On Baseball and Critiquing Things You Love—Katherine Walden, Notre Dame

baseball in the dirt
Photo credit: Cindy Jones from Pixabay

Episode Notes

Katherine Walden is an assistant teaching professor of American studies at Notre Dame and an affiliated faculty member of the Notre Dame Technology Ethics Center. Her research employs data analysis, visualization, and interactive digital mapping to illustrate the scale and scope of Minor League Baseball labor, as well as the historical forces and labor structures that shape Minor League players’ working conditions.

Why Minor League Baseball? After all, the vast majority of baseball fans’ attention gets devoted to the likes of the Chicago Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals, Boston Red Sox, and the other 27 clubs that make up Major League Baseball.

But as Katherine points out, 90 percent of professional baseball players are actually Minor Leaguers, who for the most part grind out their days in relative anonymity. Her work has grown out of asking: What happens if we put that 90 percent at the center?

The answers give all of us who love our national pastime a lot to think about.


Episode Transcript

*Note: We do our best to make these transcripts as accurate as we can. That said, if you want to quote from one of our episodes, particularly the words of our guests, please listen to the audio whenever possible. Thanks.

Ted Fox  0:00  
(voiceover) From the University of Notre Dame, this is With a Side of Knowledge. I'm your host, Ted Fox. We started out as the show that invited scholars, makers, and professionals to brunch for informal conversations about their work. But last season, we needed to record remotely. This year, we're excited to be able to bring back in-person interviews while still taking advantage of the flexibility afforded by our remote setup. But whether we're literally sitting down with a guest or talking with them virtually from that trusty old walk-in closet, we hope you'll find that you're glad you stopped by. Thanks for listening.

To start season five, I grabbed a cup of coffee and headed to the courtyard outside Notre Dame's Hesburgh Library, right beneath the famous "Word of Life" mural on the building's south side. More popularly known as Touchdown Jesus, the mural is a fitting backdrop for a conversation about sports, which is what Katherine Walden and I met to talk about--albeit baseball rather than football. Katherine is an assistant teaching professor of American studies at Notre Dame and an affiliated member of the Notre Dame Technology Ethics Center. Her research employs data analysis, visualization, and interactive digital mapping to illustrate the scale and scope of Minor League Baseball labor, as well as the historical forces and labor structures that shape Minor League players' working conditions. Why Minor League Baseball? After all, the vast majority of baseball fans' attention gets devoted to the likes of the Chicago Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals, Boston Red Sox, and the other 27 clubs that make up Major League Baseball. But as Katherine points out, 90% of professional baseball players are actually Minor Leaguers, who for the most part grind out their days in relative anonymity. Her work has grown out of asking: What happens if we put that 90% at the center? The answers give all of us who love our national pastime a lot to think about. (end voiceover)

Katherine Walden, welcome to With a Side of Knowledge.

Katherine Walden  2:18  
Welcome, I'm glad to be here.

Ted Fox  2:20  
So I wanted--we're outside doing this interview, we were both laughing, doing this interview in person (Katherine laughs). The first one in a long time, I'm excited to be able to sit down with you face-to-face.

Katherine Walden  2:29  
People, what is this? Yes. 

Ted Fox  2:30  
(laughs) In the great outdoors. The first thing I wanted to ask you before we get into too much with baseball specifically, but this ties to that, is what is this idea of the Great Sport Myth?

Katherine Walden  2:44  

Ted Fox  2:44  
And then I guess, how do we see it play out with baseball specifically?

Katherine Walden  2:49  
So the idea of the Great Sport Myth, and I have to give credit to Jay Coakley, who's a sports sociologist who was one of the first folks to really use that term and come up with that idea, is the idea that--there's a lot packed into it. But the short version is, sports are always good. Sports are always positive things, they are moving us in positive progress directions. I think there's a lot to unpack in terms of what we mean by "positive," what we mean by "progress." But the idea that by participating in sports, watching sports, being involved with sports, we are kind of building our own character, building our sense of belonging, and all of that is moving us toward better places.

I think there's a lot to unpack there in terms of, you know, who do we mean by being involved in sport? What does that involvement look like? I think if we look more critically at sport history, especially as it relates to identity and power--that's globally, but especially in the United States--there are a lot of myths and a lot of narratives and a lot of stories that get baked into sport, both what we think it is, what we believe it is, what we hope it is, what we want and need it to be. And if we kind of peel back those layers and look at the material realities, what's actually happening boots on the ground, there are a lot of different stories and a lot of different voices that aren't always so positive and aren't always uplifting. And so this idea that sport is kind of this gem separated from our cruel world is one way of understanding the Great Sport Myth.

Ted Fox  4:18  
Right. And I would imagine that baseball ...

Katherine Walden  4:23  

Ted Fox  4:23  
... as the national pastime--I mean, I think a lot of people say, Well maybe football's the national pastime now--but when we talk about, I mean baseball holds really kind of a--I mean, it's what you're talking about. It holds a unique place in our history, in our imagination. We had the first-ever Field of Dreams game this season in MLB. So how do we see this idea of the Great Sport Myth play out with baseball specifically?

Katherine Walden  4:44  
Part of it is how we start to think of exactly like you said: baseball as the national pastime, the idea that it is uniquely American, that it's tied to our national history in ways that are--this connects with an idea called American exceptionalism. It's not just that America is different, but baked into that difference is, like, we're better, some level of superiority. And so when we map that onto baseball, when I'm teaching my Baseball in America class, which I love teaching--it's my favorite class, but don't tell anyone that (both laugh), as I'm saying it into a microphone--you know, this idea that baseball is different and unique, and then baked into that difference and uniqueness is a superiority. I love baseball, baseball will always be my sport. I grew up in St. Louis. So this idea that, you know, baseball brings these memories of childhood, family, home, ideas about kind of Americana or small-town America, there's a lot baked into it. So I think it's part of the history of how we understand baseball's place in US history. But also even the present, the associations that we have with baseball and how that relates to our identity, not just as individuals, but when we engage with community structures, our families, our towns, our regions, different identity groups that we're a part of. Baseball and baseball fandom gets inflected in all of these really complicated ways. I mean, there's so many layers to that. There's the idea baseball is this melting spot space for American immigrants. There's a lot to unpack there. The idea of baseball being the first sport to "integrate," and I'm using "integrate" in quotation marks because when I teach--again, when I teach this, I use the language of desegregation very intentionally. Baseball didn't integrate; it desegregated. So the idea that, you know, the Brooklyn Dodgers sign Jackie Robinson and baseball is this paragon of racial progress, raises some questions. (both laugh) Or leaves us with a lot to think about and talk about. So it's the past, it's the present, it's how we understand that history, how we understand its cultural significance. And that's both big picture, but that's also, you know, day-to-day baseball fandom.

Ted Fox  6:40  
I'm really glad because I wanted--if you hadn't made it, I was gonna make that point. Because I know after what you said, and I speak for both of us here: We're both big baseball fans. I'm a Red Sox fan mired in, What is going on with my team right now? But I think--I mean, it's such a good point that you can love something and also be critical of it and ask how it can be better.

Katherine Walden  7:00  
That's my speech for the last day of any class that I teach. So I teach a Football in America class, I teach a Sport and Big Data class, I teach a Baseball in America class, and my parting words to all of those classes that are about sports: We can love something deeply and still ask hard questions and want it to be better, want it to be more just, more equitable, more inclusive. I think those are contradictions that I've lived with for a while now as a baseball fan and someone who studies this critically. So the idea that we can love something and also critique it I think is uncomfortable, particularly when you're first kind of coming to live with that tension. But I think it moves us toward a more productive space.

Ted Fox  7:36  
I mentioned the Red Sox. You talked about St. Louis and the Cardinals. But much of your research is focused on professional baseball labor, and it's not at the Major League level.

Katherine Walden  7:45  

Ted Fox  7:45  
It's--which is what we always hear about. You know, Fernando Tatis Jr., 14 years, $330 million. We say, Oh my gosh, these guys make so much money.

Katherine Walden  7:54  
So much money. (laughs)

Ted Fox  7:56  
But you're looking at the Minor Leagues, which develop players--one in six according to some estimates that go onto play in the Majors. And I think we all have a sense that those guys make a lot less than the Major League players. But how much less do they make? And how is the compensation structured in Minor League Baseball?

Katherine Walden  8:16  
So to lay a little bit of the groundwork for folks who might not be familiar with this ecosystem. When we're talking about professional baseball, particularly in the United States, so this big umbrella of Major League Baseball, there are the teams that we might traditionally think of like the Boston Red Sox, the St. Louis Cardinals, Chicago Cubs, etc. So we have those 30 Major League franchises that get most of the national media coverage, most of the television broadcast and print coverage. But underneath all of that for almost 70, 80 years now, there's been a player development infrastructure called Minor League Baseball. So step one is when we're thinking about kind of US professional baseball, it's not just Major League Baseball; it's Major League Baseball and this whole ecosystem that takes players from high school, from college, from outside the United States and theoretically, ostensibly prepares them and moves them toward eventually being on the Major League teams. So for each Boston Red Sox, St. Louis Cardinals, historically, you know, you've had six to seven--that landscape has shifted in the last year, but we're just going to average kind of five to seven Minor League teams that exist in this hierarchical structure. So you have lower-level Minor League teams, upper-level Minor League teams. If you imagine kind of a big ladder with the Major League teams at the top, there's this vast ecosystem and infrastructure that very much outnumbers Major League Baseball in terms of number of teams and number of players. When you actually start doing the math, Major League teams and players constitute about 10% of this larger ecosystem.

So for me, and this is the way that this research started to emerge for me when I was actually an undergraduate student at Vanderbilt--you know, what happens if we look at the 90% and put that at the center, what questions emerge? How does that make us think about baseball labor, baseball history, baseball's cultural significance, radically different? Because, you know, when I was an undergraduate in Nashville, when I ended up being a graduate student at the University of Iowa, Minor League Baseball is all there was. Nashville has a AAA team. Up until about a little over a year ago, Iowa had five Minor League teams; I have visited them all. (Ted laughs) So in those moments where, you know, you might have fan attachments to Major League teams, but in terms of what's driving distance or what's in your backyard, it's Minor League Baseball, going to games and games and games and seeing, you know, the relationship of fans and community and small-town baseball. But also small-town baseball that has demographics that are often very different than the surrounding communities, especially in the rural Midwest. All kinds of questions surfaced for me. And being a nerd, which is what professors are most of the time, (Ted laughs) you know, I started looking at the research of sport history and sports sociology and people who'd written about baseball, and I didn't see people asking the questions that really fascinated me about Minor League Baseball. And the very short answer is I decided to.

So back to the original question about, you know, the compensation levels. So, one, Minor League players and teams outnumber Major League players by about a 90% ratio. So we're talking about a lot more people. And those players do not have access to a union. So Major League players since the '60s have had access to kind of a National Labor Relations Board-certified union. Unions are problematic, they are limited, they are not perfect, but they're what we have in the United States for workers to organize and advocate for their interests. Major League players recognized this. Well, they recognized it as early as the 1880s. But they finally did something about it in the 1950s and 60s. Major League players unionized, they had access to things like collective bargaining, salary minimums, grievance procedures, all of these things that come when you are part of a union and you have that mechanism available to advocate for yourself and your working conditions. Minor League Baseball players have never had that and still don't have that. So there are no legally defined salary minimums, there are no legally defined workplace protections in terms of there's no minimum wage for these people, there's no grievance procedures, no overtime, the kinds of workplace protections that, you know, you either have access to through a union or you have access to through being kind of an exempt employee. So a lot of different layers to get in there in terms of labor law, but 90% of people playing professional baseball in the US don't have access to the basic workplace protections that the rest of us do.

Ted Fox  12:37  
So in that compensation, just to further kind of tease it out for people: I know the relationship between Minor League teams and the Major League teams is kind of a weird kind of relationship. So is it right that the Major League teams are the ones that pay the players, even though they're currently playing on the Minor League team? (Katherine laughs) Is that right?

Katherine Walden  12:56  
Yes, this is something that has evolved over Minor League history and has actually changed a lot in the last year in terms of the relationship of Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball. But historically, Minor League teams were independently owned and operated, they would affiliate with Major League teams and franchises through--oh my goodness, player development contracts, I think that's the acronym. Although I might be wrong. It's either a player development agreement or player development contract; one of them's the contract, one of them's the franchising agreement. And I should know this, but here we are. (both laugh) So they would sign agreements. And these are kind of exhaustive documents that kind of spell things out to, we will pay this level of salary, we will pay for this many hotel rooms, we'll subsidize this percentage of travel costs, etc. So that's really been the norm for a while now. And to your point about salaries? Yes. Like, the precedent is that the Major League team covers both player salaries and coach salaries.

Ted Fox  13:52  
And I ask that just because it's, I mean, I think we, if you've been to a Minor League Baseball game, and you know, it's a small-town operation, I could see someone's initial thought being like, Well, these teams don't make very much money. But there's money coming from a much bigger pot. 

Katherine Walden  14:05  
Much bigger pot, much bigger pot, yeah. 

Ted Fox  14:05  
Which is Major League Baseball's pot. Or could be going to these players that's not. 

Katherine Walden  14:09  
Yeah. And to put the numbers in perspective here, the Major League salary minimum for last year was just shy of $600,000. So for someone who qualifies as a Major League player, which means, you know, you've signed a particular kind of contract, you've spent a certain number of years--they actually measure it in days kind of working in professional baseball. That's the starting point. But 90% of people never get to that point. And that's not even part of the conversation. So if we compare, like, NBA professional development leagues that are starting at, you know, salary, health benefits. The NHL is similar. That's a drastically different starting point in terms of what your time working toward an elite-level job looks like.

Ted Fox  14:51  
Because we can be talking about sub-minimum-wage levels. And I mean, I think people you know hear, Oh, professional baseball player, and you think--well, again, the ones that are making all that money, they're really the outlier top 10% in the MLB.

Katherine Walden  15:06  
They're the outlier top 10%, and when you look at kind of the Minor League ecosystem, you know, there are the salary numbers, but a big conversation this year has been housing costs. So if you start to do the math, if you're not making minimum wage or barely making minimum wage to start with, and you have to deal with a lot of housing instability in terms of your travel as well as you get moved across all these different teams, so the idea of being able to sign, like, a permanent lease just does not exist for these people. You know, we all should think about food costs and access to kind of utility resources. But for these folks, they're elite-level athletes, even at the Minor Leagues. You know, when you look at the numbers of people who play Little League Baseball, high school baseball, even college baseball, it is a fraction of those folks that even get to the Minor Leagues. So we're talking about, you know, even at the Minor Leagues, a very elite skill set. Obviously, you know, lower-level Minor Leagues to Major Leagues, there's still a difference, but they're still elite-level athletes. So things like training, nutrition, etc., all of that has to factor into the equation. And that's a very different equation if you're starting at just shy of 600,000 in terms of you don't have to get a second job in the offseason, you can train full time, you can hire a nutritionist, all sorts of things, that whole landscape changes.

Ted Fox  16:16  
Right. And if you're not a player drafted in an early enough round to have a large signing bonus--because I know that's again, we hear, like, top prospects get a large bonus. But those bonuses go on a sliding scale, and the farther you go down, then you have guys who really aren't getting much to supplement what they're making as a wage. And it's as you said, you're trying to do all these things with almost no money in your pocket.

Katherine Walden  16:39
Yep. And you know, when we're talking about the players that are born in the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico I think also falls under this kind of draft category--these players have a pretty highly regulated process by which they come into this professional baseball infrastructure. So like you talked about, there's a draft where they get selected. I think it's worth noting that, you know, when you are selected in the draft, you don't get to negotiate your talents on the free market. This is not a situation where someone on the Notre Dame baseball team who wants to play professional baseball, they're not able to go to all 30 Major League teams and say, Show me what you've got. They get selected, and that is their only option. We actually saw this happen in the most recent draft with Kumar Rocker out of Vanderbilt, an elite pitching prospect who was drafted by the Mets. They did not come to an agreement. He has no options in terms of kind of professional baseball until the following year. So, you know, the structure really works against players in terms of even just how you get into the system, being able to leverage and negotiate your talents on the free market. And, you know, if you're selected in the first round of the draft, like you said, and you're dealing with a multimillion-dollar signing bonus, your two to three years in the Minor Leagues, number one, you're going to move through that system differently because you're a top prospect. So that's a different process, too. And it's a really different financial situation to be in, in terms of, you know, what your living situation looks like, what your offseason looks like, what your training, nutrition, etc., all of that looks like is vastly different if you're sitting on a multimillion-dollar cushion versus if you got pocket change in the last round.

Ted Fox  18:09
You made a distinction at the beginning of that there, and I wonder if you could elaborate on it a little bit. Because you talked about players from the US.

Katherine Walden  18:15  

Ted Fox  18:15  
Canada and Puerto Rico. I believe--and I want to talk a little bit about an interview you did on The Uncertain Hour podcast in an episode called "Inside baseball, which is a great title--and they talk a little bit about this there. I think, on that show, they said about 30% of professional baseball players are from Latin America.

Katherine Walden  18:33  
30 to 50%, depending on how you count.

Ted Fox  18:35  
And these often, they can be signed as young as 16, I think.

Katherine Walden  18:40  
Actually 14.

Ted Fox  18:42  
14, internationally. And I'm imagining it's often an even more--a less rosy financial picture for them, especially since also, as that episode of that podcast pointed out, they're often sending money home to family members, as well.

Katherine Walden  18:54  
So especially when we're talking about Minor League Baseball, this is kind of the thing that I keep yelling from the rooftops is that it's already an exploitative labor system across the board. That's if you're a Notre Dame baseball player who's getting an undergraduate degree from Notre Dame and you get drafted, it's exploitative for you. It's especially exploitative for folks who are coming from outside the United States, and especially for the last 40 years, the highest concentration of that global player workforce has been from Latin America and the Caribbean. So there's a lot to unpack there in terms of baseball's global history that kind of questions this idea that it's solely the United States' national pastime. So if we actually look at the history, there's a lot more going on. But when we think about, you know, if there's no access to minimum wage, no labor protections--when we're talking about players from Latin America and the Caribbean, they don't come into professional baseball through a draft-like structure, unless they play for a US high school or college. They get signed through a different process that continues to be very unregulated and have very little oversight. There's been conversations over the last five, seven years about things like a worldwide draft, there's been some minimal oversight put in place in terms of international signing bonus thresholds and things like that. But it is really a highly unregulated landscape in terms of, there are some kind of official Major League Baseball-run operations in places like the Dominican Republic. There used to be some in Venezuela; political instability has changed that landscape in the last few years. But there's also pretty much kind of a wild, wild west that Major League Baseball is very aware of and has chosen not to get involved with. I know Sports Illustrated did a piece--oh, was it Sports Illustrated or TIME?--there was a pretty famous piece probably 15 years ago that was like, The children are sleeping on rocks in the caves, and it's this vast underworld.

So back to your question. You know, the concerns about exploitation and wages are compounded for players who are not even coming in with, you know, access to things like insider networks around living situations or even, you know, some of the conversations I've been having, you know, they're like, Here's the apartment complex that you need to get in. Players who just aren't in on those insider networks or don't have access to those opportunities, cultural barriers, language barriers, many, many other things. I think to Major League Baseball's credit, there has been movement in positive directions in terms of, if you look at most coach and scout ads now, Spanish language fluency is expected if not required. So I think, like, the needle is moving, and it is changing, but it's still, you know, really hard. And those players are sending money home, and it's also a question of their visa status is directly tied to their employment in Minor League Baseball. So the idea that they could just get a job or a side job or work in the offseason is really a nonstarter. So there's a lot of layers.

Ted Fox  21:42  
You were a guest, I mentioned The Uncertain Hour podcast, and you were a guest on an episode earlier this year called "Inside baseball," and one of the hosts of that show, Krissy Clark, she framed the episode by posing this question: "Is some unpaid labor okay if you're following your passion?" And I want to make it clear that the position of the podcast wasn't that, Yes, it's okay; it's no, that these players should be better compensated for what they're doing. But it gets at this interesting societal aspect, going back to the Great Sport Myth, what we talked about at the beginning. And I'm wondering, from your perspective, how much does the financial situation that these Minor League players find themselves in have to do with us as a society looking at something like baseball [and thinking] it's not like going to be an accountant or going to be a lawyer, it's--you're following your dream. So you know, you're going to make some sacrifices, you're going to quote-unquote "pay your dues," and kind of the assumptions that even go along with assuming someone has the financial ability to pay their dues. How much of that is the reason why there's not more pressure for baseball to do better by their Minor League players?

Katherine Walden  22:50  
I mean, the short answer is, yes. Resistance or reluctance to see baseball players as workers, baseball as an industry, playing baseball as a job--it's not specific to baseball. I mean, this is across most of the elite sport landscape. I mean, I think about the conversation that continues to evolve with college athletics and NCAA athletes around are they students, are they athletes, how much money is made off of their labor versus how much compensation are they getting? It's a conversation that we're in the middle of right now with name, image, and likeness rights. For baseball especially, I think, you know, going back to what you said about the Great Sport Myth, I think there are some of these kind of cultural perceptions of baseball as leisure, as a pastime, as this kind of enjoyable thing that you do, that make it hard to shift our understanding or even put some resistance in play. You know, when I talk to fans, or even sometimes players, there's very much this idea that, you know, I'm getting to live my dream, and that requires some sacrifices. Or it's hard knocks, you just have to pay your dues. And then eventually, if you work hard enough, you'll make it. A lot of the conversations I have with people, I'm like, if only one in six or 10%, one in 10, are making it, the game is rigged before you even start. So it's really not a meritocracy. And at the end of the day, it is a job. It may be a job that you enjoy, but it is still a job. I love being a professor, I love teaching, I love the work that I get to do. That doesn't mean that I shouldn't have access to fair wages, workplace protections, the things that particularly in a free market and capitalism, I should be able to negotiate for and have access to.

So I think, you know, when we look at the larger landscape, this is a lot of creative industries as well, people who are artists, who are musicians, who are performers, who work in creative arts. The idea that you love the work so much that you're just supposed to kind of give up, you're willing to give up these other things, and then all of that gets baked into the system, is deeply problematic. It reinforces a lot of privilege in terms of who has access to these careers. It makes the system very inequitable, and I'm grateful that journalists, especially in the last few years, have been doing amazing work. And I'll specifically mention Emily Waldon with The Athletic did kind of the watershed piece, the first part of the title is "I can't afford to play this game." And she interviewed dozens of Minor League players and their families that I think really laid bare what Minor League working conditions look like. Because until you start to put numbers and voices and experiences on it, it's easy to look at the Major League salary numbers and the contracts that get kind of splashed in the headlines and apply that to everything. And that's just so not the case. So I'm really grateful for reporting, again, Emily Waldon [with] The Athletic, JJ Cooper with Baseball America, The Athletic, LA Times, some other folks, who've really been doing important work, kind of reporting as well as recognizing that we need to have a different conversation about Minor League Baseball than what we're having.

And as someone who's been trying to have this conversation for 10 years, I'm noticing a real change. So I'm grateful for the work of journalists and advocates and activists that are changing our national conversation. You know, thinking about the NFL and the concussion settlement, the different conversation we're having around CTE and the risk of player injuries we've seen across the league. You know, professional basketball, professional hockey, there have been lockouts, there's been a more vocal conversation that even if you're making obscene amounts of money, as some would say, that doesn't mean that you give up your right to have a say in what your work looks like. And we saw even in the midst of the pandemic, you know, the players union, I'm thinking about the NBA and the WNBA especially, saying like, You don't just get free rein to players' private health data after the seasons in the bubble. You know, the players were pretty vocal saying, We need to have a different conversation before we try to do this again because that was hard. So I think we're having a different conversation in terms of players talking about what they do as labor, and that's across the landscape. That's baseball, that's the other major US professional sports, that's also at the collegiate level. So I think our conscious is changing in terms of our starting point. But I mean, baseball especially, I think it's one of the hardest ones for just fans, and even the people who are part of playing and being involved in baseball, to see it as work and labor.

Ted Fox  27:11  
So I promised we wouldn't go too deep into labor law. (Katherine laughs) But I think someone listening to this, one thing that might pop up to them is like, Oh, well--you know, because you talked about in a capitalistic society, things you should have access to--and people are thinking, Well, like, that sounds like baseball is a monopoly. (Katherine laughs) And someone's probably thinking, like, Sherman Antitrust, why doesn't that apply?

Katherine Walden  27:35  
It doesn't!

Ted Fox  27:38  
I'm sure, you know, we could do a couple hours about all the, like, reasons why this pay structure is allowed to be in place, but just kind of ...

Katherine Walden  27:46  
People can email the Department of American Studies and ask to take my Baseball in America class, we'll just make it a massive online--no.

Ted Fox  27:52  
(laughing) There you go. But kind of in general terms, taking, like, that very basic assumption that we can't have monopolies, why does that not come into play with baseball when we're talking about labor and we're exempt from paying players a minimum wage and things like that?

Katherine Walden  28:08  
Yup. So since the 1920s, Major League Baseball has had a legally sanctioned antitrust exemption, which means it is a legally sanctioned monopoly. So if we go all the way back to early professional baseball history, and this is something that I emphasize when I teach my Baseball in America class, particularly in the 21st century, we have this very ahistorical and inaccurate idea that Major League Baseball is the only game in town. And that's not true today, and that definitely was not true when the professional baseball landscape was taking shape. As early as the 1870s and 1880s, it wasn't Major League Baseball and everything else; it was these different leagues and associations that were trying to figure out what the professional baseball ecosystem would look like. There were kind of hierarchies in terms of some leagues were seen as more competitive or more profitable, but it wasn't Major League Baseball and everything else. It was teams and leagues and associations that were wildly unstable. One of the slides that I put up when I teach about this point in baseball history is all of the leagues and associations that didn't even last for two or three years. So I think, you know, our understanding of what this history looks like is maybe a little bit simplistic in terms of it hasn't always been Major League Baseball and everything else.

What grew into Minor League Baseball used to be independent leagues and teams and associations that were vying with what is now Major League Baseball for a piece of this kind of emerging baseball profit share. But you know, something that starts to happen is the most powerful or elite teams and owners band together because they're more powerful together, and they start to recognize--especially when baseball becomes kind of this national pastime, shows up in popular music and film, and newspapers are covering it--you know, the monetary stakes are very different in the early 20th century than they were in the 1880s. And smart people recognized that. And so without getting too into the weeds, some of these other teams and leagues that were not at the top of the pecking order--I think part of this is also that even if you weren't at the top of the pecking order, the legal and kind of commercial landscape was such that you always might have a shot, that if you wanted to move in that space to be kind of in league with some of the big heavy hitters, you could do that. Because many people and many leagues and many teams had done that. So I think for these folks--and I'll specifically mention, like, the Western Association, the Pacific Coast League--there was this idea that okay, even though we might not be there now, we always might be able to move into that space.

And without getting too in the weeds, there was a league called the Federal League that was very frustrated with how what became Major League Baseball, then called the National Association--National League? National Association? I'm losing track of my acronyms. Eventually, what a lot of the elite leagues that became Major League Baseball would do is they would poach teams. They would poach teams, they would poach players, they would kind of do backchannel, backroom conversations. And a lot of these other kind of teams and leagues really struggled to remain viable because as soon as kind of something would start to crystallize and have momentum, other leagues or more elite teams and owners would swipe in and kind of pull the pieces off that we're becoming really successful, which makes it hard to spin up a competitive league if you can't actually get things moving. So the Federal League was not happy about that and went to court saying that this is an antitrust violation. You know, there's a lot more going on, and someone in the Law School could parse the legal texts, I am not a lawyer. But they went to court saying, like, This is not how capitalism is supposed to work. You know, even though there are power dynamics in play, part of a capitalist system and part of the free market is that you get to have a chance, you get to have an opportunity, and you might at least theoretically get to have a fair shake. Again, I think there's a lot to unpack there in terms of, okay, ostensibly, we say our economic values and our system is this, what does that actually play out to be? I think we're frankly having that conversation in other spaces around big tech right now. So I think, you know, things repeat; American studies, everything has historical context, everything repeats.

But one of these other leagues goes to court and says, you know, what becomes Major League Baseball can't behave this way because we have antitrust laws in place. Because at that point, they were looking at what was happening in railroad and steel and other industries and saying, They don't get to have monopolies; what becomes Major League Baseball shouldn't, either. And the case actually went to the United States Supreme Court, and by the time it was finally heard and decided by the Supreme Court, the Federal League had gone under. So what becomes Major League Baseball has the advantage of being able to wait this out and litigate things and wait things out until things move in their direction. We see that multiple times around free agency, around collusion in the 1980s, around the reshaping of the relationship of Minor League Baseball and Major League Baseball, which has happened in the last 15, 16 months. But they waited and kept litigating, the Federal League dissolved. By the time the case was finally heard by the Supreme Court, it was unanimous in what became Major League Baseball's favor. And if you dig into the text of the ruling--I love having students read this and engage with it. Because there's so much to unpack. Because this is Supreme Court justices saying that baseball is different, baseball is special. Even though, yes, there's monetary stakes, there are nuanced legal arguments about what constitutes interstate commerce. But even stepping away from that, there's this language baked into the ruling that positions baseball as something special and different and separate that has held sway for 100-plus years now. So I think we've started to see in the last few years that that kind of ironclad antitrust exemption might be moving. Some of the recent Supreme Court rulings around--actually the NCAA is starting to lay some precedent that the antitrust exemption or the idea of kind of sport as labor in the legal sense might be changing quite a bit in ways that could have a huge impact on baseball. We're seeing some appellate court rulings come down that are again maybe hinting that the antitrust exemption might not be as ironclad as it's been for about 100 years now.

Ted Fox  34:09  
I think that's a great way to wrap up because I want to go back to what we talked about at the beginning, cuz I think it's such an important point. And it's such an important point not just about baseball and sport, but that we can love something and feel an attachment to it and enjoy it--and I know I will be, you know, tracking my standings and watching my games after this--but almost when you do love something and care about it, you have a responsibility to be more critical of it and say, How do we make sure that this treats everyone equitably and fairly and make it the thing, you know, maybe in our mind, if we're holding something up, how do we get it closer to that ideal that we actually say we want it to be? And so I think everything you've said there, like, I think that's a good reminder to all of us that as difficult as it can be, you can hold those two thoughts simultaneously.

Katherine Walden  35:00  
Yup. And I mean, I think especially as a woman, as someone who identifies as female, I mean, professional sport writ large is having a big conversation now around domestic violence and domestic assault. These are contradictions that I live with that I see play out in the headlines that make me feel very conflicted. But also, there's really nothing better than going to a ballgame and hearing the ambient noise, the crack of the bat, the rhythms of the game, that will always have a very special place for me. So wrestling with, you know, what baseball means to me, what's actually happening and the way people are being treated. You know, I'm grateful that in some very small corner of the universe I get to do teaching and research that raises awareness, that changes the conversation, that might, you know, change how people think about baseball for the rest of their lives. That's the thing that I can do.

Ted Fox  35:51  
Well, and I know I said going in, maybe we'll have to do another podcast at some point about digital humanities.

Katherine Walden  35:56  
Yes! (laughs)

Ted Fox  35:56  
But this was so good that I just wanted to stay with baseball the whole time.

Katherine Walden  35:56  
We can do that, we can do that. (laughs)

Ted Fox  36:02  
Katherine Walden, thank you so much. I really enjoyed it.

Katherine Walden  36:04  
Great to be part of the conversation.

Ted Fox  36:06  
(voiceover) One final note: Major League Baseball did implement salary increases for Minor League players starting with the 2021 season, but player advocates, Katherine included, say there is still a long way to go. If you’re interested in learning more, check out the story from the Sporting News linked in our episode notes.

With a Side of Knowledge is a production of the Office of the Provost at the University of Notre Dame. Our website is withasideofpod.nd.edu.