Aaron Senne played first base and left field for the Greensboro Grasshoppers in 2012, the year the Class A baseball team’s Major League affiliate, the Miami Marlins, moved into its new $634 million stadium.
Senne says he was paid $7,000 to play that season and that despite being a college graduate in his 20s he still had to call his parents and ask for money to get by.
Now Senne and two other players are pursuing a lawsuit that contends the major league teams with which they were affiliated failed to meet federal and state minimum wage standards. The suit, which names the Office of the Commissioner of Baseball as a defendant, has the potential to fundamentally change the business model for American baseball.
“We’re not asking for millions of dollars,” Senne told the Toronto Star earlier this summer. “What the lawsuit asks for is that we deserve the same rights as employees of any other company – your McDonald’s or Wal-Mart or Target, whoever it might be. We believe we should fall into the same category and that Major League Baseball should be complying with the same laws that these other companies have to comply with.”
By earlier this year, the players had some 40 other players willing to join their legal fight if a federal judge granted class-action status. The judge ruled last month that the players’ claims were not similar enough to grant class-action status.
Garrett Broshuis, a former minor leaguer turned lawyer who is representing Senne, says he is considering an appeal of that decision. But whether the case moves forward as a class-action or as individual players challenging a pay structure that overwhelmingly benefits those at the top, Broshuis said the questions and legal challenge will not go away.
“What people who go to these minor league games should know is some of those players came to the stadium that day without eating breakfast that day, and not by choice,” he said. “I think the fans would like to know what their lives are like.”
What the lawsuit asks for is that we deserve the same rights as employees of any other company – your McDonald’s or Wal-Mart or Target, whoever it might be.
Former Greensboro Grasshopper Aaron Senne
Senne was a high school standout in Rochester, Minn., and played college ball at the University of Missouri. After his senior year in high school and again after his third season with the Missouri Tigers, the Minnesota Twins drafted Senne. But he chose to finish out his college career before the Marlins drafted the left-handed first baseman in 2010 in the 10th round.
Senne received a $25,000 one-time bonus for a seven-year contract, according to his lawsuit, and received two semesters in a college scholarship fund. His career began in 2010 with the Jamestown Jammers of the New York-Penn League. Two years later, when he played with Grasshoppers, a South Atlantic League farm team for the Marlins, the team lost the championship series to the Asheville Tourists.
During those years, Senne sometimes lived in a two-bedroom apartment with five other players. He bought pizza rolls and peanut butter and jelly in bulk, regretting that he never had enough money to eat quality food as he trained to become a better athlete. On road trips, the players got a meal allowance of $25 per day.
During the season, players are at the ballpark for about 60 hours a week; they also attend spring training, which pays nothing. Senne’s lawsuit alleges “labor exploitation” and seeks to recover damages and prohibit “the cartel known as MLB from subjecting future minor leaguers to Defendants’ illegal wage and labor practices.”
Major League Baseball disputes the allegations. League officials argue that minor league baseball was conceived to be more of a stepping stone, or a de facto internship, toward the majors, where players make millions. They argue the minor leagues were never intended to be a career.
The value of grassroots baseball and our stewardship of the game needs to be protected against the onslaught of these suits.
Stan Brand, executive director of Major League Baseball
Stan Brand, MLB’s executive director, has vowed to fight the lawsuit and has pushed for changes in Congress.
“In the coming year, we will be seeking legislation to clarify that professional baseball players are not covered by these federal wage and hour laws,” Brand told a packed ballroom of minor league team owners and executives in 2015.
Brand urged those in the room “to heed the clarion call, man the battle stations and carry the message to Congress loudly and clearly: The value of grassroots baseball and our stewardship of the game needs to be protected against the onslaught of these suits.”
Such a bill was introduced by U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, a Democrat from Illinois, and U.S. Rep. Brett Guthrie, a Republican from Kentucky.
The bill, titled Save America’s Pastime Act, would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 to add “any employee who has entered into a contract to play baseball at the minor league level” to the list of employees exempted from federal minimum wage and maximum hour requirements. Existing law exempts “any employee employed by an establishment which is an amusement or recreational establishment...if (A) it does not operate for more than seven months in any calendar year.”
In July, several weeks after the bill was introduced, Bustos withdrew her support, saying that while she thought it was important to sustain the minor league teams that provide an economic boost to many small communities across the country, she could not support legislation that did so at the expense of the players that draw fans to the stadiums.
“Whether it’s on the factory floor, in classrooms or on the playing fields of one of America’s revered traditions, I strongly support raising the minimum wage and the right to collective bargaining for fair wages,” Bustos said.
In North Carolina, where there are nine minor league baseball teams including the Carolina Mudcats in Zebulon and the Durham Bulls, a similar bill was introduced in May that would have allowed minor league owners to pay players less than minimum wage and not be subject to overtime rules.
Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, a Republican from Cabarrus County who introduced the bill in the Senate, said the exemption had been requested by minor league team owners but could also apply to workers at amusement parks and other seasonal venues.
A lobbyist for minor league baseball told legislators at a committee meeting in May that team owners had not requested the minimum wage restrictions, but had sought a provision that would have clarified overtime rules for salaried workers at stadiums.
The proposal, Senate Bill 363, was referred to a committee.
Meanwhile, the coming end of the minor league baseball season will force many players to decide whether to stick it out another year. Most of them won’t fulfill their major league dreams; a Baseball America study in 2013 showed that only one in six draft picks make it to the majors for at least one day.
Senne was not among them. Injuries forced him to retire in early 2013 while he was playing for the Jupiter Hammerheads, a Class A-Advanced team for the Marlins in the Florida State League.