White Bred: Major League Baseball’s Intern Issue

Editor’s Note: This article has been reprinted from The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2014. You can purchase a copy at our Bookstore.

What should I do if I want to work in baseball?”

This is probably the most common question that I get asked when having conversations with people at various conferences and events around the country, even though I do not actually work in baseball. There are seemingly endless numbers of intelligent high school and college students whose dream job is running a major league front office. Despite possessing minds and degrees that could land them comfortable white collar jobs upon graduation, they’re all eager to find out how they can get selected for one of the scarce, low-pay, long-hour, entry-level jobs that will get their foot into the baseball operations door.

This is the market that results when supply and demand are hopelessly lopsided. There are 30 major league teams—or maybe 29, depending on your feelings about the Marlins—and most have small intern programs, bringing in a couple of interns for the entire season, and occasionally one or two more during the summer. While no exact count exists publicly, there are likely fewer than 100 interns working in baseball ops departments at any given time.

And, being internships, these positions are designed to be temporary. Some last just a few months, with the lucky recipients committing vast quantities of their time to an organization for a short window, only to find themselves sending 29 other franchises an updated résumé when their internship ends. At times, internships do lead to full-time positions, but most do not, and it is often expected that a potential long-term employee should first go through multiple internships, often with different organizations, before he is offered a position in the front office.

While it may seem glamorous to work in an office where decisions about the major league roster are being made, the lifestyle that accompanies such a position is often extremely taxing. In most organizations, the hours required are extremely intense, as most (or all) baseball operations staffers are expected to put in a full day’s work during regular business hours and then attend every inning of every home game, often manning the video or pitch tracking systems installed in the ballparks and syncing that information to the team’s larger database for daily reporting needs.

That kind of schedule means that, for extended home stands, members of the baseball operations staff could be in the office for 12-16 hours per day, every day, for 10 to 14 consecutive days. And it’s not like they get comp days when the team goes on the road, as there is always video to be captured, information to be analyzed, and various work to be aggregated.

Even with the understanding that the position comes with absurdly long hours, however, every team gets hundreds of applications for each internship it posts, and the demand for these positions allows the teams to offer minimal financial compensation.

In 2013, the official poverty threshold—as set by the United States Census Bureau—for a single person household in the contiguous 48 states was $11,490 in annual income, or $960 per month. While obtaining exact pay figures for every major league team that runs an internship program was not possible, I conducted a survey from a cross-section of team employees and found that the average wage reported for a baseball operations intern in 2013 was around $850 per month. In other words, entry-level positions in a major league front office pay somewhere in the neighborhood of the poverty threshold.

These figures are a sample, which may or may not be representative of all 30 teams, and shouldn’t be taken as the official word on major league internship pay, but I’m comfortable that the number is at least in the ballpark of the actual figure.

And that average wage doesn’t account for the geographic requirements that these jobs demand. Major league teams are, for obvious reasons, located in the population centers of the United States, and these positions predominantly require the prospective employee to relocate to a major metropolitan area where the cost of living is far above the national average.

For context, here is the cost of living index from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2012 Statistical Abstract for 29 of the major league cities—Toronto is not included—with a mark of 100 being exactly equal to the average cost of living across the 320 metro areas being measured:

  • New York (Manhattan): 217
  • San Francisco: 164
  • New York (Queens): 159
  • Washington, D.C.: 140
  • Oakland: 139
  • Los Angeles: 136
  • Boston: 133
  • San Diego: 132
  • Philadelphia: 127
  • Seattle: 121
  • Baltimore: 119
  • Chicago: 117
  • Minneapolis: 111
  • Miami: 106
  • Denver: 103
  • Milwaukee: 102
  • Cleveland: 101
  • Phoenix: 101
  • Detroit: 99
  • Kansas City: 98
  • Atlanta: 96
  • Cincinnati: 94
  • Tampa: 92
  • Dallas: 92
  • Pittsburgh: 92
  • Houston: 92
  • St. Louis: 90

So, 20 of the 29 U.S. teams play in markets where the cost of living index is over 100, and Toronto is an expensive place to live as well, so we’re really talking about 21 of the 30 major league teams. And we’re not just talking about slightly above average in most cases. New York, the Bay Area, D.C./Maryland, Los Angeles, Boston and San Diego combine to house 10 of the 30 major league teams, and they all have a cost of living index over 130. Toss in Toronto and Philadelphia, and 12 of the 30 major league teams play in essentially the most expensive places to live in North America.

In most industries, wages vary significantly depending on the geographic location of the employer and the cost of living in that area, but because there is national demand for scarce positions from candidates who are willing to live and work in any of the cities that have a major league team, it is not necessary for major league teams to inflate their entry-level salaries to keep up with the cost of living in that area. The increased supply of talent by essentially turning each of these jobs into a national search suppresses wages to the point where a team can use its internship programs to solicit nearly free labor from a group of highly-educated candidates.

Now, my point here is not to debate the ethics of internship programs, and there certainly are non-monetary rewards for working in a major league front office. These entry-level positions are not permanent employment positions, so they can be seen as an investment in future earnings in a candidate’s desired field. If these internship programs weren’t effective in helping a significant number of candidates end up with high level front office positions, there wouldn’t be such a strong demand to fill them. People take these jobs because of where they may lead, so the value of the position cannot be measured simply by wages.

However, this system has had an unintended consequence on major league front offices: homogeneity.

Because of the selection process and the requirements that allow an individual to be able to pursue and thrive in these conditions, the primary variable in getting your foot into the baseball operations door may be your family’s net worth. As a result, baseball front offices are starting to not only look very similar—they have always been very white and very male, so that isn’t a new trend—but are being repopulated with people who often have similar backgrounds and life experiences. And those life experiences often include access to significant amounts of money.

During this past year, I was included as a recipient on a résumé drop for a recent baseball analytics conference, so I was able to peruse a brief list of qualifications for nearly 100 individuals who were interested in pursuing a career in baseball operations. The stack of résumés reads like a list of the best—and most expensive—universities in America. Harvard, Yale, M.I.T., Columbia, Cornell, Northwestern and the University of Chicago were all represented, often on more than one résumé, and occasionally on the same résumé.

While these universities do offer significant financial aid, the fact remains that attendees to such prestigious universities often come from upper-class families. Those who do not will likely graduate with a significant amount of student loan debt, which can be a primary motivator to pursue a high-paying career in a less desirable field. However, a candidate pursuing a position with a major league team is almost certainly looking at early career earnings that wouldn’t make a dent on a student loan principal, and that’s before accounting for minor necessities like food and shelter.

Unlike the universities, major league teams do not offer financial aid packages. The candidates who were already at a disadvantage from having a state school or lower profile university on their résumés must also now overcome a second major financial hurdle if they want to pursue a job in a major league front office: How to not only pay down their student loans, but how to live in an expensive metropolis on something that would resemble minimum wage if they didn’t work so many hours.

And this is not a short-term commitment. Upon graduation, many eventual full-time employees will go through two or three full-season internships, potentially spending some time in the commissioner’s office as well. The path from graduation to full-time employment is usually measured in years, not months. And these are the success stories; I have a number of friends who spent years bouncing from internship to internship and have still not parlayed their experience into a permanent position with an organization.

I also have friends who have made it, and who hold positions of some note in a baseball operations staff. By and large, the ones who have yet to reach managerial positions make less than I did during my first year working for Hanes as a low-level cost accountant back in 2005; that job, by the way, was located in a metro area that shares a cost of living index with Lufkin, Texas and Rockford, Ill.

Those success stories, the ones who land several internships, cultivate experience, and are offered a full-time position in the baseball operations department are often still not earning enough to do more than pay the most basic bills, especially in a major city with very high rents. And if they’ve accumulated any debt during their years of working for almost nothing, that’s added to the pile of student loan debt that has likely been sitting in deferment, waiting for them to start earning an income capable of paying back those loans.

I know I’m painting a fairly bleak picture here, but the picture is fairly bleak for people wishing to pursue a job in a baseball operations department who do not have access to a significant stockpile of cash to burn through. And that means that most major league teams are primarily hiring analysts from the same pool of candidates: Children of the well-off.

Certainly, having financially successful parents is a significant advantage in other aspects of life as well, and baseball is not alone in having employment structures that favor the upper class. However, because of the barriers to entry and the limited number of jobs that are available to begin with, the primary flow of analysts into major league front offices are 18-25-year-old affluent single white males who are strong at mathematics and programming. And while it makes perfectly rational sense for each major league team to hire the best database architect or mobile programmer it can find, the sport as a whole will suffer if the next generation of decision makers are all cut from the same cloth.

Similar backgrounds breed similar perspectives. Similar educations breed similar lines of thought. And homogeneity across front offices may eventually stifle creativity. Diversity isn’t good just because it’s equitable, but because it forces perspectives to be defended regularly and protects against the echo chamber effect. Even within a single organization, it is valuable to have people pushing back against the accepted ideas so that traditions don’t become entrenched simply because it is the cultural norm for the majority of the employees.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Major League Baseball is figuratively swimming in money, with ever-escalating television contracts providing record wealth for nearly every franchise in the sport. The game is as prosperous as it has ever been, and the sport has the financial capability to change the playing field to ensure that the intellectual talent flowing into front offices can come from a more diverse and varied background than is the case today.

A simple first step would be to establish a minimum monthly pay for interns working for a major league team, and to set that minimum at a wage that allows those without access to family wealth to be able to meet the expenses that go along with living in a major city. The overall increase in expenses would still be a relative drop in the bucket of the increased revenues the league is currently experiencing, and would simply be an investment in the sport’s human capital. The long-term payoff from growing the talent pool would outstrip the marginal costs that went along with increasing wages for the chronically underpaid.

For those reading this who dream of working in a front office someday, I do not wish to dissuade you from that goal. I would, however, make one suggestion: Learn how to code. If there’s a loophole around the current system, it is a loophole that leans heavily in favor of those who can write programs and develop systems, especially on mobile products.

The advancing technologies being used by major league front offices have been mostly restricted to the physical office, but there is a push coming to integrate these systems onto mobile devices, allowing access from anywhere an employee can find a reliable Internet connection. If you can show teams that you can write programs or help them develop software that will push their information out from the office to their employees around the world, then you may be valuable enough to skip over large parts of the intern circle. Coding is currently the great equalizer. If you can build a useful system, where you went to college becomes of minimal importance, and doors open that would be otherwise closed.

Otherwise, perhaps consider finding a wealthy family that might want to adopt you. That would also be very helpful.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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