The mattresses on the floor

2019-12-23 MiLBThings were quite interesting in 1935. Porky Pig (on screen) and Fibber McGee & Molly (on radio) premiered. Amelia Earhart became history’s first human to fly solo from Hawaii to New York. Bill Wilson founded Alcoholics Anonymous. Babe Ruth played his last major league game. The Phillies and the Reds played the Show’s first night game. The Tigers won the World Series.

And a bellettrist of the time—a former semi-professional baseball player, turned Episcopalian priest, turned journalist and eloquent sociopolitical critic, the work for which he’s remembered best, if at all, outside a small but devoted transgenerational following—delivered his signature critique against eroding the distinction between proper, unobtrusive government and the improper, to a fare-thee-well intrusiveness of the State.

Early in chapter one of Our Enemy, the State, Albert Jay Nock isolated rather lyrically his interpretation of the State’s approach to its subjects (we can hardly call it regarding them as citizens):

The State has said to society, You are either not exercising enough power to meet the emergency, or are exercising it in what I think is an incompetent way, so I shall confiscate your power, and exercise it to suit myself . . . The accumulation of State power in various countries has been so accelerated and diversified within the last twenty years that we now see the State functioning as telegraphist, telephonist, match-peddler, radio operator, cannon founder, railway builder and owner, railway operator, wholesale and retail tobacconist, shipbuilder and owner, chief chemist, harbour maker and dockbuilder, housebuilder, chief educator, newspaper proprietor, food purveyor, dealer in insurance, and so on through a long list . . . [T]he competition of social power with State power is always disadvantaged, since the State can arrange the terms of competition to suit itself, even to the point of outlawing any exercise of social power whatever in the premises; in other words, giving itself a monopoly.

Leave it to a one-time baseball player to point over the fence, hit one right to the spot, and have it unheeded, largely, for eighty-four years hence, to the point where the State of Nock’s suspicions stands potentially to become baseball’s commissionership, at least, if not its operator. And leave it to another former player, who spent shy of a decade in the majors, to pick up the warning and heed it, even if he doesn’t know and probably hasn’t read the Nockian critique.

“The courts are reviewing a case that brought to light the below-poverty-level wages that many minor league players earn,” writes former outfielder Doug Glanville, whose career included time with the Cubs, the Phillies, and the Rangers, in The Athletic. “The salary to qualify for poverty is just over $12,000, and the players bringing the lawsuit are citing the fact that a significant number of players make $7,500 a year or less for a full minor league season.”

Forty-five former minor leaguers signed onto the lawsuit, which seemed thwarted when Congress approved the Save America’s Pastime Act in 2018. Among other things, as phrased by the University of Colorado Law Review, the Act

(I)nsulate(s) its minor-league pay practices from legal challenge after they had become the subject of a federal class-action lawsuit alleging that the league’s teams failed to pay minor-league players in accordance with the Fair Labor Standards Act’s (FLSA) minimum-wage and overtime provisions. The SAPA helps shield MLB from these claims by creating a new statutory exemption largely excluding most professional baseball players from the protections of the FLSA.

Glanville says the lawsuit action didn’t “register” with him in the beginning, him having been a bonus signing and believing as he did that the minors were “just a pit stop” en route his complete lack of doubt that he would get to the Show:

It’s not meant to sustain you while you take care of a family, or pay real rent . . . right? It was the money you collect when you crack open that Monopoly box, play money. Go see a movie, go to the club, it’s just a glorified stipend until the real money comes in, which of course is inevitable. Do people actually live on this? Don’t we all just go home to Mom’s house when the season is over?

But Glanville knows he was one of the absolute minority who make it to the majors for however long their careers prove to be. “Former teammates who didn’t make it through are on the other side of the tracks,” he writes. “And if you never switch off the minor-league track, you just glide along the rainbow and right off a cliff. The vast majority of these players never get out of this theme park of poverty. Some may get on a big-league roster, make a decent Triple-A salary, but that is still an elite group. Most end up as filler — and many decision-makers already knew that about certain players well in advance.”

The Show seems now to be in several places regarding the minors. One place is pondering whether to eliminate 42 teams for assorted reasons, economic and otherwise. Another place is pondering how to remedy the Monopoly money otherwise, particularly after the Blue Jays last May raised the salaries of their minor league players by half. Indeed, baseball’s government said this about that when that happened:

While each Club makes its own decisions regarding minor league salaries, the Office of the Commissioner is presently in negotiations with the National Association of Professional Baseball on the terms of a new agreement between the Major Leagues and the Minor Leagues to replace the agreement that expires in September 2020. The working conditions of minor league players, including their compensation, facilities and benefits, is an important area of discussion in those negotiations.

But Glanville delivers a subtle warning shot to those such as him who made it to the Show and stay for longer terms and bigger dollars:

It appears these court cases, and perhaps some political figures, could be about to change that. MLB players may not notice any significant changes in their pocket books, but minor league players may be able to afford more than a mattress on the floor.

Maybe, one day soon, big leaguers will push for the answer to the question they did not think was worth asking. Only then will minor league players be compensated as true professionals who have a future, regardless of whether they make it to the major leagues.

We’ve romanced the minor league experience often enough, thanks to such films as Long Gone and Bull Durham. We’ve cracked up over their hijinks and not always stopped to ponder the mattresses on the floor. Often as not the current grapple between major league commissioner Rob Manfred and minor league baseball seems like a bid to tell the minors hey, we’ll solve your problem for you—we’ll kill part of you.

Glanville isn’t wrong to suggest today’s major leaguers should consider what was once their own existence as they aimed toward the Show themselves. Theirs could be gilt-edged pressure. They weren’t all big bonus children and they aren’t all nine-figure earners, but they might think about twenty percent of a single year’s minimum major league salary equaling above-poverty-line salaries for ten to twenty sub-AAA minor leaguers apiece.

That’s something for the Major League Baseball Players Association to ponder for themselves: if the Show won’t redress the mattresses on the floor of its own volition, the union certainly could. It would be one of the greatest good-will gestures any labour union ever delivered, but particularly a union representing workers whose products just so happen to be themselves. (Quick: When was the last time you paid your way into the ballpark to see the team’s owners?)

While they are at it, if they choose to be at it, they might also re-consider what no less than the late Marvin Miller himself eventually called one of his biggest mistakes: the Players Association allowing a 1980 pension re-alignment that froze (at the time) over eight hundred players with extremely short Show careers between 1947-1979 out of pensions while shortening the qualifying time for Show players incumbent and to come.

Now, refer back to Glanville writing, “these court cases, and perhaps some political figures” opening the eyes of Show players and administrators. Refer to your own experiences following baseball teams that aren’t always operated with smarts to match their vault contents. Then, remind yourself what Mr. Nock knew when the State’s camel pokes its nose into the tent. You have only so long before the nose is in too far to drive back out without a battle leaving things worse, and further beyond the game’s control, than they might have been.

We almost don’t have to ask what the State’s operation if not ownership of assorted enterprises doesn’t deliver. Describing it as ten-thumbed is polite. The last thing anyone in or who loves baseball should desire, in terms of operatorship if not ownership, is the State making literal the National Pastime. “Some political figures” poking their noses into the tents threaten just that.

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