Ace in the hole

Citing major league baseball's “long, infamous history of labor exploitation dating to its inception,” several former minor league baseball players have sued the commissioner of baseball and Major League Baseball Inc. (MLB Inc.) to try to do something about the pay of minor leaguers, who earn less than fast food workers.

Because of a 92-year-old court ruling and the early-20th century congressional belief that MLB Inc.—which now takes in $8 billion a year—is only a game, not a business, commercial baseball enjoys an anti-trust exemption that allows team owners to conspire against their own players by jointly agreeing to hold down wages. No other professional sport enjoys such privilege.

So Missouri attorney Garrett Broshuis, instead of suing owners for colluding against their players, is trying an ace in the hole—suing for violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act and state laws on grounds that the teams are paying minor league players less than minimum wage and fail to pay overtime. Broshuis played six years in the minors for the San Francisco Giants and also writes for the Sporting News and Baseball America.

That the class action suit is being brought as a minimum wage claim is an indication of how little minor league players can make. Some of them are reportedly supported financially by parents and live in penurious circumstances. The suit charges that players start at $1,100 a month, paid only during the season, which can be as short as three months. They are unpaid during the off season when they are expected to stay in shape. Only about one-tenth of players go on to the majors.

The lawsuit quotes congressional testimony by former Giant and Texas Ranger Dan Peltier: “[It is] very much like the indentured servitude of the 1700s. When you first sign, you are owned by that team for basically seven seasons. A team can buy you, sell you, send you to another country, or fire you whenever they want. They can cut you if you get hurt. A player, on the other hand, cannot try to play for someone else. He can't try out for his home team. You have to play for the team that drafted you even if they are loaded at your position. … [T]his obsession with making the majors should not be a justification for the current treatment of minor league players, and I certainly hope it would not be used as an excuse to give major league and minor league owners a legal blank check.”