When news of a superstar athlete’s blockbuster contract breaks, it can be easy to assume that all pros are living large. In baseball, however, this is far from the case: Major League Baseball, in which the biggest names can clear $30 million a year, pays poverty-level wages to thousands of players.
These players toil away in obscurity on one of hundreds of minor-league teams that funnel their top talent to the majors. There, they practice and develop—some for as long as 13 years—until they are promoted to major-league teams or, in nearly 90 percent of cases, are waived by their teams or retire. Though some top prospects are rewarded handsomely before making the jump to the majors, many minor leaguers report making as little as $3,000 to $7,500 for a five-month season of intense physical labor, 60-hour workweeks, and little chance of advancement.
Dirk Hayhurst, whose memoir The Bullpen Gospels documents his years as a minor-league pitcher, describes the problems that these wages create. Mandatory team dues, he said, can reduce players’ salaries to less than $300 per month. To save money, players “find at least two more people than the amount of bedrooms that are actually in the place”—sometimes as many as six to a two-bedroom apartment—and spend nights in sleeping bags or on air mattresses because they can’t afford furniture. Food, too, can be a recurring issue: Grueling schedules, frequent travel, and low wages leave players reliant on cheap and unhealthy fast food or snacks from gas-station minimarts. Throw in the fact that many players “have alcohol, tobacco issues to help them cope with the highs and lows of the game,” he says, and the league’s $25 per diem rarely lasts the day.