“Some guys literally lose money to play minor league baseball,” former Clubhouse staffer Greg Larson tells Boardroom.
Hitting a baseball is one of the hardest things to do in sports. For many minor league baseball players, however, making contact is the easy part; the toughest challenges lay off the field simply trying to make ends meet.
Greg Larson witnessed the epic highs and devastating lows of life in the minor leagues firsthand. In his new book, Clubbie: A Minor League Baseball Memoir, he shines light on the struggles he saw many players endure day to day over the course of his time as a clubhouse attendant with the Aberdeen Ironbirds, the Baltimore Orioles’ High-A affiliate.
From grueling training and professional uncertainty to the isolated locales in which they often find themselves at the lower levels, players are forced to confront a range of concerns far beyond hitting a 95 MPH heater.
“Housing is one of the biggest stressors for a minor leaguer,” Larson told Boardroom. “They’re constantly moving around between teams, almost always paying rent in their home city already, which they can barely afford on their salaries.”
In the past, minor league ballers found themselves on friends’ couches or with host families. But over the last year, the housing issue got even harsher as host families disappeared due to pandemic concerns. Currently, the Houston Astros are the only team to provide furnished apartments for its minor league baseball players, a move that Larson said he hopes other teams will emulate.
The poor pay of minor league baseball players has been a topic of discussion for some time, but it is only one facet of the minor league struggle. In his decade in the clubhouse, Larson observed that there was a stark gap in the way he and his counterparts were treated as compared to the players themselves. While Larson was provided with a free (but unfurnished) apartment, he would often host as many as four players on blow-up mattresses in his living room.
“It was weird and brutal and odd how everyone accepted this way of living as ‘just the way we do things in minor league baseball,'” he said.
These experiences inspired him to write the book.
In the big picture, while compensation for minor league baseball players has risen between 38-72% over the last few years, players continue to struggle to get by. The average minor leaguer makes around $1,600 per month, but for players who fall out of the first few rounds of the draft, signing bonuses tend to be pretty meager.
As a result, baseball loses out on elite athletes like Kyler Murray and Russell Wilson — the Seahawks quarterback and Super Bowl champ was a fourth-round pick of the Colorado Rockies in the 2010 MLB Draft, and made $1,200 per month before circling back to college to play football.
We all know how that turned out.
“Within three seasons of being drafted by the Seahawks, he won a Super Bowl, started dating Ciara, and signed an $87 million contract,” Larson said. “If he’d stayed in the minors, in that same timeframe he would’ve been making less than $10,000 per season and sleeping in a living room with two other guys. With those options, who in their right mind would choose minor league baseball?”
As for Murray, the Cardinals quarterback was the ninth overall pick by the Oakland Athletics in the 2018 draft. Although he secured a $4.6 million signing bonus big enough to secure financial stability for a number of years to come, the day-to-day life of a minor leaguer parlayed with a meager in-season salary couldn’t compete with the promise of what football had to offer.
Count Larson among those not waiting around for the MLB league office to address this broader issue.
“I don’t believe [MLB Commissioner] Rob Manfred actually cares about the well-being of minor leaguers. To me, any changes they make to improve the lives of minor leaguers is little more than a PR stunt,” he said.
Larson estimates that 95% of minor league baseball players struggle to make ends meet. Even the top prospects can expect to spend a handful of years in development. In a recent episode of Boardroom’s “Out of Office” podcast, retired ace CC Sabathia told Rich Kleiman that his time in the minors was the most difficult of his career, citing his youth, the distance from his family, and a general sense of uncertainty of what his future held.
“No exaggeration, some guys literally lose money to play minor league baseball,” Larson added, pointing out that even the players who are drafted in the first 10 rounds and secure a six-figure signing bonus could quickly see that money dwindle down to nothing.
And then, there’s everyone else — the later-round guys whose signing bonuses were tiny to begin with.
“I think fans don’t realize how many guys are just cannon fodder,” he told Boardroom. “I believe most teams think of the minor leagues like this: they’re designed for the top prospects (or “Bonus Babies”) and nobody else; all other players are employed for the sole purpose of training for the Bonus Babies. If a few of those cannon fodder organization guys actually make the Show, it’s an unexpected mitzvah for everyone. Otherwise, they’re chewed up, given a few bucks for their trouble, and sent on their way.”
For many players, the off season is not just time to train, it is the time to find another job and save up enough to pursue their dream when Opening Day comes back around. The weight of having to make the decision between pursuing your dream and making a livable wage is one that most wouldn’t expect a professional athlete to face.
“I saw coaches sleeping in the clubhouse to save money instead of buying a hotel room,” Larson said. “I saw tons of guys eat nothing but fast food. Most of them coached little kids in the offseason to make ends meet.”
For Larson, this wasn’t just lore. One summer in order to save money and keep his own dream alive, he slept in his office. With that, Larson acknowledges the struggle is a choice. While the option of a traditional nine-to-five is always available, there is just something about the minor league experience that keeps guys around despite the struggles.
“The world of minor league baseball is exactly as awesome as it is awful,” Larson explained. “There’s a reason we all keep going back for more, both on the field and in the stands: because minor league baseball is a uniquely American magic.”
The formula for major league success is a delicate combination of skill, mental toughness, and durability that is very difficult to calibrate. But each year a new class reports to spring training in hopes that they’ll one day reflect on their struggles as a badge of honor, a reminder of what they endured before they became one of the greats.