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Baseball and Politics is Nothing New

Baseball always has been and always will be political in nature.

You have probably seen that MLB moved the 2021 All-Star Game from Atlanta to Denver. The move came in response to pressure from some of MLB’s corporate sponsors, including Coca-Cola and Delta, and civil rights groups. The sponsors had previously signaled their displeasure with Georgia’s new voting rights bill, which civil rights groups have criticized as “making it significantly harder to vote,” and more or less threatened to pull their sponsorship money from the All-Star Game if MLB decided to hold it in Atlanta.

In the ensuing response, Texas Governor Greg Abbott criticized MLB for bending to “false political narratives” and refused his invitation to throw out the first pitch at the Texas Rangers‘ home opener at Globe Life Field. Other commentators and people with opinions, including Senator Marco Rubio and former MLB players Lenny Dykstra and Curt Schilling, expressed their disappointment in Commissioner Rob Manfred for indulging in “woke corporate virtue signaling” by moving the game.

The hashtag #BoycottMLB circulated Twitter for a short time, serving as the cry for those ‘offended’ by MLB’s decision; those same users threatened to stop watching MLB because they did not “keep politics out of sports” or some other riff on that same narrative.

We’ve seen baseball fans — and fans of virtually every other North American professional sport — complain about how sport used to be simpler. “I want sports to be an escape from real life,” they say.

And, while I understand wanting to find an escape from your everyday boring responsibilities, sports are simply not the place to look for a politics-free distraction. They never have been and they never will be. Politics and sport—especially baseball—have been closely intertwined dating back to the 1800s, when the National League was founded.

American political ideology constantly crosses over into baseball in the league structure, labor negotiations, and revenue policies. Baseball is a popular target for meaningless congressional hearings and provides free political points to local government officials that are willing to find money for a new local stadium.

Today, we are going to explore some of the notable moments at which politics and “America’s Pastime” have intercepted in meaningful ways, as well as why baseball and politics will continue to mix, as long as MLB exists.

 

Baseball’s Origins were Political

 

The origins of Major League Baseball date all the way back to the 1870s. The National Association of Professional Base Ball Players (NAPBBP) was first created in 1869 but began in earnest in 1871 when a handful of the teams in the 1869 version of the league broke away to form a more organized competition circuit.

However, professional baseball proved difficult to get off the ground with so few participating teams and a central organization with little power to regulate competition. So, in 1876, 6 teams from the NAPBBP broke away from the organization and admitted 2 more independent ballclubs (a total of 8) into their new creation: the National League.

At the same time, the United States was in the middle of the Reconstruction Era. The Civil War had concluded in 1865, and the efforts by Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant to reform the South were in full force.

This period in American history also saw the beginning of an incredible boom in industrialization and an increased embrace of capitalism across many of the country’s industries. The number of millionaires in the United States began to increase exponentially as businesses were able to become more efficient with new, industrialized technology.

The improvements in technology and efficiency were excellent for the consumer, as prices on necessary goods fell with increased efficiency, but the trade-off in that was the reduced role of workers. Workers became more easily replaceable, since machines did a lot of their work, and recognizing the power that they had over their subordinates, management-level employees began to ask more and more of their workers.

With employers demanding more than many could handle, workers saw that there was much to be gained from unionizing and bargaining for better working conditions. Unionization became popular in the late 1800s, as workers began to fight for their rights (to work, not to party), while corporations attempted to suppress those unionization efforts.

As many skilled workers began to unionize (non-skilled workers still had very little leverage because they were so easily replaceable), both the government and business owners took notice.

Union-busting became common for large businesses, as business owners recognized the power that their workers would have over their position if they remained united in their demands. The government offered support several times to union busters and business owners who had workers go on strike for better working conditions. The government more often sided with big businesses to keep workers in their positions and continue to grow the economy.

Anti-union sentiment continues to pervade local, state, and federal politics today, particularly in the South, where unionization rates are far below the national average.

There are still debates over unionization today, especially surrounding the recent vote over unionization by Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama. Amazon and other Big Tech companies continue to fight against unionization, with the help of local and national politicians, to prevent their workers from having the right to a respectable bathroom break or decent working conditions.

The National League (back to baseball after a brief history lesson!) hoped to grow as a professional organization, so the team owners appointed a strong, passionate leader in William Hulbert, who would become known as the “Father of Professional Sport Leagues.”

Hulbert saw the issues of the NAPBBP (lack of a strong central entity, rampant financial issues) and tried to eliminate those in the new National League. To his credit, Hulbert was very successful in doing so.

That MLB still has a National League is a testament to his efforts. However, Hulbert also made some interesting choices in the rules for the new National League that tied in closely with the same issues prominent in late 1800s-America (as my colleague Matt Goodwin articulated not two months ago).

Notably, Hulbert eliminated any sort of democracy or decision-making mechanism for the players in the new National League. Hulbert made the conscious choice to call it a “League of Professional Ball Clubs” and not of “Professional Ball Players,” eliminating the potential for unionization and the right to collectively bargain with the league for better conditions.

Hulbert’s anti-union sentiment (and the campaign to limit player bargaining power) illustrates the beginning of MLB’s entanglement with political movements. The very establishment of the Senior Circuit was based upon political pressures of the time and marked the beginning of a long struggle between players and owners.

As I am sure many baseball fans know, MLB also happens to have a players’ union, which is designed to negotiate on behalf of major league players for better salaries, better conditions, and fairer treatment from their teams’ majority stakeholders.

An alarming number of fans continue to fall for anti-union propaganda perpetuated by billionaire team owners today. The same political storyline has plagued baseball for over a hundred years, as even during today’s Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations, owners point the finger at the players’ union for being greedy and ungrateful for what they have rightfully earned (“Oh, they get paid millions to play baseball! Quit crying and get back on the field!”).

While labor disagreements between unions and management no longer receive the same amount of attention from the government as they once did, as long as politicians with large platforms continue to express their support for anti-union sentiment, labor negotiations will continue to be a political issue.

We have not even broached the topic of MLB’s classist and racist origins, both of which speak to MLB’s long-standing involvement in political movements. Professional baseball was certainly not equal during the founding of the National League, nor the NAPBBP, as white players and owners alike refused to take the field against teams with black players and refused to allow teams to sign black players to professional contracts. More on that later.

 

The Anti-Trust Exemption is Political, too

 

Baseball was in a bit of a pickle in the 1920s. Remember when Hulbert took over the leadership of the National League? Well, in his new league constitution, Hulbert decided that each National League team would have exclusive territorial rights to its city’s baseball market.

Basically, if the Cincinnati Reds team was a member of the National League, then there could be no other professional baseball team within a certain distance of Cincinnati. The territorial rights were just one way that MLB determined supply and demand for its product and created impossibly high barriers to entry in the baseball business, which are two key characteristics of a monopoly.

Monopolies ran rampant in the late 1800s, as the government’s hands-off approach to the economy allowed several magnates to gain control over their respective industries like JP Morgan did with railroads and Andrew Carnegie did with steel.

As much philanthropy as Carnegie and others tried to do, the government was unimpressed and passed the Sherman Antitrust Act in 1890, which was designed to limit monopolies and encourage free-market competition. MLB (which was formed around the turn of the century with the creation of the American League) exhibited many of the characteristics of a monopoly.

A rival baseball league, called the Federal League of Professional Base Ball Players, attempted to expand its business, but found itself blocked by MLB’s strict territorial rights. So, the Federal League sued MLB, and the case found its way to federal court, and eventually the Supreme Court. The case was known as Federal Baseball v. National League. Here is the short explanation of the Court’s decision:

“The Supreme Court held that the baseball leagues were not engaging in interstate trade or commerce as defined by the Sherman Act because the exhibition that is a baseball game is not trade or commerce as those terms were commonly understood. As such, the baseball leagues were not subject to the Sherman Act.”

As a result, MLB was granted a full anti-trust exemption from the Sherman Act, allowing it to continue to act as a monopoly. That meant MLB was still able to restrict the supply of its product—for example, in the number of games played and eventually in the number of televised games—to create demand for the product and even allow clubs to suppress wages as they saw fit.

MLB also didn’t face any repercussions for wage suppression and what can generously be described as unfair contract terms because there was no competition for those players from rival leagues. There were no other leagues to go to, thanks in large part to the antitrust exemption.

Since the 1920s, when the Supreme Court curiously granted MLB the exemption from legislation that clearly applied to them, the different branches of the federal government have heard arguments to repeal the antitrust exemption, via meaningless congressional hearings and precedent-challenging court cases and have continued to uphold it anyway. By continuing to call on MLB for these hearings regarding its silly exemption, the government only further intertwined politics with baseball.

The exemption has recently come under fire by the same politicians who were upset about MLB’s decision to move the All-Star Game elsewhere. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) recently introduced legislation designed to eliminate MLB’s full antitrust exemption. Given that MLB has enjoyed this exemption for nearly 100 years (granted in 1922) and the exemption has held up time and again in federal court, the legislation is not expected to get very far.

 

Upholding the Color Barrier was Political

 

Now, we come to one of the most important political issues that faced the United States and continues to face the United States today: race. Racism played a part in our country’s founding and it certainly played a part in MLB’s structure in the 1930s and 1940s. Baseball upheld the same “separate but equal” policy present in the United States, “allowing” the Negro Leagues to exist at the same time as MLB. 

The Negro Leagues provided similar levels of competition to MLB, but that is about where the similarities end between the two. Negro League games were partially dependent on whether MLB teams would allow them to play in the same area as them.

White baseball players could refuse to play against teams with black players and face little repercussions for their actions. Negro League teams certainly did not enjoy the same type of financial success as their white MLB counterparts, nor did they enjoy the same conditions for travel, games, or other accommodations.

Race-related issues, to put it kindly, have always been a part of American politics. For example, many of the signatories of the U.S. Constitution owned slaves and treated them as property. And, America had fought a war over the right to own slaves not even an entire century before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.

Baseball suffered from the same political divide over race, as a “gentleman’s agreement” among the team owners was struck in the 1890s, agreeing not to sign any black players to their all-white teams.

Baseball suffered because the Negro Leagues were chock-full of elite players, like Josh Gibson, the prime years of Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, and more, who could have made MLB a true collection of the most talented baseball players of the first half of the 20th century.

MLB’s refusal to include equally talented players because of the color of their skin was absolutely a political act. There was no other legitimate reason to not include the very talented players of the Negro Leagues on major league rosters.

Choosing to bend to the will of Jim Crow laws and other segregationist policies—even upholding them by not including Negro League players—represents another aspect of baseball that became involved in politics.

MLB could have made a political statement by refusing to play in states with severe Jim Crow laws, but they also made the opposite political statement by refusing to sign black players and continuing to play in the Deep South, where segregationist policies ran especially deep. Whichever side MLB chose to play would have been inherently political.

It was only after the formal federal Judge Kenesaw Landis retired from his post as Commissioner that the league had the opportunity to integrate. Landis, during his time at the helm, forbid MLB teams from playing exhibition games against Negro League teams. When the Dodgers’ Leo Durocher said that he would sign black players if he were allowed to (in 1942), Landis ordered Durocher to retract the statement.

 

Other Ways in Which Baseball is (and always has been) Political

 

In case I couldn’t convince you that baseball has always been involved with politics and that MLB’s decision to move the All-Star Game wasn’t because of some brand new foray into politics, here are some other examples:

  1. Public Stadium Funding – 27 out of 30 MLB teams play in stadiums partially or fully funded by local and state governments. Citizens of the affected cities vote (political action!) on taxes that pay for these stadiums. Teams spend millions on lobbying the local politicians and citizens convincing them that a tax will not only cover the stadium but also somehow boost the local economy (spoiler alert: it doesn’t, it just lines the pockets of the team owners). The valuable land that these stadiums sit on is either purchased for a small price or gifted to teams by local governments, resulting in lost revenue for the city.
  2. Congressional Hearings on Steroid Use – The federal government and high-level politicians were likely looking to score political points when they invited Commissioner Bud Selig and MLBPA Executive Director Donald Fehr to speak about MLB’s issue with steroid users. The hearings were held to prevent the “steroid culture” from reaching the “high school gym,” which feels like similar reasoning to the impetus behind the hearings in the 1980s over heavy metal and other ‘adult music’ genres.
  3. Political Donations by team owners – Technically, these donations are made by team owners, who are private citizens and are free to do all that being a private citizen entails. However, these team owners also happen to have a much larger platform than your average private citizen. When the Ricketts family makes a donation, people listen. Their attachment to a certain team (in the Ricketts’ case, the Cubs) could suggest the team’s support for a certain politician or certain cause, which is certainly mixing politics with baseball.

 

Conclusion

 

Baseball and politics have been intertwined since the inception of the National League in the 1880s. MLB’s willingness to wade deep into political issues – like race, gambling, and other “immoral” activities – by enforcing these policies on their players helps to reinforce that notion. Baseball has continued to be closely involved with politics in the 21st century.

MLB continues to allow its teams to hold local government’s hostage, threatening to remove a source of revenue from the local economy. Also, nearly every team in MLB released a statement condemning police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Furthermore, MLB still enjoys an anti-trust exemption that is unparalleled among private industries in America.

We, as baseball fans, should not be surprised when MLB makes decisions that impact a certain political constituency more significantly than others, nor should we be upset that “politics are mixing with sports,” because they have always been involved in professional sports.

Those who pretend otherwise are simply upset (or are even just feigning outrage for political points with constituents) because MLB’s most recent decision goes against their partisan beliefs. MLB is by no means a partisan organization, as the league has made both progressive and conservative decisions over its lifetime.

Because of MLB’s complicated relationship with politics, there is no reason to expect that situations like the Atlanta All-Star Game will not continue to crop up. If you’re looking for apolitical professional sports in North America,  MLB (or any other professional sports league!) is not the one for you.

Featured image by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)

Adam Sloate

Die-hard Angels fan since birth; misses the good ol' days of Vladdy, Kendrys, and Weaver. Temple University alumnus, UCLA Law student.

11 responses to “Baseball and Politics is Nothing New”

  1. Larry says:

    This article misses a major point. All the political entanglements listed above have to do with the actual league itself and the playing of baseball, with the exception of the political donations of owners which doesn’t really apply because that’s not the league – that’s private individuals. Steroid use = league’s actual players. Racial barriers = league’s actual players. Anti-trust = league itself. Stadium funding = where the game is played. You have to resolve those issues to have a league and play games. The voting issue has is COMPLETELY unrelated to baseball. It has nothing to do with the playing of baseball and only affects the league at all through sponsors. If MLB extends its political engagement to all issues equally related to baseball as the voting law, it should have a stance on China’s concentration camps (which produce its merchandise), abortion, gun laws, tax rates, free speech, immigration, infrastructure funding, Middle Eastern foreign policy, North Korean foreign policy, environmental policy, term limits, animal cruelty, farm subsidies, urban zoning, etc. etc….which is exhausting. Much more enjoyable to stick to baseball and, if necessary, inevitable political issues that affect the league.

    • Adam Sloate says:

      Hi Larry,

      Thank you for your comment and I really do appreciate the feedback. I don’t quite see the color barrier as being quite so sequestered to “just the playing of the game” because it extended beyond baseball; MLB’s decision to integrate baseball with Jackie Robinson had far- reaching implications that had nothing to do with sport.

      However, I completely understand your point about the voting bill being completely unrelated to sport. I also don’t fully agree with your perspective, because players have taken an incredibly active role in political movements and activism surrounding voting rights lately; if MLB hadn’t done something, the players may have decided to skip out on the game altogether, which brings it back to the “playing of the game issue” that you pointed out.

      I don’t see MLB having a true political opinion on any of the issues you listed, (as you correctly point out) but I don’t know if it would be really appropriate for them to have an opinion on most of the issues you listed, given that most of them don’t directly affect many fans baseball, whereas I think the voting rights bill would have more of an effect on MLB fans in Georgia and other places where similar bills are being considered.

      Thanks again for reading!

      -Adam Sloate (@MrAdster99)

  2. Chris says:

    PLEASE can this website only be about fantasy baseball and baseball analysis?

    I am desperately pleading.. I can’t continue visiting this site if political conversations and rhetoric are going to be a part of the daily feed. This world is so oversaturated with political fervor and sometimes people just need a break.

    I understand that you may respond with a “We can’t be silent anymore” type of argument (which you are totally entitled to). I just don’t want the divisiveness of today that has consumed so many areas of life to now infect an area of interest for so many that previously brought together people from very different walks of life.

    • Nick Pollack says:

      Hi Chris,

      I relate heavily to your thoughts. Pitcher List is a place where people can escape from everything else in the world to celebrate this wonderful sport and all aspects of it.

      Adam makes a fantastic point in this article – to imagine baseball in its own bubble and separate from the politics of this country is impossible. Being “America’s Pastime” inherently builds the sport as a reflection of the country and to ignore its impact would be negligent on our part. We are a website devoted to baseball discussion and politics will always be interwoven on its journey.

      That said, this is one article among dozens that will come out today and if you’d like to visit Pitcher List to get away from politics, that’s wonderful, we have so much for you here. This article wasn’t for you, and that’s okay, just like our dynasty articles aren’t for those in 10-team redraft leagues. I’d be shocked if reading a straightforward headline would truly upset someone.

      I hope that makes sense!

      • Steve Culver says:

        Well said Nick

      • Chris says:

        I appreciate your feedback, Nick. As stated above, this is your site, and the content you produce is solely at your discretion.

        Perhaps one way to help aid the PL community would be to give these types of articles a category of their own so people can clearly delineate between fantasy content and political commentary (for lack of a better term)? I’m not well versed in what “Across the Seams” signifies as a category so maybe that is causing some of the confusion on my part.

  3. Guest says:

    Sure, almost any action can be connected to politics in some way. But the way in which labor and employment issues are political is not at all the same as MLB taking an active political position to oppose enacted legislation. It is a new and different type of political involvement for MLB, a greater push into the partisan political sphere. The author seems not to recognize this at all, which makes the article come across as condescending to anyone not on the same side of the aisle as MLB on this issue.

    • Adam Sloate says:

      Hi there!

      Thank you for reading the article and I truly appreciate your feedback.

      You are absolutely correct in that baseball is making a new type of political move. It’s unprecedented in that MLB is making an active political move, as opposed to enforcing political movements within the game itself and remaining passive in partisan politics. I didn’t recognize it as such when writing the article.

      I’m not sure I agree with the statement with MLB becoming a partisan organization. MLB was going to be making a political decision either way, leaving Commissioner Manfred stuck between a rock and a hard place. Manfred simply chose not to lose the corporate sponsorship money (completely understandable, as baseball is and has been a business) and moved the game elsewhere.

      Thanks again, and I hope you enjoy the rest of the site!

      -Adam Sloate

      • Guest says:

        Hey Adam,

        I appreciate the response and your willingness to consider other points of view.

        I’m not saying MLB is a partisan organization and I agree the commissioner was in an uncomfortable position, but it’s difficult not to see this decision as partisan, at least against one party in one state. And once you bow to political and economic pressure on one issue, you will most certainly be asked to do it again. And it will be very difficult to articulate to the public’s satisfaction which issues deserve this type of punishment.

        If Commissioner Manfred continues to take MLB in this direction, most certainly the antitrust exemption will continue to be an issue, whether he angers the right or the left. It would take more than just this, but the fact is that the exemption is a complete anomaly in the law that no other sports league possesses. It did not at all clearly apply to baseball at the time the Supreme Court decided the case. And if you check out Judge Blackmun’s opinion in Flood v. Kuhn, you’ll see the mental gymnastics the Court has had to perform over the years to uphold the exemption.

        For another perspective on this issue, former commissioner Fay Vincent articulates another angle here, informed by his personal experience: https://www.wsj.com/articles/rob-manfreds-all-star-error-11617726664

  4. Nick says:

    See PL is going the Fangraphs route, assuming their great baseball statistics commentary means that everyone wants their opinion on politics. Are we 6 or 12 months away from the half-page banner ad asking us for money?

  5. Bernardo says:

    Thank you for writing this Adam. As someone who lives outside of the US, it is interesting to see such a backlash against these types of articles. As Nick said on his comment above, the site publishes over a dozen articles everyday and not everyone reads them. The title clearly states that this is a political article (which is only the second article I’ve ever read on this site). People who think the decision in Georgia does not affect the sport itself are placing very little value on the fans. The fans in Georgia were directly affected by this decision. Also, MLB players and employees’ families may or may not have been directly affected. When we are with friends and/or family, even when we don’t mean to, we end up talking about politics. About our approval or rejection of recent and past decisions. It is difficult to believe that were we in a position of influence we would keep our opinions to ourselves. Athletes and owners are people too and it’s difficult to bottle up all those emotions.

    As someone who follows other sports, I agree completely that sports have always intertwined with politics. Usually, if we can’t notice this connection, it is because the sport is either siding or applying the politics we agree with. It’s only when we are on the opposite side of the aisle that we feel slighted by those actions. It is understable why MLB did what it did since there was a corporate backlash before their decision. In the end, it is still a business. Its fans represent revenue as well, so at the end I suppose they factored how many fans they might lose with this decision. In any case, the article was very interesting and informative so for that I thank you.

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