Amid mounting pressure from players and advocacy groups, Major League Baseball said on Sunday it will require teams to provide housing for minor league players starting in 2022.
While MLB has yet to outline its plan formally, six team officials told ESPN they are starting to prepare to help house players across each of their four minor league affiliates. In mid-September, owners from the league's 30 teams agreed unanimously to a plan that would provide housing for certain minor league players, the league said in a statement. Whether they will offer stipends that fully cover housing or provide the lodging itself has yet to be decided, sources said.
Minor league players have grown increasingly outspoken about their working conditions, criticizing teams for salaries that leave some below the poverty line, and the financial issues that stem from having to provide their own housing for home games. The emergence of groups Advocates for Minor Leaguers and More Than Baseball, their use of social media to highlight the living conditions of minor league players and the willingness of players to talk on the record about their experiences illuminated issues about which players have spoken privately for years.
"This is a historic victory for minor league baseball players," Harry Marino, executive director of Advocates of Minor Leaguers and a former minor league player, told ESPN. "When we started talking to players this season about the difficulties they face, finding and paying for in-season housing was at the top of almost every player's list. As a result, addressing that issue became our top priority."
In a statement, the league said in part: "MLB is engaged in a multi-year effort to modernize the minor league system and better assist players as they pursue their dreams of playing in the Major Leagues. In 2021, we increased the salaries for minor league players by 38-72%, depending on level, and significantly reduced travel requirements during the season. In addition, hundreds of millions of dollars worth of improvements to minor league ballparks around the country are already underway, including substantial renovations to player-facing facilities like locker rooms and training rooms."
Momentum toward providing housing at the team level already was increasing behind the scenes, sources told ESPN. Multiple teams were discussing following the lead of the Houston Astros, who this season covered lodging for all their minor league players at home and on the road. Other teams offered rooms or stipends at certain affiliates.
The total cost for a team to house all minor league players at home for one season, according to two executives whose teams had explored doing so before the league pursued its mandate, is less than $1 million. Though the minor leagues especially are populated with small towns and lower rents, they also include some of the most expensive cities in the country, such as Brooklyn, the High-A affiliate of the New York Mets, and San Jose, the Low-A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants.
Even in locations with lower rent, minor league players often pile into small apartments and sleep on air mattresses because their wages can't provide more. Some players say they have spent nights in their cars or at stadiums when they could not afford a hotel. Others have trouble securing apartments, whether because of low income or nonexistent credit, and spent a majority of their paycheck on hotels, where teams' discounted rates barely lessen the burden.
The physical toll is clear. The mental issues only compound the problems. When players are promoted, organizations typically will provide them a hotel room for a few days, then expect them to arrange housing themselves. Between procuring new accommodations and figuring out how to extract themselves from old ones, players say housing is the most acute problem for minor leaguers.
That would not be the case, according to players, were salaries higher. With signing bonuses between domestic and international players topping $450 million in 2021, not all face financial issues. But after taxes, the majority of players' salaried take-home pay is minuscule.
Salary increases for minor leaguers this season bumped their minimum pay from $290 to $500 a week at Class A, from $350 to $600 a week in Double-A and from $502 to $700 a week for Triple-A. For a full season, Class A players receive at least $12,000, Double-A players $14,400 and Triple-A players $16,800. Some veterans -- especially those with major league service time -- receive higher salaries.
"Most Minor Leaguers make less than $15,000 per year and won't receive their next paycheck until April," Marino said. "For the next six months, they will spend hours each day training -- as required by contract -- while trying to balance second and third jobs to make ends meet. Like housing six players in a two-bedroom apartment, this is a broken model from a bygone era. Minor leaguers will not rest until they receive the livable annual salary they deserve."
Minor league players were exempted from federal minimum-wage and overtime rules by the Save America's Pastime Act, a House bill that failed amid widespread criticism in 2016 but was written into law nearly 2,000 pages into a 2018 omnibus spending bill. A class-action lawsuit filed by players alleging they were underpaid and not provided overtime remains in the court system after the United States Supreme Court denied MLB's attempt to dismiss the case.
The housing mandate will be the latest change in a minor league system that has undergone a drastic reimagining in the last year. MLB cut 42 affiliates as part of a restructuring of its development pipeline to 120 teams, saying players would be paid more, travel less and work in better conditions. Critics said the loss of affiliated baseball in smaller cities made the game less accessible and provided fewer opportunities for players to climb to the major leagues.
The outcry strengthened the resolve of More Than Baseball, which provided housing grants to minor league players this season, and Advocates for Minor Leaguers, which has built a groundswell of support with a barrage of social media posts. Minor league players, who are not part of a union, have discussed organizing to further assist with improving their working conditions, according to sources.
"It was this unprecedented behavior -- minor league players unifying and utilizing their collective voice -- that ultimately upset the status quo," Marino said.
While the Major League Baseball Players Association does not represent minor league players, some of its rank-and-file members have shown public support for the causes espoused by the advocacy groups. Multiple players, including Philadelphia's Andrew McCutchen, Baltimore's Trey Mancini, Chicago's Jason Heyward and Los Angeles' Chris Taylor, have worn a wristband distributed by Advocates for Minor Leaguers that includes the inscription "#FairBall".