Minor Details: Fair Pay for Minor League Players

In the baseball movie Bull Durham, Crash Davis tells a young pitcher in the minor league: “Your shower shoes have fungus on them. You'll never make it to the bigs with fungus on your shower shoes. Think classy, you'll be classy.”


Unfortunately, many current minor league players cannot afford new shower shoes, and this financial condition is most evident by a law which was passed by Congress in March of last year. The new law -- the Save America’s Pastime Act -- specifically exempted Major League Baseball (“MLB”) and its players from the legal provisions of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act’s (“FLSA”) which mandates both (1) a minimum wage for workers and (2) increased pay for overtime work. Essentially, MLB obtained a new federal law to permit them to pay baseball players less than the teenage fry cook at McDonalds.

Under the current MLB Collective Bargaining Agreement (“CBA”), the minimum annual salary for a baseball player in the major leagues is $555,000. However, the CBA does not address salary or payment for minor league players. Nonetheless, regardless of the CBA parameters, federal law – FLSA specifically – mandates that employers (such as MLB) must pay their employees (such as minor league players) at least $7.25 per hour (so long as there does not exist a legal exception). Further, employers must pay their employees an overtime rate of 1.5 times their typical hourly rate for all hours worked in a particular in excess of 40 hours (again, so long as there does not exist a legal exception). Thus, prior to March 2018, minor league baseball players were employees which should be paid at least $7.25 per hour and receive 1.5 times their pay for overtime.


However, in March 2018, MLB lobbied Congress to pass (and Congress did pass) the Save America’s Pastime Act. The Save America’s Pastime Act created a legal exception for MLB to pay minor league players – who do not have a minimum salary under the MLB’s CBA – less than $7.25 per hour. To put that number in perspective, assuming one works 40 hours per week, all year long, this rate would yield to only $15,080 per year in salary. However, since minor league baseball players only work (at most) from February to October, their salary – even at this federally-mandated, legally-minimum amount – would be less than $15,080 per year. Thus, MLB lobbied – and Congress passed a law – to have these players paid even less than this minimum amount.


Nonetheless, in addition to the federal law (the FLSA) almost all states have their own minimum wage laws, wherein employers (such as MLB) have to follow those guidelines for all in-state employees as well as the federal FLSA. Since the Save America’s Pastime Act was only a federal law, the March 2018 law would not apply to an exception to any state’s minimum wage law.


However, to correct this omission, it appears that MLB is starting to address this further protection by currently lobbying individual states – such as Arizona (where many teams hold their Spring Training) – to also give them a state exemption to paying their players a minimum wage. As of last month, Arizona State Representative T.J. Shope introduced Arizona House Bill 2180 that -- much like the federal law Save America’s Pastime Act -- would exempt MLB owners from paying minor league players minimum wage and overtime pay, but only in the state of Arizona. Arizona’s minimum wage is $11.00 per hour this year before jumping to $12.00 an hour beginning in 2020. Further, proposed Arizona House Bill 2180 -- unlike like the federal law Save America’s Pastime Act -- contains a retroactive clause. Under the Federal Save America’s Pastime Act – unlike the proposed Arizona House Bill 2180 -- minor league players can still seek damages related the time period before the bill became a law. In a written statement in response to Arizona House Bill 2180, Ian Penny, general counsel to the MLB Players' Association, told the Arizona Republic: "It is fundamentally unjust to deny professional baseball players the basic protection of the minimum wage laws, especially at a time when clubs are reporting record revenues."


Minimum wage and overtime laws exist for a reason; these laws are a protection for employees against employers because employers always hold leverage over employees. Employees need work and cannot risk being fired or penalized, so the federal government protects workers from pay exploitation. Employers will often take advantage of cheap labor when there exist no restrictions on their actions. Through the Save America’s Pastime Act and the proposed Arizona House Bill 2180, MLB is working to take advantage of their cheap work force: the minor league players.


While there were other attempts at a minimum wage, the first successful effort to establish a minimum wage occurred in 1938 under the FLSA in order to maintain a “minimum standard of living necessary for heath, efficiency and general well-being.” Major league baseball is attempting to pay minor league players below the federally-established minimum standard of living necessary for heath, efficiency and general well-being.

The 2018 AAA Champion Memphis Redbirds

In response, the main argument used by Major League Baseball to support these laws is that paying minor league players this extremely low amount is necessary to allow baseball to exist on a professional level. After all, look at the name of the federal law: Save America’s Pastime Act. However, MLB is wrong for the following reasons:


  1. This same “our-industry-will-die” argument has been used by every single industry against a minimum wage law applying to their industry. The fast food industry, farms, and others have used the same excuses that their industry cannot support the federal minimum wage or overtime laws. However, there has never been evidence that minimum wages for employees has ever caused any industry to fail and this minimum standard has assisted all workforce employees to avoid being taken advantage of.

  2. Baseball teams are doing well financially. MLB revenues exceed $10 billion for the first time in 2018. In fact, for the 15th consecutive year, MLB set a record for industry revenues in 2017, according to a Forbes report.

  3. Regardless of the pay, MLB needs to minor leagues to develop their major league players. The minor leagues exist for a specific, beneficial reason. So additional pay at minimum standards – no greater than $15,080 per year -- will not force MLB to abandon their leagues. Rather, such basic pay will only increase the conditions and well-being of their athletes. And MLB should want to help support and protect their player investment!


Overall, due to the fact that (a) no minor league players’ union exists and (b) MLB and team owners having plenty of money to lobby lawmakers, MLB has been successful in obtaining exemptions to fair labor standards for minor league players. However, these successful efforts are undermining their product. Supporting minor league players with the minimum standard of living necessary for heath, efficiency and general well-being should be a priority for MLB.


Hopefully, lawmakers will push back from MLB’s exemption efforts and/or the MLBPA will start to support minor league players (or a new union will be created). Minor league players deserve to have the minimum fair labor standards that the general public possesses, and if needed, have the ability to purchase new shower shoes.

Adam Van Grack is an attorney at the law firm of Longman & Van Grack, LLC practicing litigation, business law, and sports law. Adam is a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals having attended Washington University in St. Louis for college and law school. Adam has been previously appointed as the Chair of a U.S. Olympic National Governing Body.