MLB commissioner Rob Manfred watches before the second game of the 2019 World Series between the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals
Former commissioner for years Bud Blessed liked to refer to Major League Baseball as a “social institution” – and frankly it felt undeserved.
For sure, Jackie RobinsonThe 1947 debut was a landmark civil rights event, but that was generations ago. For the first two decades of this century, both the league and its athletes seemed to do everything possible to avoid any civic or social engagement that could run the risk of killing an individual customer.
In 2011, some MLB players urged the league to move their all-star game out of Arizona in response to that state’s immigration laws.
Not only did the league continue this game as planned, but also some star players who initially spoke out, including the Mets. Carlos Beltran and the Red Sox Adrian Gonzalez, tracked and reported Phoenix for the game
A decade ago that was the norm in baseball. Most players and officials seemed careful to avoid the “social institution” label used by their own commissioner.
What a difference a decade makes.
On Friday, the league made an extraordinary decision that showed how much both they and the world had changed. In stark contrast to the deliberate withdrawal of Selig and players in 2011, the league and the commissioner Rob Manfred announced that this year’s all-star game and amateur draft will be relocated from Atlanta.
The move was in response to a recently passed Georgian law making it more difficult for people of color to have access to voting. This law was in response to unsubstantiated claims of election fraud in the 2020 election.
The decision was made by Manfred and was not subject to collective bargaining or agreements with the Players Association, according to those informed of the situation.
The league has also come under pressure from a variety of companies, including the White House, that would have acted differently a decade ago.
In the past few days, Atlanta-based companies Coca-Cola and Delta have spoken out against the new law.
Delta CEO Ed Bastian reportedly wrote in a memo this week to staff that “the entire rationale for this bill was based on a lie: that there was widespread electoral fraud in Georgia in the 2020 elections”.
The story goes on
President Biden, who referred to Georgia law as “Jim Crow on Steroids,” spoke out on Thursday for MLB to postpone the game.
“I would strongly support them in this,” Biden told ESPN. “People look at them. You are the leader. “
These actions and the pressure from outside gave Manfred cover, even if many players, executives and fans certainly did not agree with his decision. Opposing certain types of injustice had become smart business – and that was a major change in itself.
This wasn’t MLB’s first step toward social justice and voting rights. Following the riots following the death of George Floyd last summer, the league issued a statement and held demonstrations on Black Lives Matter.
If these actions felt more like public relations than like bold actions, the league pushed further in the months that followed.
In autumn it became the first professional sports league to join the Civic Alliance, a non-partisan group of companies that promotes civic engagement and access to voting. It also committed to Time to Vote, described on the MLB website as “a company-led initiative” to ensure employees have access to and information about options for early voting or voting via email and updated the guidelines to ensure paid time off on election day and to support staff efforts to volunteer as election workers during the election cycle. “
Now that he was moving the all-star game and the draft, Manfred made his strongest move so far.
These steps were clearly made possible by a changing world and business climate, not pure altruism. But against voter repression, Major League Baseball has taken a significant step to live up to Selig’s claims about its role in society.