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Anthony Shew (right) fist bumps fellow pitcher Adam Wainwright while playing for the minor league Springfield Cardinals. As a minor league player, Shew isn't subject to federal minimum wage and overtime requirements.

Anthony Shew (right) fist bumps fellow pitcher Adam Wainwright while playing for the minor league Springfield Cardinals. As a minor league player, Shew isn't subject to federal minimum wage and overtime requirements. Courtesy: Anthony Shew

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This week, we’re talking about baseball. Specifically, Major League Baseball’s “farm system” (i.e., the minor leagues), and how a lot of players earn less than the equivalent of minimum wage and don’t get paid overtime. That seemed worth looking into.

So our producer Peter Balonon-Rosen got to work and learned some fascinating things. Like, for one, the MLB has a government-sanctioned monopoly in the professional baseball industry. Without competitors, the league doesn’t really have to offer competitive wages to attract the most highly skilled players. MLB is the only game in town. Also, the league calls its minor league players “trainees,” another type of worker in that category we’ve talked about a lot this season: “nonemployees.”

These athletes live in overcrowded apartments, sleep on air mattresses, work side jobs and often don’t have enough money to eat healthfully. The MLB says it’s a fair trade-off because the minor leagues, which they describe as a “seasonal apprenticeship,” let players get a shot at a major league career. It’s similar to the arguments you often hear about unpaid internships. 

The MLB makes a lot of money off its minor league franchises, which raises some questions. Like, is unpaid labor OK if it’s providing an opportunity for someone to pursue their passion professionally? And what if only the smallest percentage of people given that opportunity will ever make it to the big time? 

We take a deep look at how the baseball industry has gotten around providing minimum wage and overtime to its workforce as we explore this thing we used to call employment: what happened to it, why it happened and what this new kind of workforce means for the American dream. 

For even more of “The Uncertain Hour,” subscribe to our newsletter! Each week we’ll bring you a note from host Krissy Clark and explain some terms that have come up in our reporting. This week’s phrase is: Save America’s Pastime Act.

Here’s additional reading and material we used in our research:

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