot at a dream? Absolutely. But was it fair? Absolutely not.
Annual salaries for minor-league baseball players — there are about 7,000 of us — range between $4,800 at the rookie-ball levels to about $14,000 in Triple-A. We earn nothing during the offseason or in the grueling, seven-days-a-week spring training. In just the past week, we received our first paychecks since the end of the 2021 season. In 2019, the most recent season reported, Major League Baseball had $10.7 billion inrevenue.
In the minors, I’ve watched a teammate skip breakfast for a week to make rent. Another slept night after night on an air mattress in the kitchen of a two-bedroom apartment he shared with seven other players. One player worked 50-hour weeks in the offseason stocking shelves to support his wife and child and to pay for his training. While a select few players drafted in the top rounds receive substantial signing bonuses, a majority live on poverty-level wages.
The struggles that minor leaguers face inspired me and two former players to start More Than Baseball, a nonprofit built to support players with everything from grocery bills during the pandemic to education and career transitioning after their baseball days end.
In our organization’s recent report based on surveys of more than 800 minor-league players, 83 percent voiced dissatisfaction with pay, but many are also unhappy with the “uniform player contract,” which denies players salary-negotiation rights and ownership of their images and likenesses — a right obtained last year by college athletes. On top of that, the nonnegotiable contract is binding for seven years, meaning a player who signs at age 21, as I did, will remain under contract until age 28.
About to quarter of all minor-league baseball players come from Latin America. These players often leave high school to sign contracts at age 16. About 1,600 players are employed by big-league teams in the 30 baseball academies in the Dominican Republic. Players I’ve spoken with in these academies tell me they make about $3,000 per year.
Minor-league players are exempt from federal labor protections because of a law passed in 2018 despues de heavy lobbying by MLB owners. And minor-league baseball, unlike MLB, is exempt from federal antitrust enforcement on labor issues. MLB can unilaterally control wages, team locations, benefits and contract terms for all minor-league players.
Minor-leaguers thus have no access to a free market for their services and no avenue to challenge their contracts. What’s the solution? Our organization has launched a request calling for a minimum salary of $35,000 per year, ensuring that players make a living wage.
Lawmakers are starting to take notice. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) recently introduced the Save American Baseball Act, which would end MLB’s antitrust exemption and allow minor leaguers to challenge an exploitative labor system. Josh Becker, a Democratic California state senator, has introduced a minor-league players’ bill of rights, which includes requiring salaries to comply with California’s $14 per hour minimum wage, initial contracts capped at four years and the rights to name- and image-licensing.
Like many mistreated workers across America, minor leaguers are finding our voices and beginning to speak out about workplace abuses. critical press in the past few years seems to have prompted a response from team owners, who have made largely symbolic gestures, marginally improving salaries and player housing, while cutting nearly 1,200 minor league jobs and 40 teams in towns all across the country.
We minor-league ballplayers love this game and dedicate our lives to it. In return, the least we deserve is a living wage.