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In September, thousands of minor league baseball players joined the players union, and Major League Baseball voluntarily agreed to recognize the union as players’ official bargaining representative. With the team of The Uncertain Hour from our colleagues at Marketplace, we explore how minor league players face low wages and grueling work. 

From the Frisco RoughRiders to the Dayton Dragons, minor league baseball teams are a classic American tradition. But their players are not covered by some classic American laws: Players can earn less than the equivalent of minimum wage and don’t get paid overtime.

The Uncertain Hour’s Peter Balonon-Rosen explores just how low wages really are in Major League Baseball’s “farm system” of minor leagues, where the MLB calls players “trainees.” Minor league players share stories of having to sleep on air mattresses, splitting rent with up to seven other players and barely being able to afford a burrito.  

Then, Krissy Clark, host of The Uncertain Hour, takes us back to the 1930s to show how companies have been pushing back against worker protections since they first became law. 

Finally, we go back to the ballfield to learn how the MLB has exploited loopholes in federal law to get around paying minimum wage and overtime. One former minor league player-turned-attorney filed a class-action lawsuit against the MLB and its teams. The league responded by lobbying Congress to explicitly rewrite federal law to say baseball doesn’t have to follow the same pay standards as other industries. The game was on. 

This is a rebroadcast of an episode that originally aired in March 2021

Credits

Reported by: Peter Balonon-Rosen, Krissy Clark | Produced by: Caitlin Esch, Chris Julin | Lead producers: Peter Balonon-Rosen, Krissy Clark | Edited by: Catherine Winter | Production manager: Amy Mostafa | Mixing and sound design: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda, with help from Brett Simpson and Ameeta Ganatra | Digital producer: Sarah Mirk | Episode art: Molly Mendoza | Interim executive producers: Brett Myers and Taki Telonidis | Host: Al Letson

Special thanks: The whole team at The Uncertain Hour, including Muna Danish, Daniel Martinez, Marque Green, Sam Anderson, Robyn Edgar, Tony Wagner, Erica Phillips, Sitara Nieves and Reveal’s Katharine Mieszkowski.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.

Al Letson:From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Anthony Shew started driving Uber and Lyft to help make ends meet. He had another job, but it wasn’t paying the bills. So he’d get in his car, fire up the app and get ready to talk with his customers.
Anthony Shew:It’s part of the culture there in San Francisco. So get in, hey, how’s it going? Blah, blah, blah and all right, sounds good. Yeah, I’m just on my way to work.
Al Letson:People would ask if he drove full time and he’d be like, “Um no.”
Anthony Shew:I actually play professional baseball.
Al Letson:Yeah, he was a professional ball player, a minor league pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Anthony Shew:There’s a moment where people are a little bit baffled, “Yeah, But you’re driving my Uber. What do you mean you’re a professional athlete?” Well, sir, I make about 400 bucks every two weeks and that’s only half the year. But isn’t that like a multi-billion dollar industry? Yeah and I have skills that only 0.0001% of people have in a multi-billion dollar industry, but the economics of it don’t work out apparently.
Al Letson:The economics of professional baseball makes some players millions, while most end up paying a big price to pursue a dream. With playoffs just days away, we’re bringing you a show about Minor League Baseball and a battle over minimum wage. It’s one we first brought you last year, and there are some surprising new updates. Today’s episode is in partnership with the podcast, The Uncertain Hour from our colleagues over at Marketplace. Season five looks at how businesses legally get around providing basic employment protections like the minimum wage. To start, Peter Balonon-Rosen, a producer for The Uncertain Hour, takes us out to a minor league ball game.
Peter Balonon-R…:I grew up in Rochester, New York, a city with five minor league sports teams. I’m not kidding, five. We had basketball, hockey, lacrosse, soccer, and of course, baseball. Baseball was definitely the most popular one in town. We’d go as a family every summer.
Marissa:Zup.
Peter Balonon-R…:Hey, I called up my sister, Marissa, recently to talk about the Red Wings, our minor league baseball team.
Marissa:Rochester Red Wings, definitely there’s a special place for them in my heart.
Peter Balonon-R…:Why?
Marissa:Because they chose me to go down during the seventh inning stretch.
Peter Balonon-R…:Red Wings games are super fun. In between innings, they’d have competitions on the field. Kids would compete for who could throw the most balls into a crate or have a dance off with Spikes, the team’s big red bird mascot.
Speaker 1:Go, Spikes go.
Peter Balonon-R…:And this one night, I’m in elementary school, my sister’s in middle school and they chose her to compete. She was stoked.
Marissa:This doesn’t happen to you, not at a Rochester Red Wings game, but it happened to me.
Peter Balonon-R…:Okay. Marissa and two other girls were going to go on the field and race while holding trays loaded with big fake sandwiches, whoever won without dropping any would get a prize.
Marissa:So I like, oh, I’m winning this. And I got in the lead. I circle around the mascot, Spikes, and I won.
Peter Balonon-R…:Yeah, she smoked those other girls.
Marissa:So I won a Rochester Red Wings hat that I still wear to this day signed by Spikes.
Peter Balonon-R…:You still wear it? It still fits your head?
Marissa:Of course.
Peter Balonon-R…:They give you a big hat or you just have a small head?
Marissa:Wow.
Peter Balonon-R…:The Red Wings were a constant in our lives. My sister had birthday parties there. I’d go with friends during the summer, load up on fried dough. My friend down the street, his brother was a bat boy, then he was too. But what I didn’t know as a kid was what was happening behind the scenes at some stadiums when it came to pay something still playing out today.
Speaker 2:We’re talking about wages that don’t even meet minimum wage thresholds.
Anthony Shew:The amount that we do get paid is so small that it’s truly baffling.
Speaker 3:Between $3 and $5 an hour I’d say.
Peter Balonon-R…:If we think about baseball as a workplace, you got to understand the company layout. The players I watched growing up, they wore Rochester Red Wings jerseys, but they were technically employees of the Minnesota Twins. Players sign a contract with one of Major League Baseball’s 30 franchises, like the Boston Red Sox or New York Yankees. Then the MLB and those franchises assign guys out to where they’ll actually play.
Anthony Shew:I am an employee of the Cardinals, but I’m doing work for whatever team it is that I’m on.
Peter Balonon-R…:This is right handed pitcher number 31, Anthony Shew, who we heard from earlier. He’s the type of guy who makes a good athlete, confident, quietly driven. A few weeks after he graduated from his college baseball team, Anthony was out getting ice cream with his girlfriend when he got a phone call. It was a man who said he had good news.
Anthony Shew:The St. Louis Cardinals want to offer you a signing bonus and have you on a contract. And I said, “Yes, absolutely.” And he said, “Awesome. You’ll get a plane ticket in your email and it’ll be to Johnson City, Tennessee and off you’ll go.”
Peter Balonon-R…:Anthony was being hired by the St. Louis Cardinals. He would start as a player for the minor league Johnson City Cardinals.
Anthony Shew:It was a pretty quick moment of yes and then, okay, I got to get into the car so I can get down to catch the flight.
Peter Balonon-R…:And so you said they offered you a signing bonus. How big was your bonus?
Anthony Shew:After taxes I got 600 bucks in my bank account.
Peter Balonon-R…:600 bucks. The top draft pick that year saw a six million dollar signing bonus, but Anthony 600 bucks is more typical for players in the later rounds.
Anthony Shew:Even with my baseball scholarship, I was finishing school and I knew I had a lot of debt, so I just went ahead and put it on my loan.
Peter Balonon-R…:Right immediately?
Anthony Shew:Yeah, there went by 600 bucks.
Peter Balonon-R…:The contract Anthony signed is called the Minor League Uniform Players Contract. It’s the exact same for every player. Everyone signs to a team for seven seasons and they all make the same salary at first. The only thing that sets guys apart, their signing bonus.
Anthony Shew:Everybody in baseball knows that minor league baseball players don’t get paid that much, but it can’t be all that bad, right?
Peter Balonon-R…:When Anthony got to Tennessee, the team set him up to stay with a host family. This recognition that minor league players might not make enough to house themselves and Anthony got to work. On a typical day, he’d show up at the field hours before the game for team warmups, pitching practice, batting practice, weight training. Then he’d played the actual game. Following that, he’d shower, grab a bite to eat, then leave the stadium.
Anthony Shew:We’re usually there from 2:00 PM ish to midnight ish, yeah.
Peter Balonon-R…:So that’s like a 10-hour workday pretty much.
Anthony Shew:Then we play every single day, so it’s going to be seven days a week.
Peter Balonon-R…:No weekends. Historically, just one required off day each month and no overtime. No matter how many hours Anthony worked, his pay would be the same. A couple weeks in, Anthony got back to the locker room and there was an envelope waiting for him.
Anthony Shew:It doesn’t say pay stub on it or anything, it just looks like an envelope. So you pick it up, open it up and net pay 425 ish, and then somebody whose mom was an accountant or something. “Oh, my mom told me about that. Net pay is what shows up in your bank account.” Okay, thanks dude. Turn around, start to stare at it some more. Okay, so $425, that’s what I got. Let’s see, So this was for 14 games and I was here from 2:00 PM to midnight every day and I got $425. Is this missing a zero maybe. More guys come into the clubhouse behind you and everybody starts looking around and we’re like, we know what we signed for, but this just got really, really real.
Peter Balonon-R…:Anthony says, before taxes his biweekly paycheck was around 500 bucks. He did the math, less than $4 an hour, but it was a contract every minor league player signed.
Anthony Shew:The amount that we do get paid is so small that it’s truly baffling.
Peter Balonon-R…:Consider this, the federal poverty line for an individual is a yearly income of about $13,000. There are few different levels of the minors, but players at the lowest level made, till recently, about $3,500 a year, less than a third of what someone living at the poverty line would make. Now the closer you get to the majors, the more money you get, but almost all players make poverty level wages. One big reason annual salaries are so low, players only get paid when games happen during the season.
Mitch Horacek:However, you’re expected to a lot more outside of those games.
Peter Balonon-R…:This is number 27, left-handed pitcher, Mitch Horacek. He was with the Minnesota Twins Organization when we spoke. Today, he’s a free agent.
Mitch Horacek:I mean, spring training is usually 45 days and there are no off days in spring training for most organizations. I mean, zero and you don’t get paid for that.
Peter Balonon-R…:Teams put players up in a hotel, provide some food, but they don’t pay guys, just daily stipends for meals. Mitch says his first season, it was $10 a day.
Mitch Horacek:You can hardly get a Chipotle bowl. You can’t get one with guacamole. I can tell you that.
Peter Balonon-R…:So for minor league players, low pay in general, no overtime, no matter how many hours you work and you only get paid during the season, despite spring training and fall instructional leagues in other months, which is how Anthony Shew, the Cardinals minor league pitcher found himself driving Uber and Lyft.
Anthony Shew:There’s times in the off season where you’re like, oh man, I’m just trying to scratch and claw my way to get to next season when I actually get a paycheck.
Peter Balonon-R…:The MLB makes over 10 billion dollars in revenue annually, but guys I spoke to said their experiences in the minors felt alien from that.
Anthony Shew:It’s a multi-billion dollar industry. There’s tons of money floating around everywhere except for the minor leagues. The level that you’re at as a baseball player starts to become how you’re treated as a person, really.
Peter Balonon-R…:For Anthony and other guys, it was fast food on the road because he can’t afford anything else. Bunking up with 2,3,4,5 other guys in two bedroom apartments just to make rent and skimping on things that would keep their bodies in top condition like an actual bed. It was almost a trope how many times people nonchalantly mentioned air mattresses.
Anthony Shew:Three full seasons I slept on an air bed.
Mitch Horacek:I had a mattress that was on the floor.
Garrett Broshui…:Four guys in I think a two better apartment just sleeping on air mattresses.
Eduardo Navas:Airbags on the floor.
Peter Balonon-R…:This is Eduardo Navas from Venezuela. He’s number 17, a minor league catcher for the New York Yankees organization. He says he’s living on even less than some other teammates.
Eduardo Navas:When I get the paycheck, half the paycheck is going to my home.
Peter Balonon-R…:Half your paycheck?
Eduardo Navas:Yeah.
Peter Balonon-R…:He sends half his paycheck to family in Venezuela, 30% almost one in three professional baseball players are born outside the US. MLB allows franchises to sign foreign players as early as age 16. Eduardo says since he sends money home, he’ll bunk up with seven other guys to afford rent.
Peter Balonon-R…:When you’re living with these other guys, how many other guys from Latin America are sending money home?
Eduardo Navas:Everyone, everyone does.
Peter Balonon-R…:Eduardo says the wages and lifestyle aren’t what he imagined when he was drafted, but he’s just got to push through. And that’s something players from the US also told me, like this one guy who worked as a janitor in the off season. He said minor league life was about paying your dues, hoping you get called up to the big leagues where players make a minimum $570,000 a year.
Eduardo Navas:It’s just life.
Peter Balonon-R…:Eduardo says, that’s just life. Baseball’s like any job where you got to work for a promotion.
Eduardo Navas:Baseball is just being a job.
Peter Balonon-R…:Most jobs pay the minimum wage here in the States.
Eduardo Navas:Yeah, it’s true.
Peter Balonon-R…:Baseball doesn’t.
Eduardo Navas:Yeah, it’s true.
Peter Balonon-R…:Do you ever wonder why it’s like this?
Eduardo Navas:I never want to get to that point asking to the team, why you pay us this much?
Peter Balonon-R…:Does that feel like a dangerous thing to do?
Eduardo Navas:Yeah, I don’t see nobody else asking that. I don’t want to be the first guy who’s asking that.
Mitch Horacek:People are afraid. People are afraid of getting released for speaking out.
Peter Balonon-R…:Mitch Horacek, the pitcher, says a big part of this, no union. Major league players have one, but minor leaguers have never unionized. Mitch says players can think the minors are just a stop on the way to the majors, so they don’t want to rock the boat.
Peter Balonon-R…:If those are saying, “You know what, this is the minor leagues, you’re playing a game, you don’t deserve to be making the big bucks.” What do you say to them?
Mitch Horacek:So I say to them that this is a job like any other. It’s a fun job. It is a job playing a game, but it is still a job. It is still work. And so that work needs to be compensated.
Peter Balonon-R…:Plus team owners in the MLB are certainly making money.
Al Letson:Later in the show, we’ll return to the question of a player’s union for minor league players who work long hard hours for low pay, sometimes way below minimum wage. But first, why do we even have a minimum wage and why isn’t everybody covered by it?
Bill Spriggs:The compromise with them was, okay, you can’t say this only goes to white people. So the compromise is you can exclude certain occupations, that’s okay, and we’ll live with that.
Al Letson:That’s next on Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX
Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. 7.25 an hour, that’s the federal minimum wage, just 58 bucks a day. And those minor league baseball players we’ve been hearing about their pay doesn’t add up to 7.25 an hour. And it doesn’t for some workers in other industries like construction, agriculture, healthcare, retail, at least 900,000 people earn below the federal minimum. That’s according to a conservative estimate from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. In some cases, workers earn less because a business is violating minimum wage laws, but in other cases, those businesses are using loopholes that are built into the laws. That’s what our colleagues from the Marketplace podcast, The Uncertain Hour have been looking into. How certain companies and whole industries maneuver around basic worker protections. We’re going to get back to those minor league baseball players in a few minutes, but first, Krissy Clark, host of the Uncertain Hour shows us how employers have been pushing back against these labor laws since they were first passed.
Krissy Clark:I want to take you back to the 1930s. The country’s already plunged deep into the Great Depression. Jobs are really hard to find and a lot of the jobs that do exist have wages that are really, really low.
President Frank…:Here is the challenge to our democracy.
Krissy Clark:Here’s President Franklin Roosevelt in his second inaugural address in 1937, talking about just how bad things are for so many people.
President Frank…:I see millions of families trying to live on income so [inaudible] , that the pole of family disaster hangs over them, day by day.
Kate Griffith:People were willing to say yes to anything even if they’re were pitiful wages, even if they didn’t give them enough to buy enough bread for their family,
Krissy Clark:This is Kate Griffith, she’s chair of the Labor relations Law and History Department at Cornell, and she says there was a sense among many people that part of why wages were so low was because workers were so desperate and businesses were taking advantage of that.
Kate Griffith:This idea of inequality of bargaining power. And what they meant is this power imbalances between the company on the one hand and the low wage worker on the other. And the word they use a lot is chiseling, that the companies were chiseler, they were chiseling wages. In other words, even companies that could have paid a bit more and did have some profit margins were taking advantage of the fact that you had very desperate and hungry people who were willing to work for basically nothing.
Krissy Clark:So Congress decided to pass this law, the Fair Labor Standards Act. It created the federal minimum wage and overtime rules. And when lawmakers are writing this law, Kate says they are very careful about how they word it, because they know plenty of companies are not going to like this law.
Kate Griffith:It’s not convenient to be regulated and have to pay these things.
Krissy Clark:In fact, before the federal minimum wage was passed, there’d been a handful of states that had passed minimum wage laws. But each time one was passed, some business would challenge it in court, saying the law violated their freedom of contract, that is their right to freely negotiate with their workers. And for decades, the Supreme Court agreed, it struck down state minimum wage laws as unconstitutional until a woman named Elsie Parrish came on the scene. She was raising six kids. She scrubbed toilets and changed dirty sheets for a living as a chamber maid for a hotel in Washington state. And one day she discovered that she was getting paid below her state’s minimum wage for women. Yep, there was a special minimum wage for women. Elsie sued the hotel where she worked for breaking the law. The hotel took the same position that lots of other businesses had taken before it, told Elsie, “Actually, we don’t think we need to obey that minimum wage law because we think it’s unconstitutional.” But this time when the case reached the Supreme Court in 1937, the court disagreed. They ruled in Elsie’s favor.
Krissy Clark:There was this shift in perspective that came to see minimum wage laws not as violating a company’s freedom of contract, but as vital to a worker’s freedom of contract. It created a baseline and gave workers some bargaining power so they didn’t have to say yes to just anything. Plus the chief justice wrote in his opinion, if workers didn’t make at least a minimum wage, it would be taxpayers who had to pick up the burden for caring for people living in poverty. That basically…
Kate Griffith:There’s just a decency wage that our democracy requires.
Krissy Clark:Once the Supreme Court gave the official green light to state minimum wage laws, FDR administration worked with lawmakers to pass a federal minimum wage. And they made one thing very clear.
Kate Griffith:We’re not going to let the companies find loopholes because they will.
Krissy Clark:There was a long history of companies looking for loopholes in employee protection laws. A legal scholar named Richard Carlson at South Texas College of Law Houston told me about one famous case from 1914. A coal mining company tried to argue that it didn’t have to pay for the injuries that a coal miner got on the job.
Richard Carlson:And their argument was, these are not our employees, these people are just independent contractors. We simply grant them access to our coal and they are their own supervisors, so their injuries are their problem, not ours. We owe them nothing.
Krissy Clark:The coal mining company lost that argument, but Kate Griffith from Cornell says it was cases like that one that lawmakers were thinking about when they wrote the minimum wage law. In fact, she went back and read all the congressional hearings, all the debates, all the committee reports that led up to the passage of the minimum wage law. And what she found was lawmakers actually making lists of all the ways companies might try to avoid paying minimum wage to their workers. She talks about it in a paper she wrote. I think it’s in a footnote on page 568, at the bottom.
Kate Griffith:Okay, wow. You read the footnotes.
Krissy Clark:Yeah, that’s where the good stuff is.
Kate Griffith:Okay. Footnote 44. Yeah.
Krissy Clark:Lawmakers are talking about how to quote,
Kate Griffith:Prevent the circumvention of the act.
Krissy Clark:And then they actually give this list of the devices they anticipate companies will try to circumvent the Act. Devices like the use of subcontractors or employees who work in their homes or by classifying workers as independent contractors.
Kate Griffith:Or by any other means or device. And this list just shows an awareness of the common ways that they thought that companies were circumventing regulation at that point and so they were suspicious.
Krissy Clark:And so they write the law in this incredibly expansive and weird way. They declare that every employer shall pay to each of his employees a minimum wage. And that word employee that’s at the heart of the law is defined like this.
Kate Griffith:To suffer or permit to work.
Krissy Clark:To suffer or permit to work. When you employ someone, you permit them to work or at least you suffer them to work. Suffer as in tolerate, like in the phrase, I don’t suffer fools.
Kate Griffith:Which is just an awkward way of talking now, but what they meant is if a company knows what’s happening, is in a position to know what’s happening and it’s benefiting them, they’re responsible as an employer. And I can’t even think of a way for Congress to put it more broadly then a company that permits someone to work for it on its behalf.
Krissy Clark:And Kate says once she went back and actually read what lawmakers were thinking, how worried they were about companies looking for ways to get around the definition of employee. She thinks the definition is kind of genius because it is so broad. It acts like a blanket. It assumes a worker is an employee who deserves minimum wage unless the people who hired the worker can prove otherwise. But even as the minimum wage law was being written in this super broad way, there were businesses and whole industries that were trying to get around paying minimum wage to their workers. One of the most glaring examples was something written directly into the minimum wage law, the exclusion of-
Bill Spriggs:Agricultural workers and domestic workers.
Krissy Clark:Bill Spriggs is an economics professor at Howard University. He’s also the chief economist for the AFL-CIO. And he says the reason those two job categories, agricultural workers and domestic workers like housekeepers and nannies were originally excluded from the minimum wage law goes to something ugly.
Krissy Clark:In order to get the law passed there had to be buy-in from politicians across the country, including the southern Democrats. And they had a very particular world order they were trying to enforce, one of white supremacy.
Bill Spriggs:The signs were obvious, literally they would have above the water fountain colored white only. The south did not want that disturbed.
Krissy Clark:As a white lawmaker from Florida, put it at the time, having a minimum wage that applied equally to white and black people, ‘just will not work in the south.’ He went on to say that you can’t put black and white men on the same basis and get away with it. So northern Democrats in Congress made what’s been called a devil’s bargain.
Bill Spriggs:The compromise with them was, okay, you can’t say this only goes to white people. So the compromise is you can exclude certain occupations, that’s okay, and we’ll live with that. So we will exclude agricultural workers, we will exclude domestic workers.
Krissy Clark:And it just so happened that workers with those jobs were disproportionately black or Latinx, disproportionately women and poor.
Bill Spriggs:That’s basically it. So we will say agricultural workers, but in the south that means we don’t want black people to get this. That’s what they did.
Krissy Clark:And so for the first few decades after a federal minimum wage was passed, farm workers and domestic workers were not covered by it. In a documentary from 1960 called Harvest of Shame, a TV reporter asked a woman named Aileen King what that meant for her. She was in the middle of a field picking beans.
TV reporter:Aileen, what time did you come out the field this morning?
Aileen King :Six o’clock.
TV reporter:What time would you get home?
Aileen King :About 3:30, 4 o’clock.
TV reporter:Six this morning to four o’clock this afternoon.
Aileen King :That’s right.
TV reporter:How much did you earn?
Aileen King :A dollar.
TV reporter:$1.
Aileen King :That’s right, $1.
TV reporter:How much will your food cost you today?
Aileen King :About $2.
Krissy Clark:But decades of civil rights activists pushed back against these exemptions. In fact, one of the demands from the organizers of the March on Washington was to get minimum wage coverage for agricultural and domestic workers.
Speaker 4:We demand that there be an increase in the national minimum wage so that men may live in dignity.
Krissy Clark:Eventually it worked.
Speaker 5:We have included more than 9 million new workers under a higher minimum wage.
Krissy Clark:Though even now some farm and domestic workers still aren’t covered. And the same is true for a few other kinds of workers too. In fact, if you read through the Fair Labor Standards Act, you’ll see 34 carve outs from minimum wage and overtime requirements. Some are broad like people employed in a bonafide professional capacity, which is why salaried employees don’t get overtime. But then there are others so specific it makes you blink and think, Wait, did I read that right? How you don’t need to be paid minimum wage or overtime if you’re employed propagating or harvesting shellfish or if you’re a switchboard operator for a small public telephone company. And then written right into federal law, no overtime if you work processing maple sap into syrup or sugar. And this one, which I didn’t know, motion picture theaters aren’t required to pay employees overtime. All of these employees are carved out of the law.
Krissy Clark:But even if your industry doesn’t have its own carve out, there’s another loophole companies latch onto and it goes back to the way the law was written. Remember how it requires that most every employer shall pay a minimum wage to each of his employees. There are some businesses who say our workers are not employees. Maybe the workers are labeled independent contractors, like what Uber has called their drivers. Maybe the workers are labeled franchisees like what some cleaning companies call their janitors. Or maybe workers are labeled trainees like what railroad companies once called unpaid break men who were learning on the job. What it means is that hundreds of thousands of workers, disproportionately black and Latinx workers are making less than what our country has said is the bare minimum most workers should earn.
Al Letson:That was the Uncertain Hours Krissy Clark.
Al Letson:The baseball industry has found legal ways to pay minor league baseball players less than minimum wage. So how do they get away with this?
Mark Normanton:It was their way of saying that it’s not really a job, so they shouldn’t have to treat you like an employee.
Al Letson:Inside the baseball industry’s playbook. That’s next on Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.
Al Letson:From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Today we’ve been talking about the minimum wage. And however, since we have one, companies have been looking for ways to get around it, either by carving out industries from the law or by saying their workers aren’t technically employees. We’re bringing you today’s show with our friends from the Marketplace podcast, The Uncertain Hour. Season five looks at how companies legally get around providing basic employment protections to workers. And in the years since we first brought you this story, there’ve been some dramatic updates from one particular group of low wage workers, minor league ball players.
Garrett Broshui…:My eyes were starting to open that, the way players are treated, it’s not okay.
Al Letson:Back in 2009, Garrett Broshuis was in his six year as a minor league pitcher for the San Francisco Giants and pretty fed up. It had been six years of low pay, six years of sleeping on air mattresses and rundown apartments, and six years of long team bus ride with the same movies on repeat.
Garrett Broshui…:I’ve seen Bull Durham so many times.
Al Letson:About halfway through that season, Garrett did something seemingly unremarkable that would have huge consequences for the minor leagues. He stopped by a local border’s bookstore and picked up an LSAT study guide reading material for the bus.
Garrett Broshui…:I took the LSAT three days after I got back from my last game then and started applying to law schools.
Al Letson:Peter Balonon-Rosen, a producer for the Uncertain Hour podcast, picks up Garrett’s story
Peter Balonon-R…:In 2014, a few months after graduating law school, Garrett did something unprecedented. As a lawyer, he filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of former minor league players, thousands of guys like him who had passed through the minors, who said they weren’t paid for spring training and fall instructional leagues. And that they made no overtime during the regular season, despite working 50 to 70 hours per week.
Garrett Broshui…:Just trying to apply your basic wage and hour laws, the same laws that Walmart, McDonald’s comply with to minor league baseball players.
Peter Balonon-R…:This lawsuit said that MLB and its teams violated the Fair Labor Standards Act, which guarantees minimum wage and overtime to employees. But in the years following the filing of the lawsuit, MLB said there’s a reason minor leaguers shouldn’t get that. Just like so many businesses before them, they said minor league players aren’t actually employees.
Garrett Broshui…:They try saying that they’re trainees instead of employees and shouldn’t even be subject to your minimum wage loss.
Peter Balonon-R…:In public statements, MLB said, “Minor league baseball is not a career, but a short term seasonal apprenticeship.” Mark Normanton, a freelance journalist who writes a newsletter about sports and labor, he watched this all play out.
Mark Normanton:It was their way of saying that it’s not really a job. So they shouldn’t have to treat you like an employee.
Peter Balonon-R…:Whoa. So they’re not saying, these guys aren’t my employees. They’re saying these guys are not even employees.
Mark Normanton:Yeah, so when anyone would use an argument of like, even someone in the service industry or fast food industry is paid better and treated better. They’d be like, Ah, yes, but that’s a job and could be a career. This is not.
Peter Balonon-R…:Well, that’s so wild. If you want to get around workplace protections, what’s a better way to do that than just say, Wait a minute, this isn’t even a job. This isn’t even employment.
Mark Normanton:There’s no workplace protections if you don’t have a workplace essentially.
Peter Balonon-R…:Now, let’s think about some numbers. Professional baseball players spend on average four years in the minors. That’s a long time to not be an employee, and only about one in six will ever get called up to the majors. Now, the Supreme Court has ruled that some trainees can be unpaid, but their training has to meet specific requirements, like that the trainee benefits more from the training than the business benefits from their work. It’s why we can have unpaid internships.
Peter Balonon-R…:So when a preliminary hearing for Garrett’s class action lawsuit of former minor league players, a lawyer for MLB went to that playbook. The lawyer said quote, “Our position is that none of them are employees, that they fall squarely within the ambit of a trainee.” The lawyer said, since Spanish speaking players can take English classes and classes are done to teach players how to open a checking account, that this is training not just for baseball, but for life. And the lawyer said to the extent that any employment relationship may exist, it have to be determined on a case by case basis and that should prevent Garrett’s class action case for moving forward. The court ultimately rejected that argument. So Garrett Broshuis says The baseball industry went looking for another reason to not pay minimum wager over time. One that’d be much more bullet proof. They set out to rewrite federal law.
Garrett Broshui…:Rather than doing the right thing and increasing salaries, they went to Congress and spent their money on lobbyists instead.
Peter Balonon-R…:The MLB team owners and minor league baseball big wigs launched this coordinated effort in direct response to Garrett’s class action lawsuit. And if you go through MLBs public lobbying disclosures, which I did, it shows the first half of the 2010s MLB spent an average $430,000 a year on lobbying, standard for an organization their size. But then in 2016, as this lawsuit’s going through the pipeline, that spending tripled to $1.3 million in a single year, the same amount in 2017 and 2018. Those three years alone, MLB paid lobbyists almost 4 million dollars total. A 4 million dollars bet they could change the law.
Peter Balonon-R…:In March 2018, Garrett’s class action lawsuit was limping along, bogged down by appeals. One Sunday evening, his phone rang.
Garrett Broshui…:I got a call from a Washington Post reporter asking me, “What can you tell me about the Save America’s Pastime Act?” I said, “Well, let me call you back.”
Peter Balonon-R…:Garrett knew about the Save America’s Pastime Act. It was this piece of legislation introduced two years earlier when MLB had started their lobbying effort. It had died in the house.
Garrett Broshui…:It was an exemption for minor league baseball players from the Fair Labor Standards Act or our country’s basic minimum wage law. I’d hoped that it was dead. How it came back to life, it was tacked onto page 1,967 of an omnibus spending bill that had to pass Congress four days later in order to keep the government from shutting down.
Peter Balonon-R…:Buried almost 2000 pages into this huge spending bill. It was a provision that specifically carved out baseball players from minimum wage and overtime laws. It said if players were paid the equivalent of 40 hours a week at the federal minimum wage during the season, they weren’t entitled to any other compensation. No overtime and no pay during spring training or the off season quote, ‘irrespective of the number of hours the employee devotes to baseball related activities.’ So as long as MLB paid minor league players $290 a week for five months. Garrett says, the Save America’s Pastime Act said players had no right to overtime or any other pay during the year.
Garrett Broshui…:There’s nothing about how America’s pastime that was being saved by this.
Peter Balonon-R…:I wanted to know why. Why did anyone think America’s pastime needed saving? I reached out to MLB and politicians involved with this spending legislation. None agreed to be in this story. So I was shocked when this guy called me back.
Stan Brand :Our main argument to Congress was, You need to pass this because it goes to our survival.
Peter Balonon-R…:Stan Brand was one of the chief architects of the lobbying effort and served as vice president of Minor League baseball for 29 years. I got to explain what that means. That’s the governing body that oversees the minor leagues and assists with team schedules, merch and ticket sales. It’s a separate organization from MLB. Still major and minor league baseball often have similar interests like keeping minor league players cheap and heading off this class action lawsuit. Remember MLB and its teams employee minor league players.
Stan Brand :There is a concern about, well, what is time at work? Is extra batting practice work? Is sitting on the bus to and from a game work? Is being in the locker room waiting for the game to start work? If that’s time and a half, well that could be a lot of money.
Peter Balonon-R…:I mean, some might argue that any time you’re doing for the company, yeah, that’s time you should be getting paid for.
Stan Brand :That was what was dispute in the lawsuit.
Peter Balonon-R…:Here’s what made Stan really nervous. If players were paid more, they’d be more expensive. So to keep costs down, MLB might not supply players to as many teams, which could mean towns all over the country would no longer have affiliated baseball. To Stan minor league teams were special. They provided jobs for people selling cotton candy and tickets and also pride, a home team to for, But Stan had a solution to keep things business as usual.
Stan Brand :The save America’s Pastime Act.
Peter Balonon-R…:If this is a business model that relies on employees who aren’t subject to minimum wage and overtime laws, is this a good model?
Stan Brand :Well, it’s a model that existed for 120 years.
Peter Balonon-R…:But just because this has been around for 120 years, that mean it’s good? I mean, this is the right thing-
Stan Brand :Well, look, it was good from my perspective in that it fostered survival of these teams and communities and it fostered the survival of the magic of the community centered Minor league teams. So to that degree, it was a positive to my way of thinking.
Peter Balonon-R…:So Stan, along with the MLB, major minor league team owners and lobbyists appealed directly to members of Congress and gave lawmakers money.
Stan Brand :To really engage the legislature. You needed to be active in the campaign finance area.
Garrett Broshui…:A person’s ability to gain basic labor and employment protections shouldn’t be dependent on their industry’s ability to lobby Congress for special treatment.
Peter Balonon-R…:Garrett Broshuis, the player turned attorney, again.
Garrett Broshui…:It’s somewhat despicable.
Peter Balonon-R…:On March 23rd 2018, the whole government spending bill, including the Save America’s Pastime Act was passed to keep the government open. Unlike standalone legislation, provisions included in big spending bills aren’t sponsored by specific politicians. So it’s hard to tell who put it in. I did ask Mitch McConnell’s office, but they never got back to me. So MLB was given a federal law specifically saying players are not entitled to overtime or any pay outside the regular season. Mark Normanton, the journalist says that makes them pretty untouchable.
Mark Normanton:They got Congress to carve out an exception for them, to be terrible employers.
Peter Balonon-R…:You can just do that? You can just write laws like that?
Mark Normanton:Yeah, I mean, if you’ve got a few million dollars, then know who to give it to, then yeah.
Peter Balonon-R…:So carving minor league players out of minimum wage and overtime requirements was a victory for Stan Brand, the minor league baseball VP and lobbyist. Still, I wondered if he had anything to say to those players.
Peter Balonon-R…:So I’ve spoken to a bunch of guys. Guys talked about living on air mattresses, who can barely afford chipotle during their spring training. What message do you have for them for why they should get carved out of these protections that other businesses are held too?
Stan Brand :Look, I don’t wish these people sleep on air mattresses. They’re seeking to qualify themselves as the most elite baseball players in the world. Any more than a violinist at Juilliard hopes to get onto the New York Symphony someday. That’s the nature of the career they’re pursuing, It’s a tryout. It’s an apprenticeship.
Peter Balonon-R…:Well, just because you’re an apprentice or a trainee, should you not get minimum wage or overtime?
Stan Brand :Well, yeah, I don’t know that they weren’t getting minimum wage, weren’t getting paid for those extra functions that I mentioned.
Peter Balonon-R…:Well, it’s not just sitting on the bus. It’s also spring training, other sorts of trainings during the off season. Some might look at that and say, Hey, this is unpaid work.
Stan Brand :That was their claim.
Peter Balonon-R…:Do you see spring training as unpaid work?
Stan Brand :Yeah, mostly it was. And look, I was not an advocate for not paying the minor league players a living wage. I was simply explaining the reality of the current relationship and its impact on the industry.
Peter Balonon-R…:I was honestly kind of shocked to hear him admit, Yeah, this is unpaid work, but if we didn’t do that, our whole industry would fall apart.
Peter Balonon-R…:Garrett Broshuis, the player turned attorney, he doesn’t buy that.
Garrett Broshui…:It’s a slap in the face to every minor league player out there. We aren’t asking for huge sums of money here. A full-time minimum wage worker in this country makes around $15,000 a year.
Peter Balonon-R…:A fraction of team profits. In 2019, if MLB teams had paid minor leaguers 15 K a year, that would’ve cost teams about 2 million dollars each. Not much for them, just 4% of the average 50 million dollars a team made an operating profits that year. A figure that comes from Forbes, which tracks MLB profits. Players like Mitch Horacek, the pitcher, are still trying to wrap their heads around the Save America’s Pastime Act.
Mitch Horacek:Its straight out in 1984. It is double speak. I think it’s gross, man. I mean, I think Major League Baseball, they’re just spending millions of dollars to craft the rules to suppress wages on employees that make the least.
Peter Balonon-R…:But there’s another wrinkle in all of this, an incentive for teams to keep costs down.
Mark Normanton:You have these owners, these primary owners, but they also sell tons of little and like minority stakes in the team. So any money you don’t spend on players is money that can go to these investors.
Peter Balonon-R…:Mark Normanton, the journalist says, In the early odds, the early 2000s, baseball started becoming this big investment opportunity. All these investors bought into teams, franchise values exploded, which then attracted more investors with everyone expecting a return on investment. So he says professional baseball became even more motivated to keep costs down and preserve their business practices. Can we draw a direct line from this change that happened in the early odds and this mindset to something like the Save America’s Pastime Act?
Mark Normanton:Yeah, I think it’s from that same mindset that forces you to look for every possible like efficiency and loophole to save money.
Peter Balonon-R…:Baseball’s a sport that’s all about tracking analytics. A guy’s batting average, pitch velocity, RBIs then thinking about what could be better, doesn’t seem too far off to take that same mindset to the industry’s whole business model. Stan Brand for Minor League Baseball says, “Yeah, that’s exactly what’s happening.”
Stan Brand :Old baseball, men used to run the game and now hedge fund investors and Yale economists run the player development side of the game in analytics. The entire focus of the game has changed and the entire focus of the business has changed.
Peter Balonon-R…:The 2020 season was canceled due to the pandemic and despite the Save America’s Pastime act, which Stan lobbied for under the impression it would save teams. MLB declared they were going to reshape Minor League Baseball, draft fewer players and cut 40 teams.
Stan Brand :To me, that’s a betrayal of our going to Capitol Hill and seeking this amendment.
Peter Balonon-R…:You feel betrayed?
Stan Brand :Absolutely. Lo and behold, the Save America’s Pastime Act passes and the first thing out of the box is a contraction plan.
Peter Balonon-R…:MLB decided rather than dealing with a governing body that represents all of the minors, that they’d signed contracts directly with minor league teams one by one, giving MLB full control over minor league licensing, ticket sales, streaming rights, all the things Stan’s office used to do. A few months after we first spoke, he resigned.
Stan Brand :There sas really nothing left for me to do.
Peter Balonon-R…:Baseball’s far from alone in crafting laws to legitimize their business practices. Uber, Lyft and other gig companies launched the most expensive ballot measure in US history to convince California voters app base drivers shouldn’t be covered by state laws. That would make them employees rather than independent contractors. Just like baseball, it worked and could send the message to big business, Just do what you’ve always done. Don’t like the laws, write your own.
Al Letson:That was Peter Balonon-Rosen of the Marketplace Podcast, the Uncertain Hour.
Al Letson:Since we first aired this show, a lot has changed. Last season, minor league players saw a pay bump. They finally started making the equivalent of minimum wage during the season, but still no overtime and no pay during spring training. And then in July of this year, three weeks before it was set to go to trial, Major League Baseball agreed to settle that class action lawsuit filed by Garrett on behalf of Minor league players. MLB settled for 185 million dollars. As a part of the suit, thousands of players will receive payouts and MLB announced it will also now permit minor league teams to pay players during spring training. And in September, there was another historic change. Minor league players unionized and major League baseball voluntarily agreed to recognize the union.
Al Letson:And I should add that since we first aired this show, some of the players we talked to have left baseball and others are no longer affiliated with their teams. Thanks to the whole team at the uncertain hour for bringing us today’s show. If you want to hear more about how American Jobs got temped, giggled, outsource, freelance, and contracted out, and how that’s changing work in America, be sure to check out all of season five. That’s the Uncertain Hour from Marketplace and keep your eye out for their next season, which drops in January.
Al Letson:Our producers for this week’s show are Krissy Clark, Peter Balonon-Rosen, Caitlin Esch, and Chris Julien from the Uncertain Hour. Katherine Winter edited the show. We also want to thank Mona Danish, Daniel Martinez, Marque Green, Sam Anderson, Robin Edgar, Tony Wagner, Erica Phillips, and Sattarni Eves. Special thanks to Reveal’s Katharine Mieszkowski, Jonathan Jones and Kevin Sullivan. Victoria Baranetsky is our general counsel. Our production manager is Amy, the Great Mostafa. Sound designed by the dynamic duo, Jay Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Fernando, my man Yo Arruda. That helped this week from Brett Simpson and Amita Katra. Our digital producer is Sarah Merck. Our COO is Maria Feldman. Our CEO is Robert Rosenthal. Our interim executive producers are Brett Myers and Taki Telonidis. Our theme music is by Comarado Lightning. Support for Reveals provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the In As Much Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson, and remember there is always more to the story.

Amy Mostafa (she/they) is the production manager for Reveal. She is a UC Berkeley School of Journalism alum, where she focused on audio and data journalism as a Dean's Merit Fellow and an ISF Scholar. She has reported on science, health and the environment in Anchorage for Alaska Public Media and on city government in Berkeley and San Francisco for KQED. Her work also has appeared on NPR, KALW and KALX. Mostafa holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and public policy. She has most recently reported on housing and aging in the Bay Area. She is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.

Jim Briggs III is the senior sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. He supervises post-production and composes original music for the public radio show and podcast. He also leads Reveal's efforts in composition for data sonification and live performances.

Prior to joining Reveal in 2014, Briggs mixed and recorded for clients such as WNYC Studios, NPR, the CBC and American Public Media. Credits include “Marketplace,” “Selected Shorts,” “Death, Sex & Money,” “The Longest Shortest Time,” NPR’s “Ask Me Another,” “Radiolab,” “Freakonomics Radio” and “Soundcheck.” He also was the sound re-recording mixer and sound editor for several PBS television documentaries, including “American Experience: Walt Whitman,” the 2012 Tea Party documentary "Town Hall" and “The Supreme Court” miniseries. His music credits include albums by R.E.M., Paul Simon and Kelly Clarkson.

Briggs' work with Reveal has been recognized with an Emmy Award (2016) and two Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards (2018, 2019). Previously, he was part of the team that won the Dart Award for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma for its work on WNYC’s hourlong documentary special “Living 9/11.” He has taught sound, radio and music production at The New School and Eugene Lang College and has a master's degree in media studies from The New School. Briggs is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Fernando Arruda

Fernando Arruda is a sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. As a multi-instrumentalist, he contributes to the original music, editing and mixing of the weekly public radio show and podcast. He has held four O-1 visas for individuals with extraordinary abilities. His work has been recognized with Peabody, duPont-Columbia, Edward R. Murrow, Gerald Loeb, Third Coast and Association of Music Producers awards, as well as Emmy and Pulitzer nominations. Prior to joining Reveal, Arruda toured as an international DJ and taught music technology at Dubspot and ESRA International Film School. He worked at Antfood, a creative audio studio for media and TV ads, and co-founded a film-scoring boutique called the Manhattan Composers Collective. He worked with clients such as Marvel, MasterClass and Samsung and ad agencies such as Framestore, Trollbäck+Company, BUCK and Vice. Arruda releases experimental music under the alias FJAZZ and has performed with many jazz, classical and pop ensembles, such as SFJAZZ Monday Night Band, Art&Sax quartet, Krychek, Dark Inc. and the New York Arabic Orchestra. His credits in the podcast and radio world include NPR’s “51 Percent,” WNYC’s “Bad Feminist Happy Hour” and its live broadcast of Orson Welles’ “The Hitchhiker,” Wondery’s “Detective Trapp,” MSNBC’s “Why Is This Happening?” and NBC’s “Born to Rule,” to name a few. Arruda also has a wide catalog of composed music for theatrical, orchestral and chamber music formats, some of which has premiered worldwide. He holds a master’s degree in film scoring and composition from NYU Steinhardt. The original music he makes with Jim Briggs for Reveal can be found on Bandcamp.

Brett Simpson (she/her) was an assistant producer for Reveal. She pursued a master's degree at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, where she focuses on audio, print and investigative reporting. She has received fellowships from the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, the National Press Club, the White House Correspondents’ Association and the UC Berkeley Human Rights Center. She is also the graduate researcher at UC Berkeley's Investigative Reporting Program. Most recently, Simpson reported breaking news for the San Francisco Chronicle and covered the coronavirus outbreak in the San Francisco Bay Area for The New York Times. She received a bachelor's degree in English at Princeton University, where she twice won the Ferris Prize for Outstanding Undergraduate Projects in Journalism.

Taki Telonidis is an interim executive producer for Reveal. Previously, he was the media producer for the Western Folklife Center, where he created more than 100 radio features for NPR’s "All Things Considered," "Weekend Edition" and other news magazines. He has produced and directed three public television specials, including "Healing the Warrior’s Heart," a one-hour documentary that explores how the ancient spiritual traditions of our nation’s first warriors, Native Americans, are helping today’s veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Telonidis also was senior content editor for NPR’s "State of the Re:Union." Before moving to the West, he worked for NPR in Washington, where he was senior producer of "Weekend All Things Considered" between 1994 and 1998. His television and radio work has garnered a George Foster Peabody Award, three Rocky Mountain Emmy Awards and the Overseas Press Club Award for breaking news. Telonidis is based in Salt Lake City.

Al Letson is a playwright, performer, screenwriter, journalist, and the host of Reveal. Soul-stirring, interdisciplinary work has garnered Letson national recognition and devoted fans.