LOS ANGELES – In May, Major League Baseball agreed to settle an 8-year-old lawsuit brought by current and former minor leaguers alleging the violation of various wage laws. Four days ago, it was revealed that the settlement totaled $185 million and included a stipulation that, going forward, teams will not be expressly forbidden — as they had been previously — from paying their minor leaguers outside the regular season.
On Monday, leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee exploring the continued utility of MLB’s unique antitrust exemption sent a letter to commissioner Rob Manfred asking him a series of probing questions about how it affects minor league baseball in particular. The letter, which comes after a similar inquiry was sent to a minor league advocacy group last month, indicates at least some interest in pursuing legislation to remove or limit the scope of that exemption. The league has a week to respond.
In response to the settlement, the league issued a statement explaining, among other things, that, “We are only in the second year of a major overhaul of the 100-year-old player development system and have made great strides to improve the quality of life for minor-league players.”
And in response to the letter from the Senate Judiciary Committee, the league issued a statement saying, among other things, that, “We look forward to providing detailed information to the committee regarding baseball’s limited antitrust exemption.”
All of this represents a crescendo of frustration and desperation from minor leaguers who have long been paid reprehensibly low wages that MLB lobbied to legalize with the 2018 legislation, cravenly entitled Save America’s Pastime Act, that exempted minor leaguers from minimum wage and maximum hours requirements. Advocacy groups and articles about living conditions have shone a spotlight on the situation and brought criticism down on the league.
Ahead of 2021, minor league salaries were increased, but the number of jobs was slashed as the league eliminated more than 40 teams’ affiliations. And this year, MLB introduced a housing policy to eliminate a major source of stress and expense for players, but the rollout has been uneven and the reception mixed.
And yet, asked whether the issue is that the owners can’t afford to pay the minor leaguers a living wage, Manfred said Tuesday that he “kind of reject[s] the premise of the question that minor league players are not paid a living wage.”
He explained, “I think that we've made real strides in the last few years in terms of what minor league players are paid — even putting to one side the signing bonuses that many of them have already received. They receive housing, which obviously is another form of compensation. I just reject the premise of the question. I don't know what else to say about that."
Granted, a “living wage” is more subjective than the federal poverty line, which MLB clears only at the higher end of minor league salaries. A recent study proposed $35,000 for minor leaguers to “put them in line with a living wage.” An MIT calculator that takes into account local cost of living puts the cutoff for a single adult without children at $18.08 per hour in Maricopa County, Arizona — where many teams’ complexes are located. Elsewhere in the country, that number is slightly lower or higher.
Of course, for minor leaguers, the issue is less about where their salaries fall in relation to what is considered the bare minimum and more about their pressing financial struggles and an inability to negotiate for a larger portion of the multibillion dollar industry.
“I have very little doubt that Major League Baseball will give more carrots to minor league players to avoid structural change,” Harry Marino, the executive director of Advocates for Minor Leaguers, said shortly before Manfred addressed the media. “Free housing is great, except, guess what, if Major League Baseball wanted to take away free housing next year, they could.”
Hours before MLB hosts the All-Star Game at Dodger Stadium, he considered whether the league is worried about the status of the antitrust exemption that makes such unilaterality possible and benevolence necessary.
“I think the league is very nervous,” Marino said. “And I think with good reason.”