Let the Old Decision Stand
Baseball’s Surprising Salary Problem and Its Unlikely Solution
I think the most absurd part about Major League Baseball is that the coaches wear uniforms. It’s kind of adorable, when you think about it: here’s this man being paid to manage a group of grown boys honing their skills in a child’s game and he’s wearing the same costume as them, cap and all. It’s like they’re all playing pretend together.
Imagine AARP-member Phil Jackson’s bony six-foot-eight frame poking out of a red Chicago Bulls jersey as he whispers in Michael Jordan’s ear. Or Herb Brooks in full goalie pads — with stick and glove crossed in front of him — as he stands like a sentinel while his Olympic hockey team takes on the Soviets. No. They’d look ridiculous. Instead, those guys are sporting full suits on the sidelines like the professionals they are.
But baseball has to be different. So the manager gets his own jersey and even his own number, just like the players. And then, as if he’s performed some significant physical exertion of his own, the manager turns in his jersey to the clubhouse attendant to be washed at the end of the night.
In a game where players will continue wearing the same unwashed jockstrap or eating the same lunch every day if they’re on a lucky streak, it doesn’t get much odder than the manager wearing his own uniform.
It’s a tradition that started in the early days of the game — the late 1800s — and became common practice in the first part of the 20th century, a time when managers were often players as well. Owners could save a few bucks on travel expenses and salaries by combining two jobs into one; they’d choose a well-respected player (say the Philadelphia Athletics’ Connie Mack or the New York Giants’ John McGraw) to manage the team as well as play on it.
These penny-wise, pound-foolish moves have been a hallmark of the baseball establishment. The owners of the Baltimore Orioles, for example, might dump more than $20 million a year on their struggling first baseman, Chris Davis, but refuse to pay their low-level minor leaguers even a minimum wage salary. And that, I think, is the second-most absurd part about Major League Baseball:
How it treats its minor leaguers.
I saw, first-hand, Major League Baseball’s conduct toward its minor players during the summers of 2012 and 2013. I was a clubhouse attendant (or “clubbie” for short) washing jerseys for the Aberdeen IronBirds, the short-season single-A affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles.
Single-A is where new draft picks get their training wheels. In the New York-Penn League, where the IronBirds played, young men would learn the rigors of travel and life as a minor leaguer.
First-year players only make about $1,400 per month in single-A. To make ends meet, most of them have to cram into tiny apartments or live with host families. (Host families are locals who take in ballplayers for the season. Sometimes they ask for a token rent in return, say $10 a day, but usually families house players out of the kindness of their hearts and their love for the team.)
Guys toil away in the minors because unlike new football and (many) basketball draft picks who are able to make an immediate impact in the NFL or NBA, baseball players must work their way through the minor league system. The road from being drafted to the big leagues goes through single-A, double-A, and triple-A (if a player lasts that long).
Years after I quit working for the IronBirds, most of my friends from the team have now fallen by the wayside of Major League Baseball’s charging locomotive.
Some guys jumped off the train of their own volition, but most of them had to be pushed. Then they dusted themselves off and moved on with their lives (unless they got lost in the wasteland of the independent leagues, but that’s another story).
As if waking from a dream, many of them snapped to the realization that they had nothing to show for their time as a minor leaguer other than a lack of education, a laughable bank balance, and a wasted youth they could never retrieve.
My best friend from Aberdeen, Alex Schmarzo, who was a mullet-sporting twenty-three-year-old when he pitched in relief for the IronBirds, felt ripped off by minor league baseball. “This life fucks with you, man,” he told me. “I always say it’s like scratching lottery tickets: when you have enough guys together playing the lottery — buying scratch-offs — of course one or two of them are gonna win big. It’s inevitable. But they win and you’re just left sitting there scratching away. You throw your money and time away one dollar and one day at a time. But those guys won, right? Maybe I can too.
“So we keep coming back for more until we realize we’re broke and out of time. That’s what it’s like to play single-A baseball.”
A s time went on, I tried to unravel the mystery of minor league baseball and the oddly unjust treatment of its players, the main attractions. That’s when I discovered the minor league hockey system, which is set up similarly to MLB’s. Except for one thing: they pay their minor leaguers quite well.
Minor league hockey players make about $30,000 in the ECHL (their lower minor league) and as much as $350,000 in the AHL (their higher minor league), plus room and board.
If you look at the salary numbers in the image I put above, a baseball player who spends a full season with the Orioles’ single-A affiliate in Delmarva would be paid approximately $7,500 for his services (and he’d be responsible for his own housing).
Think about that: $7,500 for six months of nonstop commitment to your work, complete with six-hour bus rides, early morning workouts, and late nights at the ballpark.
This is hardly just compensation, especially considering these are the guys whose backs carry the weight of the entire baseball establishment. If we figure that the Orioles, for example, have 200 minor leaguers in their system (which is a fair estimate) and they were to increase each one of those players’ salaries by $10,000, that would add up to an extra expense of only $2 million a year total.
In other words, it would require relative chump change for the Orioles (a team that, according to Forbes Magazine, is worth $1.3 billion) and other teams to reach something closer to fair pay for its employees. (The Blue Jays have taken active measures by increasing their minor league player salaries by 50%, which is a big first step.)
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think minor league baseball players should be paid anything close to what major leaguers make — they simply don’t bring in enough money to warrant it. But I do believe people should be compensated for the work they do, and for minor leaguers the bare minimum should be a livable wage.
Now, I hear Judge Judy’s voice in my mind, yelling in her courtroom shriek:
“If you don’t like the way you’re being treated in your job, then quit! This is America. You’re free to work somewhere else.”
Maybe that’s true of these minor league baseball players. Maybe if they were truly being mistreated, they’d just quit and work somewhere else. But the dream of reaching the majors keeps them tethered to the game. I believe MLB exploits these players’ willingness to sacrifice for their dream by giving them as little compensation as feasible (there’s no doubt in my mind that many minor leaguers would play for free if they had to).
Here’s another big part of the problem: minor league baseball players have no union of their own, nor are they part of the Major League Baseball Players Association (which is widely regarded as the best union this country has ever seen).
Minor league hockey players, on the other hand, are represented by the NHL players’ union. That means they have a voice when player representatives sit down to create a collective bargaining agreement with NHL team owners. Moreover, it’d be easy to say that the NHL is better equipped to take care of its players because there are a lot fewer of them, and the matter comes down to simple dollars and cents. But in 2018, Major League Baseball out-earned the NHL by more than five billion dollars ($10.3 billion and $4.9 billion, respectively).
It all begs the question: Why?
Why aren’t minor league players represented by the MLB union?
Why doesn’t MLB take care of its minor leaguers while the NHL, which has a significantly smaller revenue stream, does such a good job providing for theirs?
Those are the questions that brought me to a Norfolk Admirals game, the ECHL affiliate for the Edmonton Oilers. It was years after I’d washed my last jockstrap for the Aberdeen IronBirds and I wanted to find out first-hand how minor league hockey stacked up against minor league baseball.
“Just Go Out There and Try to Fuck Shit Up”
A glass-wall façade circled all the way around Scope Arena in Norfolk, Virginia. Above the glass, the rounded concrete top spilled over the edges to form flying buttresses, as if keeping the arena safely tied to the Earth. I walked up the steps to the plaza in front of the entrance. I could almost hear some self-congratulatory executive in an era past: “Fans will love Scope Arena’s plaza area. Families can play with their kids in the sunshine and the trees surrounding the reflecting pool will create a brief natural respite in the urban landscape. Heck, people might just stay out there rather than go in for a game!”
When I visited, the dark, cloudy sky tickled disquiet in my belly, and wind swept plastic bags and food wrappers across the empty plaza. The place looked more like a concrete relic of the cold war than a futuristic playground.
The arena itself was dark and cold. The press box, where I’d be watching the game, was little more than a few rows of seats at the top of section 201, barricaded with black-painted plywood. It might have made a better sniper’s nest than a press box. I was the only person actually wearing a press pass and I suddenly felt like a college freshman dangling my new school ID around my neck on a lanyard.
I tried in earnest to decipher who the best players were as they passed and shot during warm-ups, but I might as well have been judging figure skating. I hadn’t watched or played hockey since I was in high school in Minnesota. Even then, I only played pickup games, during which my buddy Jeff taught me everything I know about hockey.
“Hold the end of your stick out to the side, not in the front,” he told me. “That way if you hit a rough patch of ice with the blade, the end of your stick won’t jump up and knock yer dick off.”
He then saw my feeble attempts to play the game and gave me another valuable piece of advice that I have since applied to most aspects of my life: “Don’t worry about passing and shooting and all that skill bullshit. Just go out there and try to fuck shit up.”
As warm-ups proceeded, the Admirals looked like they’d overheard some of Jeff’s advice in their time as hockey players. They circled their half of the ice, firing shot after shot at their goalie. Almost all of them sailed wide, high, or both. It looked like they were purposefully getting all the bad ones out of the way before the game, like a starting pitcher warming up by throwing every ball over his leaping catcher’s head to the backstop.
Of course the players were actually skilled. That level of hockey in the ECHL, where the Admirals played, is considered double-A hockey. They’re two or three rungs above the IronBirds in terms of their place in their respective organization. (The next level up, the AHL, is considered triple-A hockey, one level below the NHL.)
Warm-ups ended and a staff sergeant from the Navy belted her spine-tingling rendition of the National Anthem.
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
Half the crowd belted out “O’s!” in unison as she started the next line then fell back into silence.
O’s! say does that star spangled…
It surprised me, at first, to hear people at a hockey game partake in this Baltimore Orioles national anthem tradition. But then I remembered that we were just a mile northwest of Harbor Park, home of the Norfolk Tides, triple-A affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles.
Hearing the “O’s!” brought me back in my memory from the southern tip of the Chesapeake Bay in Norfolk to the northern tip —all the way to Ripken stadium, home of the Aberdeen IronBirds.
The sun didn’t shine in Scope Arena. I never got to see any stars, either. Birds don’t chirp in an ice rink. But in baseball, the sun almost always shows up in due time. There are even stars, sometimes, if you wait long enough. And at Ripken Stadium, there were always birds of some kind.
The American Dream in the Minor Leagues
I t was opening day 2013 at Ripken Stadium and everyone in the sellout crowd hollered out the “O’s!” in the national anthem. I stood in front of the dugout along with the players and coaches. The line ended with me, the clubhouse attendant, the only non-jerseyed person out there.
A low haze trapped the mid-June humidity, but the evening was mild, comfortable. Players from the visiting teams always told me that Ripken Stadium was the best in the New York-Penn League. The exposed brick throughout reminded you of Camden Yards, where the Orioles played. The smell of cinnamon pecans danced around the concourse in the early innings, yielding eventually to the Old Bay scent of blue crabs wafting in the later, hungrier parts of the game. The stadium buzzed with the energy of anticipation. Ripken Stadium, on nights like that one, could have been a dream.
But minor league baseball is where most dreams go to die.
Dead dreams or not, baseball has still been romanticized like no other sport in America. Although the NFL has gained popularity in recent decades, baseball has been tied to the American identity for longer — and tied more fervently at that. We can evoke any of the nostalgic clichés that have been thrown around the ballpark for centuries: the smell of hot dogs, the taste of beer, spitting tobacco juice in brown gobs, teaching your son how to spit sunflower seeds, the national anthem before every game, and on and on forever. In fact, baseball’s exalted status in this country even extends as far as the law.
Baseball is exempt from the laws that are meant to prevent monopolies from forming, like the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 and the Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914, both in place to prohibit businesses that the government deems anti-competitive.
Why is baseball exempt?
Because of stare decisis, a legal concept that roughly translates to “let the old decision stand.” Baseball’s exempt status has been famously challenged (but ultimately upheld) in three major Supreme Court cases known as The Baseball Trilogy:
Toolson v. New York Yankees (1953)
Flood v. Kuhn (1972)
This antitrust exemption has allowed the owners to pay their minor leaguers a pittance due to a lack of competition.
Players may get millions of dollars in signing bonuses when they’re drafted, but outside of the top prospects taken in the first few rounds, the bonuses are modest at best. For example, a graduating college senior would be lucky to garner anything around $10,000 as a signing bonus. This happens because a college senior doesn’t have any leverage.
“You don’t wanna sign for $10,000?” the team that drafted him might say. “Then don’t sign.”
And if the player has already used his four years of NCAA eligibility, he can’t go back to college baseball. It’s the end of the line for this college senior, who isn’t allowed to negotiate with any other teams.
W e lost that home opener 5–0, but as the clubhouse attendant (clubbie) I was more concerned with quickly played games rather than won games. My duties in the clubhouse centered mostly around laundry, so the sooner we got off the field, the sooner I could scrub the jerseys, wash them, hang them, and get to bed.
As the season moved along, the IronBirds’ white uniforms started to grow stains that couldn’t be scrubbed out: dirt from sliding on the infield, tobacco spit, peanut butter from the pre-game spreads, and god-only-knows what else.
And the clubhouse turned into a regular Hotel California. On any given night after a home game, I’d be asleep in the equipment closet, our trainer would be knocked out drunk in the weight room, the manager would be catching a few winks in his office, and our bench coach would be snoring on a locker room couch. Hey, it was cheaper than getting a hotel room for the night, or signing a lease.
The year before, the IronBirds actually put me up for free in a two-bedroom apartment. I’d let players crash with me if they needed a place to stay, so I had anywhere between one and four guys sleeping in the living room at a time.
Sometimes I’d come home in the sleepy hours of morning, stepping over new players I’d barely said hello to before. Our catcher and new draft pick, Sam Kimmel, stayed with me almost the entire season. In return he paid the utility bills, but even that made me feel guilty: here I was, the uniform-scrubbing clubbie, living for free on the team’s dime, and there was Kimmel, busting his ass every day chasing his dream, getting no help from the team whatsoever.
It did make a little sense: I was technically an employee of the IronBirds, while the players were employees of The Baltimore Orioles. It would only be reasonable for the team to put up one of its employees for free and not the players.
But here’s the part that never made sense to me: clubhouse attendants, all across professional baseball, get paid a small token salary from the front office, but derive the bulk of their income from the players themselves.
Players pay dues to the clubbie to reimburse him for doing their laundry and buying pre- and post-game meals. The dues, though, seemingly by design, result in a surplus for the clubbie: his income. For example, I charged each player $7 a day for dues. If we had 30 players, that added up to $210 per day that the players gave me in cold hard cash. Did I spend $210 per day in peanut butter, bread, and animal crackers? No. Not even close.
In fact, during my two seasons in Aberdeen, I netted about $15,000 each summer just by spending less on food than I got from player dues. This number added up to about double (or more) what the players made in the same amount of time. Where’s the logic in that?
One of our pitchers told me about a conversation he had with a friend who was curious about the dues system. The pitcher broke it down for him.
Then the friend said, “That doesn’t make sense. Why doesn’t the team just pay the clubbie enough money that he doesn’t need to charge the players?”
The pitcher said, “You don’t get it, man. That’s just the way it works with every team.”
I nodded in agreement when the pitcher told me the story, but his answer still didn’t appease the logic in his friend’s question. To me, charging dues always seemed like another easy way to defer costs to the players. It was an absurd system, but guys accepted it because that was all they’d ever known. Someone in baseball’s youth made the decision to use this dues setup in the clubhouse, and the players, by complying with this now-archaic system, simply let the old decision stand.
The Social Safety Net
T he Admirals hockey team won their game 6–1.
The head coach, Eric Veilleux, entered the little press room drinking from a water bottle. He wore a dark blue pinstriped suit, his face was clean-shaven, and his shoes were freshly shined. I couldn’t imagine him sleeping in Scope Arena or wearing goalie equipment during a game.
He spoke in his light French-Canadian accent about one of the night’s star players: “Pelech’s been working hard during practice and now it’s paying off. He’s finally skating.”
“He’s finally what?” one of the newspapermen asked.
“He’s skating. Instead of gliding.”
“The difference being?”
Eric took a swig from his water bottle. “Well, when you glide towards somebody you get there later than when you skate hard.”
“Okay. So it’s an effort thing.” The newspaperman jotted something on his pad.
Eric looked over at me, as if to say, “Have you guys ever watched hockey in your entire life?”
I pursed my lips and stayed silent until he left.
At practice later that week everybody looked like they were gliding. Ten players plus a goalie performed a drill under Eric’s watchful eye on one end of the ice. On the other end, five players and a goalie stood around tripping each other and shoving in playful boredom.
Practice ended a half hour early, leaving just a few rogue players taking extra reps. I went over to meet Jordan Hill, the team’s captain.
He spoke to me with his back to the ice, which struck me as strange at first. In baseball no player would stand on the field with his back to the action; he might get clobbered with a line drive. But there’s no glass wall surrounding a baseball diamond.
He had a square jaw and sported a constant half-smile that beamed friendliness. I asked him what his plans were after his playing career.
“I’m actually trying to figure that out now,” he said. “Obviously in the ECHL I understand the situation I’m in. I’m still trying to play as long as I can, but the body doesn’t hold up forever. And once you forego college, like I did, you kinda need a secondary thought process, y’know? For a lot of guys that’s the hardest transition: going from being at the rink every day to the afterlife.”
I was struck by his keen sense of sporting mortality. When I talked to baseball players they were always all-or-nothing: “I’m gonna be a major leaguer, play as long as I can, then worry about the next step when I get there.”
Jordan, on the other hand, had dreams of being a coach and, eventually, a general manager.
“I’m not saying I’m not trying to move up to the next level. But now I’m looking more at what’s coming after hockey, y’know? I wanna be making those trades, dealing with those deadlines, and networking.”
Until that day came, he was taken care of by the league. As part of the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement, minor league hockey players are put up in furnished apartments. The Admirals apartments were a five-minute walk from the Virginia Beach oceanfront (not bad for a bunch of small-town Canadian kids) and, according to Jordan (who was, at the time, a six-year AHL and ECHL veteran) they were some of the nicest in the league.
“I came here knowing that I’d have a good living arrangement,” Jordan said. He surprised me when he added: “Especially compared to baseball.
“I’ve had friends get drafted, so I’ve seen how much they’re getting and it’s nothing. They’re good players, too, same as here. But in hockey, we have no excuses to complain — everything is taken care of, even utilities. So, okay, we only make $30,000 a year here. But I’m saving, you know, $15,000 in rent and expenses. And we get forty bucks a day for meal money. Nothing crazy, but you can survive off it. So I’m living just fine. I’m saving and I’m enjoying myself.
“It’s not as bad as people think it is. It’s not millions, that’s for sure, but it’s definitely comfortable.”
Jordan continued: “I know baseball. All of their money is in the bigs. In hockey, we have a very good union that protects us.” Right when he said it, to my disbelief, a puck smacked the glass behind him and he didn’t even blink.
I said goodbye to Jordan, still wondering why the MLB Players Association didn’t include minor leaguers in its union.
On a whim — in one of my “don’t worry about skill, just go out there and fuck shit up” moments — I sent Andrew Zimbalist an email.
Zimbalist is a professor of Economics at Smith College and one of the most prolific and respected sports economists in the country (he’s even testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in hearings on baseball’s antitrust exemption).
“Why is the NHL better able to take care of its minor leaguers than MLB?” I sent.
He responded ten minutes later.
“quick answers,” he wrote, too hurried to capitalize consistently. “first, your conclusion is a bit subjective. [“No shit,” I thought.] second, the number of minor leaguers in hockey who are under contract with NHL teams is much smaller. In MLB each team has over 150 minor leaguers under contract. third, there are different histories in the two sports and many minor leaguers in hockey are Canadians where there is a stronger social safety net.”
He seemed to be saying that the NHL values stemmed from the values of Canada at-large, and Canadian values included “social safety nets” like public healthcare and extensive welfare benefits.
But only 7 of the 31 NHL teams, 4 of the 31 AHL teams, and 2 of the 26 ECHL teams are in Canada. And, not for nothing, the National Hockey League headquarters is in New York City.
So although many of the players themselves grew up in Canada, the NHL is very much an American institution.
And as I said before: although the MLB has many more minor leaguers than the NHL, major league baseball out-earns the NHL by more than $5 billion. And it would take a pittance from each big league team to ramp up their minor player salaries to something more livable.
On top of all that, Zimbalist’s argument is simply illogical: if Canada has such a strong social safety net, then wouldn’t the teams have less incentive to take care of their players? If wronged by the NHL, the players would, by Zimbalist’s logic, presumably be saved from the poverty free fall by the big red maple leaf of Canadian socialism.
I responded forty-five minutes later: “Would you be willing to talk for fifteen minutes to discuss more?”
He responded five minutes later: “sorry, too busy.”
So that’s it, right? Case closed. The guy who wrote the books on sports economics said I was full of shit.
Baseball is tied to the national identity of Americans; hockey is tied to the national identity of Canadians. The way each sport treats its players says something about the ideals of each nation.
But it struck me as surprisingly similar reasoning as the rest of the baseball establishment:
Don’t worry about trying to change anything. Stare decisis: that’s just the way we’ve always done it.
B aseball’s antitrust exemption will survive for as long as baseball holds its place as the national pastime. But the national pastime isn’t as rosy as people like to think; it has a storied history of labor struggles.
Curt Flood’s famous Supreme Court case against commissioner Bowie Kuhn, for example, came about after Flood, the Saint Louis Cardinals outfielder, refused to accept a trade to the Philadelphia Phillies.
“I didn’t think that I was going to report to Philadelphia,” Flood said, “mainly because I didn’t want to pick up twelve years of my life and move to another city.”
He demanded that commissioner Kuhn declare him a free agent, a request that was predictably denied. When Flood took it to court, they wouldn’t overturn MLB’s antitrust exemption because of stare decisis, established by the previous two Supreme Court decisions in the Baseball Trilogy (Federal Baseball v. National League and Toolson v. Yankees).
Although Flood v. Kuhn did improve free agency for players, the decision has now become precedent, just like those cases that came before it, and has only solidified baseball’s exemption.
There are currently multiple former minor leaguers attempting to reverse the exemption with a class-action lawsuit against MLB and the commissioner’s office, led by a former Marlins draft pick named Aaron Senne. Those former players are claiming that they (and minor leaguers across the country) are owed more money in compensation for obscene working conditions, sometimes putting in 70 hours a week including training and bus rides.
The lawsuit will likely be thrown out because of stare decisis, but if it does reach the Supreme Court, Senne v. MLB could be a landmark case in abolishing the antitrust exemption.
Even so: the exemption doesn’t explain why baseball is part and parcel of our national identity…
The game is so appealing because baseball itself reflects the freedom and spaciousness of the American spirit: the large playing field opens up from a single point (home plate) and spreads out into an infinite mouth that would go on expanding forever if not for the people in the grandstands. Those people, the American public, are the ones who have the luxury of watching baseball from their romantic distance, where the stains of the game are invisible.
Maybe they come out to the stadium because their father brought them as a child. Or maybe they heard stories of legends swatting heroic home runs. Either way, they show up because of tradition — a decision in the past that they’ve continued to make again and again.
So America’s love affair with baseball and baseball’s love affair with the “let the old decision stand” mentality are what separate it from hockey and every other sport. It’s the ancient traditions in baseball that foster both the beauty and the inhibitive rituals of the game. The coach wears a uniform (which is actually a wonderful tradition) because “that’s the way we’ve always done it” and minor leaguers spend years wasting away, penniless, for the same reason.
Part of the romanticism of the game is that some kid can get pulled off the cornfield in his late teens, then work his way through the minors with no recognition before eventually breaking through to the stardom of the majors.
Because baseball is where hard work is rewarded. Baseball is the democratic sport. Baseball is where your Average Joe can be a hero.
Or at least that’s what he tells himself.
Greg Larson is an author and stand-up comedian from Austin, Texas.
This article is based on his memoir Clubbie: A Minor League Baseball Memoir, releases on April 1, 2021, from University of Nebraska Press.