When I was a youngster I had a dream. That dream was to play baseball. I knew at a very early age that major league baseball would be an impossibility for me. Still, I had a dream to play at a level below the big leagues. I think that yearning came from watching the Liverpool Larrupers play in the Halifax and District League in the early fifties. Liverpool was about an hour’s drive from my hometown of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. I absolutely loved going to that little park with my parents. During those games I did see some future major league players in action: Zeke Bella later played with the Kansas City Royals, Tom Gastall with Baltimore and Moe Drabowsky who pitched so well against the Dodgers in the 1966 World Series. Jack Kubiszyn, a shortstop, was my absolute favorite player on the Larrupers in 1955. He played briefly for the Cleveland Indians.
What I remember most about those games were the sights and the sounds. The fans were very involved in the games cheering the hometown heroes, jeering the opponents and chastising the umpires. Most of all I remember the sounds: the ball hitting a glove, the crack of the bat (my favorite), the sound of a player sliding, the constant infield chatter encouraging the pitchers – maybe Don Swanson (LHP) or Ron Jirsa (RHP) – a low minor league version of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale in 1954.
My dream of minor league baseball also soon died as I realized that if I had difficulty hitting the ball as an early teen, my hitting futility would only grow as I tried to advance to higher levels. Yet, my fascination with minor league baseball never waned, but in fact grew stronger and continues to grow even to this day as thousands of young players follow their dream. They get to do what most of us never could. That is, play the greatest game in the world and get paid to do so. Out of curiosity, I recently completed some research on the life of minor league baseball players, the life of which I had dreamed.
Minor League Baseball is big business in the United States and Canada. More than 41.2 million fans attended Minor League Baseball in 2012. Few would know that Minor League Baseball draws more fans than the NBA, NFL and the NHL. While fan support in the minor leagues continues to grow, each year there are thousands of young men actively pursuing their dream. However, very few get to live out their full dream. Approximately one in 200, or about 0.5 percent of high school senior boys playing interscholastic baseball will eventually be drafted by a Major League Baseball team. After that the odds don’t get much better. Of the thousands of high school, college, and unaffiliated players, probably about 3 percent of those drafted or signed ever make an appearance at the Major League Baseball level. That means that out of 10,000 high school seniors, about 15 may make it to big leagues. Those players who do become major league players often take five, six or more years to graduate to their parent teams.
The Major League Baseball minimum salary under the new collective agreement in 2012 was $480,000, up from $300,000 in 2003. It will increase to $500,000 in 2014. One expects that the same agreement would increase the minimum salary for minor league players by a commensurate rate. A quick check of the salary scale for minor league players reveals some big surprises. The rate of pay has not increased very substantially for quite a few years and that rate of pay at the minor league level is based only on the months of play during the season. Those rates are before taxes and clubhouse dues. Yes, clubhouse dues that pays the salary of clubhouse managers.
Minor League Baseball Salary Scale
For minor league players their best opportunity at financial security comes with signing bonuses which are often quite large for high draft picks. Those that make it to the 40 man rosters on major league baseball teams can receive a reasonable salary, but not many 40 man roster spots are available for roughly 5500 minor league players. The vast majority do not have big signing bonuses and do not make it onto 40 man rosters. Minor league free agents may also earn a livable wage by negotiating their contracts. But, it takes seven years of minor league play to become a free agent. The majority of minor league players, especially at the lower levels, live at a subsistent level having received a small signing bonus and with an unbelievably small income. Many do not make it to free agency as they are released, have their careers derailed by injury or simply have to forgo their dream knowing it will never be realized.
To put things in a perspective that we all understand, it is necessary to look at the daily schedule of a minor league player. From May to August, where games are scheduled nearly every day, players arrive around 3 pm for a 7:15 pm game. During the time before games young players stretch, work on fundamentals, taking batting practice, run, throw bullpen sessions, and spend time in the trainer’s room. The typical game takes about three hours to complete. Following the game players often need further work in the trainer’s room, lift weights, shower and generally get ready to go back to their residence as tired young men. Players are at work for a minimum of eight hours, often longer, for about twenty eight days a month. In some states, a minor league player is being paid at a level below the minimum wage. Those hours do not include long and late trips on a bus traveling from city to city or town to town. For a player making the Double-A minimum of $1,700 a month, he’ll earn around $7.00 an hour while on the job.
Minor league players get a daily food allowance of $20-25, depending on the source you read. Hard working young men are trying to gain proper nourishment on $25 a day. How well can most people do that, much less minor league players giving it all they can to try to earn a starting spot on the team at a given level or striving to advance to a higher level? Phil Coke finally made his way to major league baseball after six years, at times seriously considering quitting baseball. His story is one played out in the lives of many minor league players. In order to continue his pursuit of a baseball career, he took on other jobs such as janitorial work and working as a chimney repairman.
Coke, in an interview with Jonah Keri of GRANTLAND spoke of being destitute: “For minor leaguers, being broke also means subsisting just about entirely on fast food, a curious way for teams to develop finely tuned athletes.” For Coke, this created an additional problem as his weight ballooned to 245 pounds. Russell A. Carleton from Baseball Therapy gave a similar account: “Not surprisingly, left with little cash, a need for calorie-dense food, and no infrastructure with which to purchase and/or cook healthy food, baseball players fall back on food that is quick, fatty, and cheap, not to mention available everywhere: fast food.” Carleton does acknowledge that some teams do offer post game meals but the frequency varies from organization to organization and from level to level. However, he concludes: “But especially on the road, players do end up eating a lot of fast food—in a business where prime physical conditioning is something of a job requirement.”
The life of a minor league baseball player revolves around practice, games, meals, sleep and travel. A large portion of their meager income is used for living accommodations which are not provided by the team. For most, a car is out of the question. One wonders how and why so many young men continue to live a life that excludes all the glamour we, as fans, see from the outside. They continue on against all obstacles in a profession that includes the most difficult task in all of sports. That is, hitting a small round ball coming to the plate at 80/90 mph and doing so with a round bat. The pitchers are likewise trying desperately to miss those bats or at the least the fat part of the bat. Those young players who toil for years in the minors simply refuse to give up on their dreams no matter how difficult the path becomes or how slim the chances of getting to the big leagues may be.
Outfielder Collin Cowgill, who made it to the Big leagues with the Arizona Diamondbacks at age 25 after spending five years in the minors, summed it up like this: “(You are) constantly defying the odds, there are only 750 spots. I know for those guys that do (make it), the feeling of accomplishment has got to be pretty amazing. I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else. I’ve been wanting to do this my whole life.” Cowgill was traded from the Diamondbacks to the Mets this off-season.
But perhaps the most tenacious minor leaguer of all time is John Lindsey, who will begin his 18th season of professional baseball this spring with the Detroit Tigers.
In 2010 while with the Dodgers Triple-A affiliate Albuquerque Isotopes, Lindsey was finally rewarded for his years of dedication and hard work when he received a September call-up from the Dodgers. Although the 35-year-old Hattiesburg, Mississippi native only had thirteen plate appearances during his brief major league debut, it is an experience that he will cherish for the rest of his life. But was it enough for him? “I’ve been waiting all my life for this,” Lindsey told the Los Angeles Times about his major league call-up. “It was an awesome feeling.”