Nike abuses poor, hungry, and young workers to make Air Jordans. Apple abuses poor, hungy, and young workers to make iPhones. And MLB abuses poor, hungry, and young workers to make star baseball players.
Mother Jones recently published a terrific
piece by Ian Gordon that details the story of Yewri Guillén: a young,
talented Dominican, signed by the Nationals, whose life came to a tragic end.
It's a story that every baseball fan should read, as it illustrates what can
happen when a powerful organization within an even more powerful cartel chooses
to exploit a powerless and poor youth with dreams.
Here is an excerpt:
There wasn't a certified athletic trainer, let alone a doctor, to
evaluate Guillén at the Nationals' academy, a spartan training camp with
cinder-block dorms. No one from the team accompanied him to Santo Domingo or
intervened when he couldn't get into the Clínica Abreu. (The club didn't cover
the costs of his treatment until after he was admitted to the Cuban-Dominican
clinic.) And following Guillén's death, the club required his parents to sign a
release before handing over his signing bonus and life insurance money—a
document also stating that they would never sue the team or its employees.
Guillén's death is the worst-case scenario in a recruiting system that treats young Dominicans as
second-class prospects, paying them far less than young Americans and
sometimes denying them benefits that are standard in the US minor leagues, such
as health insurance and professionally trained medical staff. MLB regulations
allow teams to troll for talent on the cheap in the Dominican Republic: Unlike
American kids, who must have completed high school to sign, Dominicans can be
signed as young as 16, when their bodies and their skills are far less
As the excerpt illustrates, the exploitation of the minor league player is most apparent in the Dominican. Of course, MLB teams have a long
history of exploiting the minor leaguer. Ever since the days of Branch Rickey's
farm system in the 1920s and 1930s--a system that at one point allowed the
Cardinals to hold the property rights to over 600 players--teams have hoarded
as many players as possible while paying them as little as possible.
For the past few decades, teams have found the Dominican (and Venezuela) to
be a source of cheap talent. Teams seemed to operate under the modus operandi
of sign them all, pay them little, and let the kids sort themselves out.
Although international signing bonuses have risen considerably since 2000,
teams continue to follow abusive labor policies, as the article—and the death
of a young prospect—demonstrates.
Yet the article fails to mention another important point: the exploitation of the minor leaguer continues in the States.
Ian Gordon's article is fabulous, but it neglects to tell the rest of the
story--the story of many minor leaguers playing in the states. Since MLB
operates under an antitrust exemption, teams can actively collude to control
the labor cost in the development of their prime commodity of baseball
players. Our country's antitrust laws don't apply, so this collusive exercise
of market power by the baseball cartel is legal.
The result: strikingly low salaries that have barely budged since the 1970s.
Even in the states, most minor leaguers make less than $10,000, placing many
below the federal poverty guidelines. The business of baseball--including minor league baseball--has thrived in the past two decades. Minor league baseball
players contribute much to this business, but they receive little of the spoils.
Some might argue that signing bonuses make up for these low salaries, but
this is faulty logic. For instance, Gordon's article points out the difference
in signing bonuses for the Dominican signee versus the American signee. Yet his
numbers are misleading. In fact, they are inaccurate.
The article states that teams paid an average signing bonus of $232,000 to American
players in 2011. However, teams do not publish the smaller signing bonuses paid
to many American signees. In fact, most players drafted outside the top ten
rounds sign for less than $10,000. Some players, especially college seniors,
sign for as little as $1,000. Teams do not publish these figures.
Since these numbers are not reported, the data set used by Gordon was
inaccurate. And even if a complete data set did exist, the high signing bonuses
obtained by those at the very top would still skew the average signing bonus. A
truer number would require both a) a complete data set, and b) the median
instead of the mean.
This point is significant, as it demonstrates the number of players pinching
pennies while chasing a dream. I've said this before, but it's worth saying
again: minor leaguers don't expect to be compensated like orthopedic surgeons;
however, they do deserve sufficient wages to eat some meals at Applebees
instead of McDonald's, to live two per two-bedroom apartment instead of six per two-bedroom apartment, and to sleep on regular mattresses instead of air
Yet when it comes to developing talent, teams are still operating in the
1930s. They hoard as many players as possible for as little money as possible.
And since the antitrust laws don't apply, and since they ignore wage and hour
laws, and since minor leaguers don't have a union, their power goes unchecked.
To sum: yes, it’s true that the exploitation occurs at the grandest level in
the Dominican, but it continues on minor league fields across the America. And even
if the abusive practices are less extreme in the States, such behavior should still not be
Further reading: my draft of Touching Baseball's Untouchables: The Effects of Collective Bargaining on Minor League Baseball Players (forthcoming in the Harvard Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law), http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2147490.