When asked during the All-Star break this summer why minor league players aren’t earning living wages, Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred replied, “I sort of reject the premise of the question.” He went on to say, “I think we’ve made real progress in recent years in terms of paying minor league players, even putting aside the signing bonuses that many of them have already received. They receive housing, which is obviously another form of compensation.
It is true that minor league players are now paid more than before. Salaries have been increased in 2021 and most players now enjoy furnished accommodation.
But salaries for minor league players remain extremely low. Many are struggling to get by while major league stars rake in millions (if not tens of millions) of dollars a year.
Big deals make headlines that grab attention. This summer, Juan Soto notably refused an offer from the Washington Nationals for $440 million in guaranteed salary over 15 years. The deal would have topped Mike Trout’s contract with the Los Angeles Angels for $426.5 million in guaranteed salary over 12 seasons (the highest guaranteed salary amount offered at that time in MLB history. ).
People also read…
When the lockdown began in December last year, many may have struggled to feel sympathy for the players, knowing the amount of money some stars have gotten in recent deals. But these players are an extremely small and unrepresentative minority of professional baseball players.
The average MLB salary is said to be $4.4 million per year. Extreme outliers, however, can create a distorted picture, especially when sample sizes are small.
New York Mets pitcher Max Scherzer earns $43.3 million. That’s more, according to ESPN, than all of the Baltimore Orioles players combined. Other star players such as Trout, Anthony Rendon and Gerrit Cole are not far behind Scherzer. The 100 highest-paid players earn about half of all MLB player earnings.
The median (the middle value when numbers are ordered) is a more appropriate measure of central tendency for something like wages in which averages can be skewed due to outliers. The median salary for MLB players is $1.2 million.
That’s a lot of money. But keep in mind that the average career for a major league player is about five and a half years (and that number is again skewed by outliers that defy fathers time). When the average major league player’s career is over, a retiring player may not be 30 yet, may have given up higher education in an effort to qualify for the majors, and may not have a lot of marketable skills outside of baseball to get a high-paying job.
MLB’s minimum wage is $700,000. That’s still a lot of money. But many of those who earn the league minimum probably won’t stay in the majors for long. They may not receive much financial windfall other than a few large paychecks.
The reality for the vast majority of baseball players looking to join the major league ranks is that they will never make it. The money these players make by dedicating their young adult lives to their craft will be negligible. Only 10% of minor league players are eventually called up to the majors.
This leaves most players with minor league salaries before entering the workforce in another capacity. According to the nonprofit Advocates for Minor Leaguers, the vast majority of minor league players earn less than $12,000 a year. This, despite what Manfred says and even if housing is provided, is not a living wage.
Take the case of Ed Hearn, a catcher whose career peaked as a member of the 1986 World Series champion New York Mets, one of the greatest teams in MLB history. Hearn briefly made it to the majors where he primarily served as a backup for Mets star receiver Gary Carter. After being traded from the Mets after the 1986 World Series and undergoing reconstructive shoulder surgery, Hearn gave up his baseball dream at the age of 29 when it became clear he was wrong. back to “The Show”. According to his memoir, over 13 years he earned a total of around $300,000 (which included his World Series bonus) playing baseball. That works out to about $23,000 a year. That number would be higher today taking inflation into account, but it’s still not a lot. He hadn’t made enough money in retirement from baseball to have much, if any, savings.
Shortly after Hearn’s retirement, illness struck. He was diagnosed with a condition that causes his body to not produce enough antibodies to fight infection. His kidneys were failing. He began necessary treatment which cost him $2,500 per month. He underwent a kidney transplant. His physical and mental health declined sharply. He didn’t have much to rely on, so he kept selling insurance while relying on his wife’s work for medical insurance.
Having the health issues that Hearn had at a young age can be atypical. But professional athletes often struggle physically after retirement due to wear and tear from years of athletic competition, especially for those who play high-contact sports. Medical bills can be costly, especially if one is without insurance.
Even those who maintain their health can struggle financially, having been unable to save during peak earning years (due to low minor league wages) and having to start over in a new occupation or profession upon retirement from baseball after having dedicated their lives to a pursuit that closed.
It’s not about “feeling sorry for” minor league players who don’t make it to the majors. They make the decision to pursue a dream knowing that the odds are long and the road will be difficult. They take a risk that could pay off big, but of course there are no guarantees. If the baseball dreamers want greater economic security, they can pursue another line of work.
Minor league players still deserve to earn a decent salary. They play baseball for the love of the game, but in doing so they create economic activity and provide entertainment for baseball fans in small towns like Hickory. They can create a sense of local pride and bring together communities otherwise divided along social, political and other lines. Perhaps more importantly, as human beings, they deserve the respect and dignity that an adequate salary provides for a job well done.
Commissioner Manfred, who makes $17.5 million a year according to Advocates for Minor Leaguers, probably has no idea what it would be like to live day-to-day on a minor league player’s salary. Maybe if he had to make do with such miserable salaries, he would have a little more empathy. As long as he and others in positions of power in MLB continue to raise major league player salaries even further, players and their fans should keep their feet on the fire.
Ultimately, those working in ownership, administration and management are the ones, not the players, who should be burned if a more reasonable agreement to treat minor leaguers as they should be treated cannot be worked out.
David Dreyer is a political science professor (and sports enthusiast) at Lenoir-Rhyne University.