Minors, Majors Relationship Keeps Evolving

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We're almost certain that you missed it—unless you saw it at BaseballAmerica.com—but Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball made news when they renewed the Professional Baseball Agreement through the 2020 season.

Major league owners and the leagues of Minor League Baseball each approved the deal unanimously, and at a time when the NFL has reached a labor meltdown and the NBA will join the fray soon, it's notable that baseball's relationships are proceeding so amicably.

The relationship between the majors and minors is not the same management/labor relationship that governs the other negotiations, but it definitely has the element of big brother/little brother or father/son that can so often lead to conflict. So negotiating the Professional Baseball Agreement, which governs the relationship between the majors and minors, can be contentious, but in recent years the two sides have gotten past that. Minor League Baseball president Pat O'Conner said that has both practical and symbolic significance.

"It allows us to move forward doing what we do best, getting a lot of people in one place at one time and taking care of the players without having to wonder about the relationship. That's the practical," he said. "The symbolic, I would venture to say that it has never been done in the history of the PBA, to extend an agreement that far out with so many years left. That shows the trust and the confidence each side has in each other and speaks highly of the state of the relationship."

History Lesson

It's important to remember during PBA negotiations that the minor leagues weren't always dependent on the major league for survival. For the first half of the 20th century, the minors operated on their own, finding their own players and operating independently, though many teams did have affiliations with major league clubs. Winning games and drawing fans were paramount, and developing players to send off to major league organizations was a nice fringe benefit.

But after a minor league boom following World War II, there was a crash in the 1950s, and many teams and leagues went away. Commissioner Ford Frick appointed a "Save the Minors" committee in 1956, and Major League Baseball formally subsidized the minors for the first time. MLB pumped more than $1 million into stablization efforts in the late 1950s, but still teams and leagues were folding.

So in 1962 the major leagues passed the first Player Development Plan, which guaranteed that at least 100 minor league clubs would survive. Major league teams agreed to pay the bulk of the salaries for minor league players, and the minors officially became dependent on MLB. The key to survival became a player-development contract, and out of this the Professional Baseball Agreement developed.

Minor league baseball's subsistence continued through the 1970s, with leagues surviving but certainly not thriving, so the dependent relationship became standard operating procedure. In the 1980s, though, improved management and new ballparks led to a huge turnaround, which only gained momentum in the 1990s and continues through today.

So in 1990, major league owners recognized that minor league owners were starting to make money rather than just survive, and they asked for help in bearing the cost of operating the minor league franchises. Those negotiations were the most contentious ever, with the minor leagues having to pay a tax on ticket revenue for the first time as well as taking on new facility standards.

The facility standards actually served as a driver for the biggest wave of ballpark construction in minor league history, and attendance grew to record levels in the 2000s. And minor league owners have continued to thrive in spite of taking on more of the expense burden in the last 20 years, with the ticket tax continuing and costs like equipment and umpires shifting back to the minors.

More important, though, the relationship between the majors and minors has gradually improved, to the point that PBA negotiations are no longer even a story. And as baseball fans well know, when multimillion-dollar negotiations aren't in the news, that's usually good news.