In a prior post, I discussed the hypocrisy of claims by members of the Chicago Cubs organization that players’ character matters in relation to the domestic abuse allegations against Cubs INF Addison Russell. In light of recent developments about MLB’s political activity and support of racist US Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith, I am writing a follow-up about bullshitting by the league concerning the legacy of Jackie Robinson.
Every year on April 15, MLB teams celebrate Jackie Robinson Day, which commemorates when baseball legend Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball as a player for the Brooklyn Dodgers (now the Los Angeles Dodgers). Every player dons Robinson’s retired number 42 for the day in his honor. This anniversary often prompts various news stories reflecting on the status of Black Americans’ (and Canadians’) declining representation in the modern game and lauding MLB’s efforts in promoting baseball to Black youth.
Please note that when I use the term “Black”, I am using the word in the sense defined by activist Bree Newsome Bass, referring to descendants of enslaved Africans.
We’re all racially black (race being social/political construct w/n white supremacist colonial systems) & we’re all African. But Black American is term that to me specifically refers to descendants of enslaved Africans who can’t claim individual ethnic group or nation in Africa
— Bree Newsome Bass (@BreeNewsome) November 23, 2018
One of the most interesting parts of the Toronto Star story I linked to above was not the promotion of MLB’s diversity initiatives, but the comments by former Blue Jays OF Curtis Granderson, a Black American, about discrimination against Black minor-leaguers Demetrius Heath and Dayle Campbell in the Detroit Tigers system which the Star story characterized as a cultural dispute over hairstyles. According to Granderson, his former MiLB teammates, who wore their hair in braids, were released from their minor-league club for violating a rule about players having hair touching the shoulders while “[W]hite players with shoulder-length mullets remained on the team.” Heath went on to play independent ball, and Granderson wondered whether he could have been a successful major-league player if not for being released in A ball, saying with regard to factors influencing eventual success, “A lot of it isn’t necessarily your performance, it’s things you need to do off the field … to give you every opportunity so you can showcase your talents.”
Nowadays, one of the off-field factors that minor-leaguers say affects their ability to succeed is the poverty wages received by MiLB players. According to a more recent article by Maury Brown, a Single-A player receives a salary of around US$1,300-1,600 per month. Upon promotion to Double-A, the pay increases to US$6,000 per month and US$10,000 per month in Triple-A (closest level to the majors). While $10,000 per month would be a somewhat comfortable salary for a single person over a full 12-month year, minor-leaguers play a shorter season than MLB players and US$50,000 is not sufficient to support a family, even decades ago when I was a child. And professional athletes, including baseball players, in the US, have “never been subject to federal minimum wage and overtime law to begin with.” According to one of Brown’s sources:
“Most players in the minor leagues are paid less than $7500 for the entire year,” said one critical advocate for the Minor League players that wished to remain anonymous. “Even in Double-A–two steps from the major leagues–most guys are making wages that put them below the federal poverty guidelines. And regardless of the level, players are not paid during spring training; in essence they are required to work for 50+ hours per week for free. That should not happen in any industry, much less a $12 billion industry.“
MiLB salaries are covered by Major League Baseball, not by the minor-league franchises. This means Major League Baseball has a vested interest in ensuring that the overhead for their talent pipeline remains low. Meanwhile, there were several lawsuits pending as of earlier this year that were filed with the goal of obtaining minimum wage and overtime rights for MiLB players. A loss in these suits represents a major legal risk to MLB. According to Brown’s analysis:
Major League Baseball looked at salaries in the minors from 2011 to 2014 and determined that a loss in one of these court cases would cost it approximately $110 million, a figure that could double if the court assigned damages, and none of that accounts for additional costs going forward. That would throw off the percentage of revenue that goes to cover player salaries, benefits and signing bonuses, which last year accounted for approximately 56% of MLB’s revenue for players in MLB and the minors.
This risk means that MLB has been politically active in lobbying members of the US Congress to advance its interests. In March 2018, an omnibus spending bill signed into law by His Orangeness, Donald of House Trump, Pussy Grabber-in-Chief, Protector of Aggrieved Whites and Lord of the Fifty States, Insular Areas and District of Columbia, the Unbald, included a provision known as the “Save America’s Pastime Act”, which classifies minor-leaguers similarly to salaried professionals who are exempt from minimum wage and overtime law under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, thus putting a stop to the pending wage lawsuits. Passage of the Save America’s Pastime Act into law was the culmination of two years of lobbying activity which cost MLB over US$1 million.
However, MLB did not rest on its laurels after its triumph. It continued political activities ahead of the 2018 midterm elections with donations to various Congressional candidates, including one of the candidates in the Mississippi special Senate election, Cindy Hyde-Smith, a Republican.
Ms. Hyde-Smith was appointed to fill the vacant US Senate seat formerly occupied by Thad Cochran, who resigned due to health problems. A special election was called to elect Senator Cochran’s permanent replacement, which has advanced to a runoff being contested by Senator Hyde-Smith and Democratic Party candidate Mike Espy. Senator Hyde-Smith has come under scrutiny during recent weeks for a comment captured on video where she “joked about attending a ‘public hanging’ – loaded words in a state where lynchings of African Americans were once rife[.]” Following this comment, additional information has come to light showing that Senator Hyde-Smith holds neo-Confederate views. She was photographed wearing a Confederate soldier’s hat during a 2014 visit to the Jefferson Davis Home and Presidential Library, posted to Facebook with a caption of “Mississippi history at its best!” Jefferson Davis was the president of the Confederate States of America, the government set up by rebel pro-slavery secessionists during the US Civil War.
Additional reporting from a local paper in Mississippi also states that Senator Hyde-Smith attended a private high school known as a “segregation academy” and that she used her position as a legislator in the Mississippi state Senate to praise a Confederate soldier for his efforts to “defend his homeland” and “co-sponsored a resolution honoring the daughter of a Confederate Army officer.”
Following the backlash against Senator Hyde-Smith’s loaded “public hanging” comments, which were made on November 2, several large corporate donors, including Wal-Mart, AT&T and Pfizer, asked for refunds of their donations to her campaign. Meanwhile, according to Judd Legum, who publishes a political newsletter called Popular Information, the Office of the Commissioner of Major League Baseball PAC donated US$5,000, the maximum legal contribution amount, to Ms. Hyde-Smith’s campaign on November 23, weeks after her racist comments.
— Judd Legum (@JuddLegum) November 25, 2018
The news was met with immediate uproar on social media, where Senator Hyde-Smith’s racist history has been a popular topic of discussion in recent weeks among people following US politics. On Sunday, MLB announced to reporters that it, like Wal-Mart, AT&T and Pfizer, would also be asking for a refund of its donation and claimed that the donation was made earlier in November at a political event attended by MLB lobbyists who were not aware of her racist comments. However, according to Mr. Legum, the donation was reported on November 23 and donations are legally required to be reported within 48 hours of receipt.
This seems unlikely. The donation was reported yesterday and the law requires it to be reported within 24 hours of receipt
— Judd Legum (@JuddLegum) November 25, 2018
Sorry *48 HOURS of receipt
— Judd Legum (@JuddLegum) November 25, 2018
Given the ongoing dispute over MiLB salaries, it is not surprising that Major League Baseball would continue its political activities and support candidates from the Republican Party, which has consistently promoted an anti-labor agenda. Meanwhile, MLB wants fans to think it has repented for excluding talented Black players for decades of its history by promoting Jackie Robinson’s legacy with Jackie Robinson Day, which is part of the sanitized history of the civil rights movement packaged for general consumption in the United States. However, MLB’s support of Senator Hyde-Smith’s campaign well after her racist comments and history have come to light calls its diversity initiatives and the Jackie Robinson Day event into question. Diversity and respect for Black players and fans are far less important to the league than ensuring that minor-leaguers will continue to earn poverty wages. MLB’s excuse claiming its lobbyists were unaware of Senator Hyde-Smith’s racist remarks makes it clear that the league has no intention of coming clean to fans about its political agenda. It’s time for MLB to cut the bullshit.
Racism has always been baked into MLB, from the segregation era up to the anti-Latino sentiments of the present day, and it will be up to fans to hold the league accountable for its role supporting institutional racism.