As Housing Crisis Grips Minor League Baseball, Non-Union Players Win Victories Through Organizing

Minor League Buffalo Bison players stand for the National Anthem ahead of a game (Getty Images)

All across minor league baseball this summer, players are finding themselves struggling with homelessness. 

Last weekend, one viral video by the Advocates for Minor Leaguers garnered over 160,000 views on Twitter by revealing how nearly a dozen Cardinals Double-A affiliate Springfield players were forced to sleep on the floor of a hotel banquet room while on the road.

They were traveling to San Antonio that night, but when it came time to sleep, they were told that there weren’t any rooms available to them.

In the past, many minor league players, some of whom make $500 a week, were housed by host families in small minor-league cities. But as a result of COVID, many of those host families have disappeared, leaving many minor leaguers struggling to find housing. 

However, the case with the Cardinals is another example of non-union minor league baseball players working with non-traditional labor groups like Advocates for Minor Leaguers to take action and demand that major league baseball do more to provide housing and fair wages for their minor league baseball players. 

“The housing situation in minor league baseball right now is nothing short of dire,” said Harry Marino, executive director of Advocates for Minor Leaguers and a former minor league pitcher himself.

This Memorial Day weekend, the Chicago Cubs’ low Single-A team, the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, also found themselves facing uncertainty about where they would sleep one night.

On the last day of a road trip, players were told there were no rooms available for them in the hotel they’d been staying at during previous homestands, in the popular beach town where their employers were based. Many debated sleeping on the benches and spare equipment in the cramped locker room of the Myrtle Beach Pelicans. 

Distressed, several players contacted the year-old Advocates for Minor Leaguers to see if they could help. Within an hour, Advocates for Minor Leagues (@MiLBAdvocates) blasted out a tweet to their followers, many of whom are baseball fans and players.

“Per multiple sources, the Myrtle Beach Pelicans were told they’d be ‘on their own’ in finding a place to sleep tonight because the team hotel is sold out,” they tweeted. “According to one source, at least a dozen players are planning to spend the night in the locker room.”

The tweet quickly amassed over 2,000 likes as baseball fans and former minor league players took to Twitter to blast the Chicago Cubs’ minor league organization. Within two hours, the Cubs’ minor league affiliate ensured all players had hotel rooms during the expensive holiday weekend. 

“We had two separate situations where teams — the Orioles and the Cubs affiliates — had put players in a situation where the players had uncertainty about where they were going to be able to sleep that night,” said Marino. “And in both cases, we publicize the situation. And within hours, the situation was resolved and the guys had hotel rooms to stay in for the night.” 

Increasingly, minor league players are allying with loyal baseball fans to pressure fans and teams en-masse to improve conditions for minor leaguers. 

This year the players are particularly struggling to afford housing because fewer young minor leaguers, often immigrant ballplayers, are being placed with host families.

Under baseball rules, minor league teams are only required to provide housing when players are on the road. But when the team is playing in their home park, most teams require players to find their own housing for the night. 

Before COVID, teams regularly paired young minor league players with host families to help defray living costs. In some places, minor league teams even offered a small stipend for families to host the young minor league players who were making too little money, and often staying in a town for three to four months (when not on the road 50% of the time with their teams). 

Additionally, as Payday has learned, some immigrant ballplayers found the host families welcoming as they struggled with language skills in smaller American towns often in the American South. 

However, with COVID still affecting many, there are fewer host families. Instead, many minor league players are finding themselves struggling to pay for housing when they aren’t on the road, booking up six to seven players to an apartment, and sleeping on air mattresses. 

While some teams like the Houston Astros, the Philadelphia Phillies, the San Francisco Giants, and the Boston Red Sox have stepped up to the plate by offering to provide furnished apartments or provide a housing stipend, most teams still require players to pay for their own home field housing out-of-pocket, says Marino.  

Some teams with billionaire owners, like the New York Mets and Oakland A’s, have even demanded that players pay for all, or at least a portion, of their housing to stay in group-discounted rooms in team-designated hotels. 

SFGate reporter Alex Shultz’s analysis of bank statements of some Oakland A’s minor league players (at the Single-A affiliate Stockton Ports), found that they were paying more to stay at the team’s designated hotel on homestays than they were taking home in their paychecks. 

The homelessness situation has become so bad that Marino says some players have taken to sleeping in locker rooms and on the floors of the higher-paid top prospects. 

Advocates for Minor Leaguers is already drawing a lot of support from baseball fans, who are attacking teams on Twitter after seeing the @MiLBAdvocates tweets highlighting the abuse of minor league baseball players. 

The attacks are working as concern has grown among some major league officials who worry that their farm systems may be seen as unwelcoming places for future major leaguers. As a result, some people like billionaire New York Mets owner Steve Cohen are becoming more responsive to calls for the improvement of conditions for their minor leaguers. 

Despite the New York Mets having the richest owner in baseball with Cohen being worth $14 billion, the Mets have required minor league players at his Single-A Brooklyn affiliate to turn over 1/6th of their post-tax salary for housing. However, it would only cost the Mets a mere $50,000-a-year to provide all of his Single-A Brooklyn players with free housing. 

After the New York Daily News wrote a blistering article that cited Advocates for Minor Leaguers and attacked the Mets for asking their players to pay for a position of the housing, Cohen took to Twitter to defend himself and promise that the team would do better. 

“This was news to me and [I] want to be thoughtful and not reactive in my actions. We need to examine our treatment of coaches too,” Cohen tweeted in response to Advocates for Minor Leaguers tweeting the Daily News article. 

The response has led to a dialogue between Cohen and Advocates for Minor Leaguers that the organization hopes will deepen. 

Other teams have been receptive to public pressure as well. In just the last month,the Red Sox committed to providing housing stipends. Still, with many minor leaguers making only $500 a week at the lowest levels, Marino says that several teams will have to do more to treat their players right. 

“The fact that [the Astros] provided furnished apartments to their players this season, was a really significant step in the right direction,” said Marino. “You know, having said that, they’re still paying their players poverty-level wages.” 

The victories on housing issues have helped to build confidence that Advocates for Minor Leaguers could be a real organization by which non-union minor leaguers could finally engage in collective action to improve their working conditions.

“I’m very happy to see these changes being made in the right direction,” said Marino, “because for guys who, you know, make less than $15,000 a year, going into the clubhouse one day and hearing that you’re going to get an extra $1,500 or an extra $3,000 or whatever the case may be, you know, that’s a big deal.”

Given the growing solidarity of players and fans, as well as the sensitivity of owners who may be seen as undercutting the development of future superstars, Marino is confident that fights like the one over housing stipends will help players continue to build power. 

“Certainly I think when we put things out, and it gets a response, and the circumstances on the ground change, that really just shows players the benefits of collective action,” Marino said. “You know, advocates for minor leaguers didn’t invent collective action, we’re just the vessel through which these players can collectively act.”

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About the Author

Mike Elk
A protege of the late Bill Greider, Mike Elk is an Emmy-nominated labor reporter who covered the drug war in Brasil and spent years covering union organizing in the South for The Guardian. In 2016, he used his $70,000 NLRB settlement from being fired in the union drive at Politico to start the crowd-funded Payday Report. The son of United Electrical Workers (UE) Director of Organization Gene Elk, he lives in his hometown of Pittsburgh. Email: [email protected]

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