In the annals of baseball history, few can claim as large and as long-lasting an impact as Branch Rickey. He has, of course, received a substantial amount of credit for his role in the integration of baseball when he signed Jackie Robinson to a minor league contract in 1945. Robinson himself was effusive in his praise of Rickey for the risks he took to bring Jackie to the Dodgers. There is a tendency in this country (especially in cinema) to idolize the “white hero,” whose privilege and power were used to elevate the status of minorities, but it is difficult to deny that without Rickey, integration would have been immeasurably delayed.
There was a darker side to the tale, one not touched on in the film 42 and rarely discussed in the sanitized version of the complicated path that resulted in baseball’s greatest moment. Rickey felt no compunction to compensate Robinson’s previous team, the Kansas City Monarchs, nor any of the Negro League teams he raided over the next few years. Rickey, ever-thorough, encouraged Robinson, as well as Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella, to write letters assuring him that they were not under contract to their Negro League employers when he signed them, a request with which the three players readily complied. These missives, which can currently be found at the Library of Congress, sufficiently released Rickey from any legal financial obligation. Legality aside, however, his actions certainly expedited the eventual dissolution of the Negro Leagues.
Rickey’s other great, most lasting, legacy is equally complicated in its duality. When he took over as the President of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1917, the Cards had never appeared in the modern World Series. They were frequent denizens of the second-division and Rickey faced the momentous challenge of trying to improve them with very little money behind his efforts. After serving in World War I in 1918, Rickey returned to St. Louis and pondered how to address this inequity. Aided by the sale of the team in 1920 to Sam Breadon, and a new National Association agreement in 1921 which allowed major league franchises greater ability to control minor league teams, he put his plan into action.
The result was the farm system, an inexpensive way for teams to develop and control burgeoning talent. By purchasing a series of minor league clubs, the Cardinals were able to find and contractually lock-in young players before they would have to be paid higher major league salaries. The financial risk of a player was minimized because the team was able to use their complete control of a player’s career to observe and train them. Before they ever set foot on a major league diamond, and were paid major league money, their talents could be thoroughly vetted for pennies on the dollar. The plan was a success. Starting in 1926, the Cardinals appeared in five of the next nine World Series, winning three of them.
The farm system has served as the model for Major League Baseball for close to 100 years. In that time there has been tremendous turnover. Minor league teams frequently change their affiliations with major league parent clubs. The number of affiliated teams has changed drastically over the years, as well. Between 1931 and 1932, when the rest of baseball began to accept Rickey’s wisdom, the number of minor league teams connected to major league ownership jumped from 5 to 42. Seven years later, at the onset of World War II, that number stood at 170, only to fall to just 46 in 1943, after the U.S entered the War. A post-war boom accounted for 265 affiliated clubs in 1948, an all-time high that outranks even the latest expansions of the majors, with nearly twice as many teams to staff. Despite the success they bring for major league teams, the minors have never been stable.
As of the end of the 2019 season, 245 minor league franchises serve their thirty major league organizations, including foreign affiliations. It is a lot of personnel to manage, as teams maintain an average of eight minor league clubs, with roster sizes that range from 35 in the lower levels to 25 in Triple- and Double-A, the same as the big leagues. Over 7,000 men play in the minors and many of them, if not most, are being paid poverty level wages. The average 2018 salary for a Single-A player was $6,000 a year. For Triple-A, just one small step from the glory (and wealth) of the majors, the average wage was roughly $15,000. Minor leaguers are only paid during the regular season, so during spring training and the postseason they work for free.
It’s an inequity that makes little sense. The minimum annual pay for a player who appears in the majors is $545,000, roughly $170,000 more than the average combined salary of an entire Triple-A roster. The minor-league work week is roughly 50-60 hours long, meaning that players do not even come close to approaching federal minimum wage standards. Organized baseball eludes these pay protections by providing room and board, except even in that they are neglectful. Contractually, the minor league teams are supposed to provide two meals a day to their players, but as that bill is paid for by the more financially strapped minor league owners and not the parent club, players have reported to having been forced to play hungry, sometimes fed only peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
According to Forbes, the average Major League Baseball team is worth $1.78 billion. Once a player makes it to the majors, the contracts are certainly nothing to complain about. The top-ten highest paid players in the big leagues in 2018 made a combined $298.1 million. There is lots of money in baseball, so how exactly do they continue to get away with paying their up-and-coming stars such meager wages? The answer is, with a lot of help at the top.
The 2018 $1.3 trillion dollar United States spending bill included a provision called the “Save America’s Pastime Act.” After Major League Baseball spent over $2.5 million in lobbying expenses between 2016 and 2017, the Act passed the Republican-controlled Congress and was signed into law by President Trump. The provision was written into the legislation with the express purpose of combating a 2014 lawsuit brought forth in the U.S. District Court in San Francisco.
The suit, which represents 45 former players, contends that minor leaguers were being paid less than minimum wage in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act. The case, colloquially known as Senne vs. Kansas City, was initially struck down, largely because baseball still remains exempt from anti-trust laws. It failed again in 2017 when the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled unanimously that such a complaint fell within the “business of baseball,” exemptions that previous Supreme Courts had affirmed. The disingenuously named, “Save America’s Pastime Act,” further entrenched those exemptions. Buried on page 1,967 of the massive omnibus spending bill, the Act seemed to have doomed any hope of the case going forward.
Then, in August of this year, Senne vs. Kansas City once again found itself in front of the Ninth Circuit and this time, they had success. Writing for the majority, the Honorable Judge Richard Paez stated that “The panel affirmed in part and reversed [emphasis mine] in part the district court’s orders certifying a class and a collective action for wage-and-hour claims brought by minor league baseball players under the Fair Labor Standards Act.” The ruling gave the players the ability to expand and pursue their class-action lawsuit, which is ongoing.
Major League Baseball has responded by declaring that they are considering eliminating forty-two minor league teams with the conclusion of the current Professional Baseball Agreement, which expires after the 2020 season. Baseball America, which broke the story, quoted MLB deputy commissioner Dan Halem as saying, “From the perspective of MLB clubs, our principal goals are upgrading the minor league facilities that we believe have inadequate standards for potential MLB players, improving the working conditions for MiLB players, including their compensation, [and] improving transportation and hotel accommodations.” Without naming the suit specifically, it is clear that MLB is preparing to have to treat their minor leaguers more seriously.
Minor league baseball officials have been largely silent because, for many, there is an underlying fear of what this means for their clubs. While improved pay and conditions for the players are vital to the sustained growth of the game, for forty-two teams this plan means that they will be out of business, or, at best, making a go at the even more financially challenging independent leagues. Earlier this week, MLB announced which clubs are on the chopping block, including teams in Staten Island, NY, Williamsport, PA and Lowell, MA. The entire New York-Penn League, one of minor league baseball’s most venerable institutions, would be eliminated with the surviving teams assigned to different classifications.
This plan also means that those that survive the cut will be forced to shoulder an even greater burden of the increased player costs. Major League Baseball, and its billions, continues to essentially only pay player salaries. The less wealthy minor league owners are responsible for the maintenance of their stadium and equipment, all regularly scheduled travel (MLB will foot the bill if a player gets called up or down), and feeding 30 professional athletes every day for six months.
It also means that forty-two more towns dotted across the landscape of America will have a more difficult time seeing a live professional baseball game. It is foolish to ever claim that the business of baseball is suffering. I remind you of the estimated $53.3 billion value of the thirty franchises. But, the current model is not doing as much as it could to engender future fans. Blackout restrictions at MLB.tv are already alienating a generation that expects to get its media content online. Add the disenfranchisement of such a significant portion of the population, denied the gentle smells of popcorn and grass coupled with the singular sound of the smack of leather (made all the more thrilling by the close proximity of a minor league field), and it paints a worrying picture. These sensory intoxicants will be gone and with them, a future audience.
In his lifetime, Branch Rickey was famous for another reason. He was ruthlessly cheap. Blame it on all those lean years he spent trying to put a quality Cardinals team on the field with just a fraction of the cash of his competitors. Harold Parrot, Rickey’s traveling secretary with the Dodgers, once famously claimed that, “Nobody could ever match his talent for putting a dollar sign on a muscle.” The quote is meant to highlight Rickey’s keen eye at finding skilled ballplayers, but it also speaks to an idea that Rickey enforced in his revolutionary farm system. A player was worth what management said they were worth, no matter if the wage was livable or not. With any luck the days of poverty wages for minor-leaguers will soon be history. But, if the billion-dollar industry of baseball chooses a “penny wise and pound foolish” philosophy for addressing the issue, it will be to their future detriment.
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