Garrett Broshuis remembers heading from the diamond to the locker room back in April 2009 when his coach called him into the office. Broshuis’s knees seemed to register the significance of the invite as quickly as his brain, causing the six-foot-two-inch pitcher to wobble awkwardly. Having spent five years in the San Francisco Giants farm system, Broshuis knew it was never a good thing to be called into the coach’s office, especially on the last day of spring training.
“I was basically told that I didn’t have a future in the Giants organization,” recalls the ex-athlete, who, as a pitcher for the University of Missouri–Columbia Tigers, went 11-0 his senior year, tying a school record. But the Giants didn’t completely sever ties with Broshuis that day. Instead, the organization gave him the option to ride out the season as a “filler,” a sparring partner of sorts for guys who — unlike him — might actually have a shot at the bigs.
Broshuis (pronounced BRUSH-house) decided to play on. For one, he wasn’t quite ready to give up on the dream he’d held since his days as a Little League star back in the small southeastern Missouri town of Advance. Also, he needed his minor-league paycheck, even if what he earned was a pittance.
When the Giants scooped Broshuis up in the fifth round of the 2004 draft, the club threw in a handsome $160,000 signing bonus — an amount that would prove to be more than he’d ever earn in wages while toiling for the organization’s minor-league affiliates. Throughout his entire six years within the farm system, Broshuis figures his hourly pay was less than minimum wage.
In that final season playing for the Giants’ double-A affiliate, the former Connecticut Defenders, Broshuis spent long bus rides up and down the East Coast studying for the LSAT. Law school, he hoped, would offer him what baseball — the minors, anyway — could not: a career that could provide for him and his family. Moreover, law school might offer him a chance to right a wrong in minor-league paychecks.
Now, five years after hanging up his cleats, Broshuis has returned to baseball, albeit in a manner much different from before. Last March the newly minted attorney — just a year out of Saint Louis University School of Law — filed a first-of-its-kind class-action lawsuit against Major League Baseball, alleging that it is in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act for routinely paying minor-league players less than minimum wage and denying them overtime wages.
“Since minor-leaguers do not belong to a union, nothing has prevented [MLB] from artificially and illegally depressing minor-league wages,” states the suit, which includes at least one player from all 30 Major League teams.
In baseball parlance, the legal claim is the equivalent of a 95-mph brushback pitch, and Bud Selig and others at the commissioner’s office aren’t the only ones who have taken note. In the past six months, scores of media outlets as diverse as the Wall Street Journal and Mother Jones have written about Broshuis and his David-versus-Goliath fight against MLB.
It’s not exactly how the ex-ballplayer imagined he’d make a name for himself in the sport he loves, but it may eventually benefit the game more than any of his on-field accomplishments ever could — and, if successful, might lead Broshuis to his ultimate goal of unionizing minor-league baseball.
During his days with the Giants organization, the right-handed Broshuis was known as a control pitcher whose outs came via his pinpoint accuracy and varied velocity. For a couple years he was rated as having the best control of all pitchers in the Giants farm system, and he was named the organization’s co–pitcher of the year in 2005. Other prospects in the club’s system at the time included guys who’ve gone on to great success in the majors, including Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and last year’s World Series MVP, Madison Bumgarner.
Yet despite earning a few accolades during his professional career, Broshuis had learned pretty quickly that the minor-league lifestyle was far different from the glamour of the majors. In his rookie ’04 season with the Giants’ high-A affiliate in San Jose, Broshuis earned $850 a month (first-year players in the minors now earn $1,100 monthly) and typically worked ten hours a day, he says, when factoring in games, practice, and requisite training and instruction sessions. After taxes and mandatory clubhouse dues to pay for meals and laundry services, Broshuis took home $730 a month. Boil it all down — the 60-hour workweeks and the $730 paycheck — and Broshuis averaged about $3 an hour in take-home pay.
During that first year in San Jose,
Broshuis paid a host family $100 a month for a bedroom, a futon, and access to the fridge. Such accommodations were a luxury compared to the air mattresses and moldy apartments he would become accustomed to at the higher levels of the minors.
“I have a lot of respect for the people that do that,” he says of host families. “Given what they pay minor-league players, it’s almost impossible to pay the full amount of rent for an apartment, especially in some cities where the cost of living is very high. If you don’t have host families, you just couldn’t make it.”
Broshuis’s salary increased each year, but not by much. He doesn’t remember exactly how much he made during the final year of his career, 2009, but he adds that without the six-figure signing bonus, it would have cost him money to play.
“If I wouldn’t have had it, I don’t know how I would have lived,” Broshuis says of the bonus. “When you’re only making $5,000 to $10,000 for your salary the entire year, you gotta cut into that, but I stretched it out and lived very frugally.”
Frugally indeed, as Broshuis’s wife, Alicia, can attest. She recalls going with her then-boyfriend and his roommates as they signed a lease for an apartment after spring training one year. When the apartment manager asked for a down payment and $1,000 for the first month’s rent, Broshuis and his roommates looked at each other. None of them could cover it.
“Those first few years [in double-A], I was the one who paid the down payment and first month’s rent, because they don’t make any money during spring training,” Alicia Broshuis says. “They have absolutely no way that they can pay for it, because usually they burn through any money that they earned in the offseason during spring training.”
Minor-leaguers are contractually required to attend spring training, but they are not paid for it.
In his off time, Broshuis tried to find other opportunities to supplement his income. He gave pitching lessons to kids and wrote a regular column, “The Suitcase Chronicles,” about life as a minor-leaguer, for Baseball America. He used the forum to muse on issues such as the relationship between veteran and rookie players, anxiety over the looming possibility of getting cut, the transition from starting pitcher to bullpen arm, and autograph etiquette.
The bookish Broshuis also distinguished himself among his teammates by his choice in reading material. He recalls having his nose in a Charles Dickens novel on a road trip when one of his coaches walked past him on the way to the toilet in the back of the bus.
“Dickens? Who the hell is Dickens?!” the coach wanted to know.
It was during his final season in the minors that Broshuis also read Don Wollett’s Getting on Base: Unionism in Baseball. After finishing the book, Broshuis reached out to Wollett, the late labor law professor and attorney, and the two hatched a plan to try to organize a minor-league players union. Broshuis set up a private Facebook page and met with teammates off the field to discuss unionizing — but no one wanted to put his neck on the line.
“Guys were, as you can imagine, very reluctant to do anything that would upset that status quo, because they don’t want to jeopardize their dream,” he says. “Everybody would say, ‘Yeah, something’s gotta be done,’ and then all of a sudden you say the word ‘union,’ and they’re like, ‘Well, I don’t know if I want to take that step.’ ”
Such a reaction doesn’t surprise Lee Lowenfish, a baseball academic and author of The Imperfect Diamond: A History of Baseball’s Labor Wars.
“Baseball has been an all-or-nothing situation for a long time,” he says. “For a minor-leaguer to ask for more money would be tantamount to ending his career before it started.”
It was after he left the game that Broshuis found players — particularly ex-players — who were more than willing to express their distaste for the system.
Ryan Hutson is one. The six-foot-two first baseman was drafted in the 36th round by the Mets in 2011, and played for two months in the short-season Gulf Coast League — the lowest level of the minors — before being tossed into baseball limbo, also known as extended spring training, the following season.
Hutson, a plaintiff in Broshuis’s lawsuit, worked diligently in the offseason. He dedicated several hours a day to a routine laid out in the hundred-page workout manual the Mets sent home with every minor-leaguer. He juggled his exercise regimen with part-time jobs at Dick’s Sporting Goods and State Farm, saving as much as he could in anticipation of the upcoming two-month spring training where he would make nothing.
But the invitation to camp never came. Instead, as the Mets readied their rosters, Hutson was asked to attend extended spring training — the equivalent of a college waitlist.
Extended spring varies from team to team, but the two-month session is seen by most players as a prison sentence. Hutson says his days typically began at 6:30 a.m., when a shuttle would take him to the stadium from the hotel where he lived. As one of about 100 players, Hutson says a hierarchy that translated to attention from coaches became clear to him immediately.
“Certain players were given more attention than others,” he says. “The coaches have their agenda, and they know the players they’re going to work with. If you’re not on their radar, then you don’t get that one-on-one time with them.”
Hutson wasn’t paid during that time, and after living paycheck-to-paycheck during the previous season, he dipped into money he made working in the offseason. The situation, he says, was “not far from hopeless.”
Jason Wood, a sports agent who represents major- and minor-league ballplayers, confirms that many of the latter lose money while plying their trade.
“If they don’t get a significant signing bonus, minor-league baseball can cost money when you factor in equipment, food, transportation, and rent,” says Wood.
Joe Muich can speak to that. The former Yankee-farmhand catcher signed for $10,000 in 2005. By 2007, after making “peanuts” ($850 and then $1,100 a month) in the first two years of his career, he accrued thousands of dollars in credit card debt and his student loan payments started coming due.
“I was living dirt-cheap,” Muich says. During his four-year minor-league career, Muich never slept in a bedroom or on a real mattress. To save money, he and three or four other guys piled into two-bedroom apartments, and Muich volunteered to set up his air mattress in the living room in exchange for a smaller share of the rent.
“I rarely ate out, and I’d send as much money as I could back home to help my fiancée pay for our apartment,” he says. “And my dad was paying the monthly payments on my student loans while I was still playing.”
The thousands of dollars in debt and loan payments represent the price minor-leaguers pay to chase their dreams. Although Muich never thought of the minors as a career — but rather as a stepping-stone to the majors, where he might make some serious coin — he doesn’t believe the cost should be that high.
“It’s a weird situation, because teams have a lot of power over you,” he says. “They decide if you make it or not, so they decide what they want to pay you. Meanwhile, you’re accruing credit card debt and sleeping on air mattresses in living rooms.”
Wood concedes that minor-leaguers shouldn’t be getting wealthy, but adds that, for a $9 billion industry like MLB, he believes there is a compromise that would allow minor-leaguers to eat healthy, enjoy adequate room and board, and not go into debt.
$325 million, $100 million, $88 million. Great seeing guys getting paid–they deserve it–but put a little money into minor league salaries!
— Garrett Broshuis (@broshuis) November 25, 2014
To understand the caste system in baseball, one need only look at iconic Brooklyn Dodgers executive Branch Rickey. While working in the St. Louis Cardinals front office from 1925 to 1942, Rickey urged the organization to purchase controlling interests in minor-league teams as a strategy to nab the best prospects without having to bid against wealthier teams such as the New York Yankees. Before Rickey, minor-league teams operated independently of Major League organizations.
Soon, the Cardinals owned entire leagues and could buy, sell, promote, or trade hundreds of players as they wished. Financial and on-field success immediately followed for the Cards, who took home their first World Series championship in 1926. By 1939 the organization owned 32 teams and controlled more than 650 players. Other teams soon followed Rickey’s lead. Since 1962, MLB has required all franchises to maintain at least five classes of minor-league teams, though most have contracts with seven or eight clubs at various levels and employ upward of 200 minor-league players.
The control that Rickey and Major League owners exerted over minor-league players at that time also extended to the big leagues. It wasn’t until the mid 1950s that the players formed a union — and not until the 1970s, with the advent of free agency, did major-league players have control over where they played.
Under the current system, the MLB Players Association — the union responsible for negotiating on behalf of Major Leaguers during collective bargaining discussions — only represents players on the 40-man Major League rosters. Collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) are negotiations between the league’s owners and players in which the sides settle on an arrangement as to how the league will operate. Like all the CBAs that have come before it, the last one (which was forged in 2012 and expires at the end of the 2016 season) left minor-league players without a voice in contract talks. Instead, the negotiations between the union and the owners in 2012 addressed issues such as the expansion of instant replay, drug testing, and changes to the amateur draft.
Although exact salaries are not made public, Broshuis’s lawsuit states that class-A minor-leaguers make $1,100 per month, class-AA players make $1,500 a month, and players in class AAA, the highest level, earn $2,150 a month. Those values represent a 75 percent increase from minor-league salaries in 1976, according to the lawsuit. During the same time period, Major League salaries rose 2,000 percent, and inflation rose 400 percent.
Of the four major U.S. sports leagues, only the National Football League does not have an affiliated minor league. Players in the National Basketball Association’s equivalent of a minor-league farm system, the NBA Development League, earn between $12,000 and $24,000 annually, according to reports.
Professional hockey players are unique in that their farm system is unionized. Those in hockey’s triple-A league earn a minimum of $42,375 a year, though the average player at that level makes around $90,000, says Larry Landon, executive director of the Professional Hockey Players’ Association, the sport’s minor-league union. The minimum salary for double-A-level hockey players is around $9,000, but Landon adds that the league supplies those players with furnished, rent-free apartments.
“The union is in a place where we’ve built relationships, and it’s a win for everybody involved,” says Landon, who doesn’t understand how minor-league baseball players remain without a voice at the bargaining table.
“Of all the sports that should have a union, minor-league baseball is the one,” he says, noting that the past two decades have been a windfall for professional baseball. According to Forbes, MLB revenue has increased sixfold since 1995, rising from $1.4 billion to $9 billion last year.
Michael Teevan, a spokesman for MLB, declined to comment on Broshuis’s lawsuit for this article, but Selig and MLB have filed a 78-page response to the suit that denies all allegations and lists 30 possible defenses. St. Louis sports attorney Dan Welsh sees a couple of those MLB pleadings as particularly problematic for Broshuis’s lawsuit.
First, MLB claims that it qualifies for an exemption to the Fair Labor Standards Act for “seasonal, recreational, and entertainment establishments” that operate less than seven months a year.
“In the event that these baseball players are going to be deemed as seasonal, amusement, recreational, and professional employees, then there goes the claim,” says Welsh, who spent a significant portion of his career as in-house counsel for the owners’ side of professional hockey.
A few cases in the 1990s challenged, with mixed results, the question of whether individual major- and minor-league teams qualify for the seasonal exemption. In 1995 a groundskeeper for the Sarasota White Sox lost a suit seeking overtime pay when the court ruled that he was subject to the seasonal-employee exemption. More recently, though, an appeals court ruled in 1998 that the Cincinnati Reds were not a seasonal employer because the team maintained a year-round staff of 120 workers and therefore was obligated to pay overtime to maintenance workers.
Yet Broshuis’s suit is different from those because it’s filed against MLB as a whole and not an individual team, which Saint Louis University law professor Marcia McCormick sees as an advantage.
“One of the really strong parts of this suit is that the contracts themselves are with Major League Baseball,” she says. “That makes it much more likely that the exemptions that would apply to individual teams won’t apply.”
MLB also argues in court filings that “certain training, travel, and commuting” mentioned in the Broshuis lawsuit does not qualify as hours worked under a player’s contract.
“Some of the hours being claimed as hours for wages, Major League Baseball contends are not really work pursuant to the definition of the statute,” notes Welsh. “We’re talking about training, weight-lifting, and offseason work.”
However, as Broshuis points out in the lawsuit, MLB’s uniform player contract “obligates player[s] to perform professional services on a calendar year basis, regardless of the fact that salary payments are to be made only during the actual championship season.”
At baseball’s annual Winter Meetings last month, Stan Brand, Minor League Baseball’s vice president, stood before team owners and delivered a passionate speech. Broshuis’s lawsuit, warned Brand, was a threat to
minor-league ball, and the best way to stop it was to formally add the leagues’ players to the few U.S. occupations (such as babysitters, home-based wreath makers, and newspaper delivery drivers) that are exempt from minimum-wage and overtime pay under the Fair Labor Standards Act.
“I do not want to overstate the threat this suit presents,” Brand told the baseball execs gathered in a San Diego ballroom. “But I think my honest assessment is that it is equally perilous for our future as the antitrust repeal was in the 1990s. So, once again, as I did then, I will ask you 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.”
Days later, Broshuis scoffs when discussing Brand’s fiery comments.
“It seems absurd that a $9 billion industry should lobby Congress for an exemption to minimum-wage laws,” says the attorney (who, despite his notoriety from the baseball lawsuit, spends most of his days working on securities litigation).
The minor-league vice president is also skeptical of Broshuis’s ultimate goal of unionization.
“It’s not a career,” Brand says. “It’s an opportunity to try to make it to the big leagues. It’s not like working on the shop floor for twenty years. It’s up or out.”
Still, the question Broshuis and thousands of minor-league players ask is, does that mean the players shouldn’t be paid a livable wage?
Next to Broshuis’s desk at the downtown St. Louis law firm of Korein Tillery hangs a plaque that recognizes his time as the editor in chief of the Saint Louis University Law Journal. Baseball memorabilia from his playing days — his draft letter and a photo of him being awarded that co–pitcher of the year honor from 2005 — lends the office some additional character.
A trial date for Broshuis’s lawsuit is still a long way off — 2017 — and the matter may never come before a jury.
“I can envision that Major League Baseball might be inclined to pay some dollars in exchange for avoiding the possibility of a ruling that might be unfavorable,” Welsh suggests.
Still, there’s no denying that Broshuis’s suit has already made an impact. Brand’s speech last month is proof of that. So, too, are the emails and Facebook messages Broshuis continues to receive from former players asking if they can opt in to the suit, as well as the notes from current players offering their support, even though they’re reluctant to participate.
“It’s great any time I get one of those emails, because it motivates me and reminds me why we’re doing this,” he says.
Since Broshuis first filed his lawsuit last March, other legal challenges regarding the payment of athletes and team employees have also made waves. Last August, football players at Northwestern University won the right to unionize, which could ultimately lead to the compensation of college athletes. In September the Oakland Raiders’ cheerleaders settled a class-action suit for $1.25 million in unpaid wages and won new contracts that will pay them an hourly rate of $9, up from the flat $125 per game. And just last month, attorneys in California filed another class-action suit against MLB challenging its antitrust exemption. The suit alleges that the reserve clause in minor-league baseball, which forces players to negotiate exclusively with the team that drafts them, illegally locks players into contracts and suppresses their wages.
That his former player has a leading role in the sea change currently washing over sports is of no surprise to Broshuis’s high school coach, Chuck Powers.
“He’s just one of those kids who’s very intelligent on and off the field,” says Powers, who compares Broshuis’s demeanor on the mound to that of the Cardinals’ high-intensity ace, Adam Wainwright. “If he had his mind set to something, he was going to be successful. That’s just his personality.”
And while Broshuis prepares for the discovery phase of his wage lawsuit against Major League Baseball, he’s ever mindful of what he originally set out to do when he was still a player — create a
“I can only hope that this lawsuit is the first step toward progress in the ultimate goal,” Broshuis says. “Hopefully this lawsuit emboldens guys to act collectively, that collectively they do have a larger voice than they do individually, and collectively they do have power.”