Baseball Holds a Mirror to Society

The reflection isn't perfect and we should do something about that.

Author’s Note: I am a middle-aged (boy, oh boy, was that was hard to write), white, cis-gendered, heterosexual male, and I benefit from just about every privilege there is (I am not rich and only marginally handsome). I have worked hard for what I have, but that was all I had to do: make a choice and do the work. I fully recognize that I have had both more opportunities and fewer obstacles than so many people just as, if not more, deserving and qualified than me. I do not intend to speak here for anybody but myself, but I firmly believe we need more tacit and explicit acknowledgment of such things from everybody and most especially people like me. I want this to be just a part of an ongoing conversation that includes voices more qualified than mine to speak to many of these incredibly important subjects.

In the morning, when my brain has finally convinced my body that it is time to get out of bed, my first stop is the bathroom (to protect the innocent and for the sake of everybody involved, I won’t go into detail) and one of the first things I see is my own face. It is the aging face of a father of two girls, an educator pushing towards 20 years in the middle school classroom, a son, a brother, a friend, and, what I like to believe, a good and decent person. But that’s not always what I see. Sometimes I see the bed-head. Or the beard that’s gotten a little too long. Sometimes I see the face of somebody who gets angry too quickly or frustrated too often. Or somebody who once fervently held onto opinions and beliefs I thought were right and just but were woefully uninformed.

Every morning I look myself in the eyes and think about this: today, how can I try and be the better on the never-ending quest to be the best version of myself? You can’t solve a problem you don’t acknowledge, and some problems need more acknowledgment than others. I try not to obsess over the things I can’t control, and I also try to forgive myself for the things that feel like a big deal that aren’t, but I also don’t want to be dismissive of that which I can control and can improve upon. And so it is with many things in our lives that may not hold up the literal mirror of our morning routines but provide us with a reflection of the good, the bad, and the ugly that exists not only within ourselves but in a much larger sense, in the society within which we must all live, no matter where it comes from.

It is easy to want to use our sports to disengage and ignore the realities of everyday life that can be so hard. It is natural to want to escape into a football or baseball game as a distraction. I understand the impulse to want sports to just be about sports, but the truth is that they are a part of something bigger and, more than we may want to admit, often are the bathroom mirrors of what is, in some cases, our social progress, and, in others, our lack thereof. We should not look away when we see these unpleasant societal reflections in sports; we should not ignore the chance to look our society in the eye to try and be the best version of itself. We can celebrate its strengths but also acknowledge its weaknesses. We can love baseball and also not love everything it does and says. We can try to make baseball the best version of itself in ways that transcend the game itself. 


American Society and Baseball


American society, just like the human beings of which it is comprised, is wonderful, creative, imaginative, innovative, and, at the same time, deeply flawed. There are the people who dedicate their lives to the betterment of others, those who put themselves in harm’s way such that the rest of us can be safe, and, of course, there are also those people that order a steak well-done and then go ahead and dip it in ketchup. Heathens.

People come in all shapes and sizes and are filled to the brim with their own values, beliefs, and ideologies; this is the fundamental strength of our country, and it always has been. The irony is that what truly props up the best version of America is often the least heralded and the most scorned, subjugated, and oppressed. Our echo chambers do nothing to drive new thinking; they simply regurgitate back to us the things we already believe, solidifying a false sense of confidence that we are, above all else, right and everybody who sees things differently is inherently less intelligent or less worthy of dignity and respect.

We are at our best when we listen to everybody, not just giving airspace to those with whom we disagree, but when we truly hear those with disparate opinions. It is through meaningful discourse that extreme views are moved to the fringes where they belong, and reasonable people are able to move forward together. I may never agree with the desecration of a perfectly good piece of beef, but that doesn’t mean I won’t sit down with you for a meal.

Baseball is no different. From the beginning, it has reflected the fundamental strengths of the American experiment: hard work, determination, grit, engaging in battle until there is a victor and rewarding the best, most talented players (not so much financially, especially early on, but I digress). It has also mirrored society’s fundamental flaws: racism, bigotry, misogyny, superiority, and exploitation. 

Please do not misunderstand me: this is not a hit piece on baseball or America. I love them both. I love my kids too, but you will never hear me tell you they don’t have flaws. It is through the recognition of that which holds us back that we are most likely to find a better way forward, and if we want to improve baseball, we need to first acknowledge that there is, and likely always will be, room for growth in the society within which it operates; for as goes our culture, so goes baseball. As go our economics, so goes baseball.

As goes the soul of America, so goes baseball.


It Starts at the Very Beginning


From its humble beginnings in the 18th and 19th centuries straight through to our modern-day game, there have always been elements of prejudice, racism, classism, and exploitation in baseball because they have always existed in America. Some are more subtle, and others are hit-you-over-the-head, in-your-face obvious, explicit, and awful. Early Major League Baseball was, undoubtedly, white baseball. The rules, both written and unwritten, were constructed with a complete lack of diversity and quite intentionally so. There was no integration, and separate leagues existed for black and white players.

An oft-cited argument for maintaining baseball’s status-quo is tradition. “What about tradition?” they’ll nay-say, or “I am a traditionalist, so I am against this.” Sure, history is important, and I have a personal reverence for it that goes well beyond the chapter headings of an old high school textbook, but only insofar as it helps me to better understand the world in which I live so it can be the best version of itself so that I can be the best version of myself.

The simple truth is that there is nothing wrong with tradition per se, but if it is a nostalgic snapshot of time, then it is not only the warm-and-fuzzies that are baked into it but also the fundamental ills of society at that moment in time as well. I am not against tradition on its face, but I am against excusing bad policy in today’s world simply because it is traditional. The idea that we should continue doing something that is bad and we know is bad simply because that’s the way it’s always been done is bad is, well, bad.

Status-quo is a position of strength for the already powerful and an existential challenge to people who live under the pressure of that power. In baseball, that’s the owners versus the players, and the exploitation of those players by those owners is as fundamentally a part of baseball as anything; it has deeper roots in the game than the actual horseshoe-design baseball used today. People who have the privilege will push back against this for one of two reasons: they have no intention of ceding the control they enjoy, or they have lived in it for so long they are normalized to it such that it does not seem like it exists at all. 

Before players even sniff at professional baseball, they play in highly competitive youth leagues. The more prestigious, the better the training and the faster the track to prep schools, college scholarships, and, eventually, success on draft day. These programs range in cost but can be upwards of thousands of dollars per year, not to mention the expensive gloves and bats, travel expenses, and on and on. It doesn’t take a degree in mathematics to understand the calculus here: poor kids have less access regardless of talent.

Sound familiar? It should, because the same holds true for intelligent, hard-working poor students who so often are held back by circumstance, not ability or worth ethic, but are chastised for their stations in life over which they have little to no control and for whom the apparatus of escape is so prohibitive. So what do we really value as a society? If you say hard work and talent, I ask you to truly reflect on that because there are enormous segments of our American population for whom hard work and talent simply are not enough, and that’s wildly problematic, particularly when used as an argument to suggest a lacking in character, desire, or commitment.


Cultural Diversity Needs To Be More Than a Tagline


“How dare you say that baseball is not diverse, just look at the players!”

I can foresee the comments coming @ me here already. Sure, baseball has the most diverse set of participants that it has ever had, embracing players of all races and ethnicities from all around the world. But when you take cultural diversity and squeeze it into a box in which those cultures are expected to capitulate to an existing paradigm still largely based on whiteness, not only are you missing the boat on what it means to be diverse, you are causing harm. When you set up shop in developing countries to scout and export talent to Major League Baseball for financial gain but ask those kids to leave their identities behind, it isn’t productive—it’s exploitative.

Let’s use some examples to illustrate this point, one from baseball and one from society. When players first started to bring bat flipping to the game, it immediately split baseball into two factions: the “traditionalists” (there is that word again) and the “it’s fun” crowds. In truth, both of these positions were measuring the acceptability of the behavior against a status quo; neither truly acknowledges the cultural elements at play. On the one hand, you have the people who insist the game be played the “right” way (I am resisting the urge to point out that the “right” way is often simply the “white” way). A Baseball Monkey post from 2019 describes it well:

For decades … players were taught to respect the game and respect the opposing team. This meant no showboating, no antics at the plate, you hit a bomb, you put your head down and run around the bases. No watching the ball leave the yard as you walk halfway down the line, none of that.

Here’s the thing, in both Latin American and Korean leagues, bat flipping was not disrespectful at all. So traditionalists want to disregard the cultural element and expected assimilation into Major League Baseball and fielty to its way of playing the game—a real “Bend the Knee” way of thinking. The “fun” crowd was saying that despite being a violation, it’s okay because it’s dope. Neither of these groups was saying what should have been said, which is, “It’s fine because it is bringing a culturally diverse and internationally acceptable element of the game into MLB, which only serves to broaden its appeal to a wider audience and promote its general inclusivity which, in turn, normalizes cultural acceptance on a worldwide stage and also: it’s dope.” Or something more concise to a similar effect.

Now I will be the first to admit my own failing in this as I, at first, had instincts that pushed me toward the assimilationist point of view. I had to consciously choose to consider that I may be wrong and openly be willing to challenge my own beliefs to fully understand that I was, in fact, wrong. Vulnerability is not a weakness; it is a strength that people call weakness to prevent growth and protect their status. I am happy to be on the other side of this particular tunnel, and this very specific instance helped me to understand that there are very likely more tunnels I need to explore.

In society, this sort of thing happens all the time. Did you know that sustained eye contact is a sign of disrespect or a direct challenge to authority in many cultures? Yet, Americans in positions of authority (teachers, coaches, bosses, police officers…) engage with people from those cultures, especially in frustration or anger, with things like “Look at me when I’m talking to you!” that carries with it the implicit accusation of being disrespectful or uninterested and that is quite problematic. This is the same assimilationist expectation: that somebody who grew up with one set of social norms will suddenly and consciously be aware of and able to change everything about themselves to match your expectations.

And for what? Is it because American culture is so profoundly superior to others? If you think so, then you are part of the systemic issue. It is possible to both revere one’s own culture and have respect for others’ at the same time; they are not mutually exclusive.

And how did MLB respond to the artificial controversy over bat-flips? They made a series of commercials saying, “Let the kids play.” They reduced the issue to a tagline, packaged it, and sold it. For an organization totally and completely devoid of meaningful marketing strategy, this especially stinks. They rebranded a cultural divide, ignored the issues at the core, and tried to capitalize. Ugh.


It’s Not Just About Ethnicity


The problem is not confined to matters of ethnicity and culture. The rampant misogyny that exists in sports and among fans is, in a word, gross. There are so many women that love the game and are as smart, dedicated, and hard-working as anybody. They bring value to the analysis and reporting. They bring value to the on-field product. They bring everything and anything that men do, and there is checks notes one female GM in the history of Major League Baseball. According to a 2020 Luke Norris piece:

In 2009, Justine Siegal became the first woman in history to be hired in men’s professional sports, when the independent Brockton Rox brought her in as a first-base coach. With a Ph.D. in sport and exercise psychology, Siegal made more history by becoming the first coach at the major-league level in 2015.

Look at those qualifications. It took until 2015 for the FIRST female coach to emerge in Major League Baseball, and she had a stinkin’ Ph.D. in sport and exercise psychology! My goodness, what are we doing here? And it took until this offseason for Kim Ng, the first female GM, to be hired. Women are criminally underrepresented as CEOs of large corporations as well. We know for a fact that women are no less capable than men, so why does this nonsense persist? Stop. Don’t answer that. There is only one reason, and it’s a bad one. Terrible. The worst. If your first thought is to try and justify or defend it, just stop.

And here is the truth: the more MLB teams and their front offices include women, the more they normalize equality to all of America, but especially to the segment of America that loves sports and also needs to hear it the most. Organizations do not exist in silos, and if you want to make your billions of dollars off of a society, then you have a reciprocal responsibility to that society to help it be the best version of itself.

The things females have to deal with in the realm of sports, on Twitter, during an interview, or in the dreaded comments sections are deplorable. It’s not just the Jared Porters of the world; it is also the subtleties and undercurrents in loaded questions, subtweets, mentions, and comments that permeate the interactions. Those things aren’t said to or directed at men, and it’s wrong. Full. Stop.

Let me be clear: these fierce ladies don’t need me to defend them; they do it with more poise and dignity than I would be able to muster in their situations. But they shouldn’t have to. Ever.


Economic Exploitation and Market Manipulation


Going back to when baseball first started, owners have looked to squeeze the most profit out of the least investment. That is, after all, the primary focus of capitalism in general, and if baseball was to be the next great industry, then the Robber Barons of the game would need to tap into a malleable workforce capable of producing a quality product at the least possible cost. You don’t get rich sharing the wealth, though you can buy back some grace by selectively spending massive profits on philanthropy after the fact. 

Though I am wont to do so, I will not turn this into a massive history lesson on underpaid stars of the early league or the multiple messy attempts at unionization that players themselves sought to undermine in many cases because they had been conditioned to do so (what a stroke of luck for owners!). There are plenty of resources on this, but I do recommend Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball by John Helyar for those tales. They are fascinating. 

I am not even going to harp on the comparatively low salaries of players when put up against owner profits which is also a problem. I know and understand that it is difficult for the average person to feel sympathy for millionaires, but think about how salty you might sometimes be at your salary versus the profit margin of your conglomerate employer or the disparity between the CEO’s compensation versus your own and, while the raw numbers are different, the underlying issue is the same. We don’t have to talk about the criminality of how minor league players, under the legal control and at the mercy of the big clubs, are commoditized and not even paid a living wage, though we should all probably talk about that more—a LOT more. 

What I do want to bring up—again, as it mirrors the economic trends of our society at large—is how the giant player contracts for a select few are having devastating impacts on the players in the middle and at the bottom. It is exciting to see Mike Trout get 12 years, $426.5 million; Gerrit Cole get 9 years, $324 million; or Bryce Harper get 13 years, $330 million, but what does that leave in the pot for the rest? As more and more of the resources are funneled to the top and tied up for so many years, it absolutely has to leave less money to sign the role players, the middle relievers, and even the prolific tier 2 talent that’s out there. This further separates the haves and the have nots in baseball, and while there seems to emerge a team every year that competes with a small payroll, it’s hardly ever the same team while the stalwarts tend to be there year after year. Why is Jackie Bradley, Jr. not signed…? 

Yes, this pulls at the parity string, and yes, the system that was designed to level that particular playing field has signs of backfiring as it compensates and incentivizes losing with little to no accountability for where the payouts are invested (or perhaps even pocketed). The system is a mess, and it’s largely because it is only minimally regulated, especially as compared to other sports. There will never be a strict salary cap like there are in other sports, but I do think it would be in the best interests of the game, the fans, and the majority of players to agree to a limit on high-end contracts and the number of years permissible. Not a limit on total spending, but a limit on how much time and money can go to a single player.


Some Potential Solutions


We all love to complain and nit-pick and put forth our gripes with the world, but they often simply amount to background noise because they do not come with constructive ideas or proposed solutions. I will not pretend that I have ideas that people far smarter than I have not considered, but I do feel as though there needs to be more juice behind them because they aren’t working if they are being weakly implemented and certainly not if they are being dismissed.

It starts at the very beginning with making sure the youth programs are funded not only by the families that can afford them but by investments of deeper pockets to open access to everybody. When we capitalize and monetize children, we exploit the few and leave out the many who cannot afford the cost of admission. MLB should take a percentage of a revenue stream, perhaps playoff television revenue, or a portion of collected luxury taxes, and fund local programs such that talent and access are incentivized over recruitment of the more affluent families who can afford it. There can be an affiliate network that provides access to the funds but also requires transparency in reporting how those funds are invested to ensure it benefits the kids, not the adults.

And while we are at it, don’t simply allow girls to play and participate, encourage it. Push for it. Incentivize it. Give baseball back to the people and, perhaps, it can reclaim its throne as America’s Passtime because, though it once was, and we still call it that with romantic nostalgia, it’s not anymore.

Cultural diversity needs to be more than a bumper-sticker, and every team and organization from top to bottom needs to prioritize it. This means not only teaching international signees explicitly about America and its culture but teaching America about the cultures upon which they are turning profits. If you want to make money by scooping up a kid from the Dominican Republic, don’t put it all on him to change his entire being to fit your mold. Teach American ballplayers about the richness of cultures from all over the world. It will help everybody better understand and react to things that look or feel different.

American players don’t have to have knee-jerk reactions to international players based on ignorance because they will have been explicitly taught: this is not meant to be disrespectful, so you don’t have to react to it as though it is. And open this up to fans too. Have more coverage of the backgrounds of the international players and their stories. Talk about the culture and preach acceptance rather than push assimilation. Bring international announcers into the mix and give them a platform to talk about baseball from another perspective because, guess what, they love baseball too! 

It’s not just about ethnicity; gender equality is also a huge problem. It is easy to oversimplify here and just go with “hire more women” because that is, at its core, the real problem. But MLB should be doing a lot more to bring the game to girls and not think that pink Yankee hats are getting it done. Why not create analytical boot camps and courses that recruit female participants? Why not make a specific and concerted effort in front office hiring to recruit and support female candidates? I don’t pretend to know what goes on behind the scenes, but I can say that as an outside observer, it sure does not look like there’s much of an effort and, if there is, it’s not working. Baseball voices need to be heard, and it shouldn’t matter what equipment they happen to be sporting.

A tradition of economic exploitation and market manipulation does not need to be the continued legacy of MLB. First of all, pay minor leaguers a living wage. Give them a salary. Give them benefits. Let them feed themselves. Provide a family stipend for international players to be able to send some support back home. These players are ambassadors for the game at the most accessible levels in the country for many families to be able to see live baseball. They are not simply cogs in a machine; they are people, human beings who need to eat and pay rent and live. Entry-level work should not pay poverty wages. Period.

Second, if you limit the upside value of contracts to a single player, both in terms of money and time, you will have more available resources to create a more balanced roster and kick some more cash down to the kids who will be the stars of tomorrow. Sending so many resources to the top absolutely limits what can be spent further down the chain and enables the big market teams to dominate free agent talent acquisition. I’m not saying spend less money on players. As a matter of fact, I think owners should spend MORE money on players, but I don’t think the extra money should be concentrated with a select group of elite players at the top. It hurts the game and precludes greater investment in the younger players.


This Is Not the End


Where we are is not where we have to be. Just because things have been done a certain way doesn’t mean they have to continue to be done that way, especially if part of that way includes archaic notions of social norms and harmful stereotypes.

We don’t have to elect Curt Schilling to the Hall of Fame just because he’s good enough, and there are already racists and bigots in there. Doubling down on poor policy doesn’t get you out of a hole; it simply digs it deeper. Women were not allowed to vote in this country until 1920; we don’t say that the election of presidents prior to that should be invalidated because women weren’t allowed to vote, but we also don’t say women shouldn’t vote now because there was a time they couldn’t. Racists and bad guys have been elected to the Hall of Fame because the society of that time didn’t see that as a character flaw; now we know it is, and we have an obligation to act accordingly.

Baseball has so much to offer, and we shouldn’t make changes for the sake of change. Will robot umpires be better for the game than humans? Maybe not. 

Will rooting out bigotry, misogyny, and exploitation make baseball better?

Most definitely.


Featured Image by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)

Matt Goodwin

Husband. Dad. Teacher. Writer. Podcaster. Baseball Fan. Quippy. Makes up words. FSWA. IBWAA.

2 responses to “Baseball Holds a Mirror to Society”

  1. Scott Eyre says:

    Thanks for being willing to put this mirror up to yourself, baseball, and America. I agree with you that “through the recognition of that which holds us back that we are most likely to find a better way forward, and if we want to improve baseball, we need to first acknowledge that there is, and likely always will be, room for growth in the society within which it operates; for as goes our culture, so goes baseball.” I am interested in being a part of this conversation going forward if there are people or places that are engaging in it more.

  2. D.B. says:

    Hell yes!!!

    See? This piece, although seemingly a new manifesto, seems to reflect the attitude of the writing and editorial staff that has made this my go-to morning read for most things fantasy baseball over the last few years.

    Thank you, Mr. Goodwin, for drawing a line instead facilitating the goal-post moving that so many in the baseball media tend to use because of the generally antiquated perspective that so many adopt, either because they fear losing access in the face of the “old-school” forceful types that continue to haunt the game, or because they fear losing readership because they don’t respect “tradition.”

    The old, rusty engine seems to be moving slowly forward on these issues, but not quickly enough. I expect that the Players’ Association will do their best on a number of these issues during the next CBA negotiations, but I have my doubts considering the results of the last one.

    We, as fans and analysts need to provide our own pressure on BOTH the MLB owners and MLBPA beyond
    the surface issues and push for oversight of buscones, PED use, etc.

    The consolidation of the minor leagues may help in the near future for the sub-minimum wages, but that absolutely has to be addressed immediately, for the good of the players and the game… How is MLB going to get young people to commit to baseball when they’re stuck having to work jobs in addition to improving their game under the auspices of a major league club? Other than avoiding concussions and injuries in more physical sports, why would ANYONE want to go through the minor-league meat-grinder?

    I could keep ranting, but I’ll leave it there for now.

    Thank you PL, and Mr. Goodwin. We need more of this type of thing shouted from the rafters, AND ON THE FIELD OF PLAY.

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