MINOR-LEAGUE baseball clubs, the more than a hundred small, independent teams – some, like Albuquerque Isotopes, with fantastic names – have long had a symbiotic relationship with their colleagues in the major leagues. Since the 1960s, most have been affiliated with a major league club in what is called the farm system. Major-league clubs lend their precious young talent to a minor-league club, pay their salaries (a relatively small price, given that Congress has exempted minors from minimum wage laws due to the lobby in the major league) and give names and prestige to marketing , as the New York Yankees once did for the Trenton Thunder. In return, the small clubs offer a supportive training field, so that young players can develop and improve their skills against competition at a similar age, without the pressure that exists at a larger league level.
This has changed as larger league clubs use their influence to control, centralize and consolidate smaller leagues. This process took a step forward last month when the majors invited minnows to join a new minor league system. About a quarter of small clubs, mostly in Appalachia and the rural West, have been thrown out of the farm system and are likely to wither.
The stated reason for the change is to streamline and modernize training for young players, which will be enormously valuable for larger league clubs if they flourish into stars. Nevertheless, it has also caused a widespread outburst of billionaire owners who have taken out a people’s institution, just to reduce costs.
The restructuring is likely to disrupt thousands of jobs in the same regions affected by deindustrialisation in recent decades. The likely result is that the sport’s wealth and power will be increasingly concentrated in the main league, which receives much of the revenue from media rights and technology.
In addition to illustrating the power of superstar economics, the relationship between majors and minors reflects other trends. Although no longer the country’s most popular sport, baseball is still a unifying symbol of the Americana, from the College World Series in Omaha to the sand lot diamonds of the South Bronx. Despite their brand that holds on to the national pastime, larger league clubs are in the cosmopolitan city centers that have outgrown and surpassed the rest of the country in recent decades.
This is a pity. If a young fan of the Idaho Falls Chukars (an 80-year-old minor league club facing probable bankruptcy) loses a connection to the game, it can only reinforce regional and cultural divides. Nearly 40 years ago, French-American intellectual and baseball fan Jacques Barzun said, “Baseball still reflects our society, it’s just that our society has changed.” If he were alive today, it seems unlikely he would revise this view.
This article appeared in the US section of the print edition under the heading “Trouble on the farm”