Baseball Has Always Been Political

Baseball is a business and, like any business, it engages in politics to protect its profits and power, often to the detriment of its employees and consumers.
Dodgers player Jackie Robinson (L), during game with Giants. (Photo by George Silk/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)
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April 14, 2021 3:09 p.m.

This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis. 

Major League Baseball (MLB) did the right thing by moving this year’s All-Star game out of Georgia to protest the state’s new Republican-sponsored voter suppression law. 

The decision has triggered considerable controversy. Conservatives have lambasted MLB for engaging in politics, despoiling our national pastime, meant to unite rather than divide the country.

Georgia’s Republican Gov. Brian Kemp claims MLB “caved to fear and lies from liberal activists” by pulling the July 13 game out of Atlanta. 

Former MLB Commissioner Faye Vincent took a similar tone. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, he argued that “baseball must stand above politics” to avoid alienating fans. 

After several Atlanta-based corporations, including Coca-Cola and Delta, announced their own opposition to the restrictive voting laws, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) warned that companies should “stay out of politics” — an absurd and hypocritical assertion coming from the Republican, for a variety of reasons

But all of these comments are misguided. Baseball is a business and, like any business, it engages in politics to protect its profits and power, often to the detriment of its employees and consumers.

Politically, baseball has typically been aligned with the economic and political establishment. For the first half of the 20th century, MLB prohibited Black players on its teams’ rosters. Baseball’s racial segregation was an overt political calculation, as was its eventual integration. On April 15, 1947, the Brooklyn Dodgers broke the sport’s color barrier when it put Jackie Robinson at first base. Now, every April 15, MLB celebrates Jackie Robinson Day, honoring that moment and his legacy. Often missing from that story is that it took a protest movement — begun in the 1930s, by Black newspapers, labor unions, civil rights groups, and left-wing politicians — to pressure MLB to end its Jim Crow practices. Even then, most team owners opposed Dodgers president Branch Rickey’s plan to integrate his team. For more than a decade after Robinson joined the Dodgers, most teams dragged their feet on hiring Black players.

During and after his playing days, Robinson was a bold activist for civil rights. He joined picket lines, marched, spoke out and used his newspaper columns to help push Congress to pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act — the law that Georgia’s Republicans have now sought to undermine.

Ballplayers rarely get criticized for expressing conservative views, but when they challenge the status quo, they are often labeled as “too political.” Sportswriters attacked Robinson for being too outspoken. They said he was a “whiner,” a “troublemaker” and a “rabble rouser” who was on a “soap box.” The “Sporting News” headlined one story, “Robinson Should Be a Player, Not a Crusader.” 

In October 1969, the Mets’ All-Star pitcher Tom Seaver was criticized for voicing opposition to the Vietnam War. Fans and writers attacked Blue Jays first baseman Carlos Delgado when, during the 2004 and 2005 seasons, he remained in the dugout while ”God Bless America” was played to protest America’s invasion of Iraq.

Athletes in other sports have faced similar censure for speaking out. After NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick protested racism by refusing to stand during the national anthem, then-President Donald Trump warned athletes who followed Kaepernick’s example: “maybe you shouldn’t be in the country.” After NBA star LeBron James discussed a racial slur that was graffitied on his Los Angeles home, and also criticized Trump, Fox News’ Laura Ingraham rebuked him for “talking politics” and suggested that he “shut up and dribble.”

Baseball is the most traditional and conservative of America’s major sports, so the political double standard is particularly obvious when it comes to team owners, as well. 

At least 20 of the 30 MLB team owners are billionaires. The least wealthy, Cincinnati Reds’ Bob Castellini, is worth $400 million. The richest, the Mets’ Steve Cohen, is worth $14.6 billion. Most owners inherited their wealth from their families, primarily through real estate, banking and media and telecommunications.

The sports’ plutocrats have long curried favor with local, state and federal politicians by providing campaign contributions, inviting them to sit in owners’ box seats and asking them to participate in other public events, like throwing out the first ceremonial ball. 

Like other professional sports teams, the Atlanta Braves routinely takes the profits from ticket and concession sales and spreads them around to political candidates. In 2018 alone, the Braves — the corporation, not the players — donated $44,000 to Georgia politicians.

The MLB Commissioners’ Office even has its own Political Action Committee, and doles out contributions to Republicans and Democrats alike, including $10,000 last year to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA).

That figure pales compared to the donations from team owners, such as John C. Malone, CEO of Liberty Media, the Braves’ principal owner, who is worth $8 billion. Over two decades, he’s donated $1.27 million to candidates for president and Congress, almost all of them Republicans. In 2018, Liberty Media gave $75,000 to the Republican Governors Association, which helped elect Gov. Brian Kemp, now leading the voter suppression charge in Georgia.

What do baseball’s moguls get in return?

Almost every new MLB stadium built since the 1970s has been subsidized by taxpayers, including local property tax breaks, county and state sales taxes and federal tax-exempt bonds. For example, the Braves built a new stadium in Atlanta’s suburbs, SunTrust Park (now called Truist Park because of a corporate merger), which opened in 2017, at a cost of $622 million. Thanks to Georgia politicians, taxpayers footed $400 million of the bill.

In 1922 the Supreme Court absurdly ruled that professional baseball was not engaged in interstate commerce and thus exempt from federal antitrust laws. Since then, MLB has used its political clout to preserve this status, which allows baseball’s corporate titans to conspire in ways that would otherwise violate the antitrust laws, such as the amateur draft, control over the sale of rival teams, licensing of intellectual property rights and the ability to block the movement of teams to cities where it would compete with other MLB franchises.

In 2016 and 2017, in response to a lawsuit by minor league players claiming that MLB illegally fixed their salaries, MLB spent at least $2.6 million to quietly lobby Congress to insulate itself from legal challenges to its exploitation of these poorly-paid players. Congress then inserted a provision, ironically called the “Save America’s Pastime Act,” into the 2,232-page spending bill that Trump signed in 2018. It exempts minor league players from the federal minimum wage and overtime pay rules so it can continue to avoid paying minor leaguers during the off season and for spring training, which would only cost MLB teams a total of $5.5 million a year — chump change for baseball’s billionaire plutocrats.

Ballplayers who criticize America’s foreign military adventures are often derided as unpatriotic, but team owners have profited from MLB’s relationship with the Department of Defense. In 2015, the late Senator John McCain issued a report revealing that the U.S. military provided $6.8 million over the previous four years to professional sports teams — a practice he called “paid-for patriotism.”

For example, the Wisconsin Army National Guard paid the Milwaukee Brewers $49,000 in 2014 to sponsor playing “God Bless America” at Sunday home games along with displaying the National Guard’s logo on the ballpark’s video boardThe Defense Department paid the Mets $10,000 for a swearing-in ceremony at Citi Field. When fighter jets fly over baseball stadiums before games, taxpayers foot the bill and major league owners pocket the profits.

In 2018 the Mets’ fired Nick Francona, who had served as a scout sniper platoon commander in Afghanistan, as the team’s assistant director of player development over his criticism of MLB profiting from these paid-for celebrations, including proceeds from military-themed apparel worn by players on Memorial Day. Meanwhile, he pointed out, only 10 of MLB’s roughly 5,000 employees were military veterans.

Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred, who has been forced to reckon with racism, made a political calculation when MLB relocated the All Star game, just like other corporations who have spoken out against the law. The election of Trump and the surge in protest against police violence catalyzed a new wave of activism among professional athletes, which likely played a role in Manfred’s decision. Players on championship football, basketball, soccer and baseball teams (including the Boston Red Sox and Washington Nationals) refused to attend White House ceremonies with Trump. Baseball was forced to cancel several games last summer when players held a political strike for Black lives following the police shootings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. (Earlier this week the Minnesota Twins, along with the NBA Minnesota Timberwolves and the NHL Minnesota Wild, cancelled their games in response to the police killing of Daunte Wright just outside of Minneapolis.)

Last September, MLB, in conjunction with the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA), announced a $10 million donation to the Players Alliance, a new organization of over 100 current and former Black players who want baseball to take action for racial justice within and outside the sport.

The following month, the Baseball Writers Association of America voted to remove the name of former Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis ( from 1920-1944) — who opposed efforts to integrate the game — from the annual Most Valuable Player Award.

The number of Black major league players athletes on major league rosters has declined precipitously — from 18.7 percent in 1981 to 7.8 percent last season. Only two of MLB’s 30 managers are Black — the Astros’ Dusty Baker and the Dodgers’ Dave Roberts. The Chicago White Sox’s Ken Williams is the lone Black person in charge of baseball operations for any major-league club. In February, MLB hired Michael Hill — a Black former minor league player and former, until recently, general manager for the Miami Marlins — as senior vice president of on-field operations. 

Commissioner Manfred understood that MLB could not bathe in the glory of Jackie Robinson and ignore efforts by contemporary politicians to turn back the clock on voting rights. He was under pressure from the Players Alliance, the MLBPA and Dodgers manager Dave Roberts (who was scheduled to manage the National League All Star team), who all voiced concerns about holding the All State game in Georgia. Even President Joe Biden weighed in, saying he’d “strongly support” moving the event, calling Georgia’s new voting law “Jim Crow on steroids.” 

In 2010, players, the players union and immigrant rights groups urged MLB to move the next year’s All-Star game out of Phoenix to protest Arizona’s newly-enacted anti-immigrant law, SB 1070, which allowed police to racially profile Latinos and criminalized the failure to carry immigration documents. Arizona Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick, while feigning concern about the controversy, was a major funder of the Arizona Republican Party that created the law. MLB held its 2011 All Star game in Phoenix as planned. But in the past ten years, the political climate has changed. 

MLB broke its color barrier 74 years ago under pressure from progressive movements and politicians and MLB’s recent decision to move the All-Star game came in response to a surge in political protests. Despite the sanctimonious declarations of Kemp, Vincent, McConnell and others, baseball — like any other business — cannot escape politics.

 


Peter Dreier is professor of politics at Occidental College and co-author of the forthcoming Baseball Rebels: The Reformers and Radicals Who Shook Up the Game and Changed America.

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