One of the many benefits of being a member of the IBWAA is a regular email blast with articles written by other members. Today’s email included a piece by Dan Schlossberg, a well regarded baseball & travel writer. His piece in today’s email is a lament of MLB commissioner Rob Manfred’s decision to pull the All-Star Game out of Atlanta. The thesis of his piece being that baseball and politics shouldn’t mix and that Manfred’s decision to move the game based on how the political winds are blowing only hurts Atlanta.
Schlossberg’s thesis is wrong. At least in 2021 his thesis is wrong. The notion that baseball and politics don’t mix is incongreuent with the game’s history.
If first we look to the national anthem. Let’s get some perspective on this first. Notably that today the United States (and by proxy Canada) are the only two nations where the playing of a national anthem before a professional game is common. Our experiences with foreign sports is usually overwhelmed by international play; the World Cup, the Olympics or 6-Nations Rugby if you’re nasty. But domestic leagues across Europe (I will confine my comment to Europe as it is the only continent with which I have first hand experience) do not play their national anthem, or generally engage in any display of national pride, prior to a game.
Then why do we?
It starts with the 1918 World Series. As the United States was suffering from a fractured national ego. Over 100,000 American soldiers had laid down their lives fighting in Europe, and on September 4th a bombing in Chicago had claimed the lives of four more people. In August a devastating wave of influenza tore from Boston harbor across the continent. And the federal government had recently announced intentions to begin drafting professional baseball players into service.
19,274 people made their way to Comiskey Park for game 1 between the Red Sox & Cubs. Less than 70% of the stadium’s capacity at the time. But the game might as well have started in front of cardboard cutouts. There was very little enthusiasm for what was reportedly a phenomenal pitching dual between Boston’s Babe Ruth and Chicago’s Hippo Vaughn. But during the 7th inning stretch, the US Navy Band began playing a newly rearranged version of The Star Spangled Banner by John Phillip Sousa. Boston’s Fred Thomas – who was on furlough from the Navy to compete in the Series – shot to attention, and saluted the flag. other players turned their attention to the flag and put their hats or hands over their hearts. Fans, who were already standing for the stretch began to sing along.
The crowd erupted into raucous applause at the song’s conclusion. The Red Sox won the game and when the series moved back to The Fens neighborhood in Boston, the lead in the series 2 games to 1. Harry Frazee, the Sox’ owner, capitalized on the patriotic energy (game 3 saw a near-capacity crowd at Comiskey), and offered free tickets to wounded soldiers, and the Star Spangled Banner was played during games at Fenway.
The practice of playing the Star Spangled Banner (and as it was eventually and is now known, the national anthem) fell out of practice in the years between World War 1 and World War 2. But the anthem once again became part of baseball as the country fought to stay unified during the second World War. Since then, the national anthem has been a fixture at baseball games at all levels.
“But that’s not really politics in baseball”, you may say.
Well, in 1887 professional baseball owners at all professional levels came to what’s remembered as the “gentlemen’s agreement” that all but codified the policy of segregating professional baseball and prohibiting black players from being successful in white leagues. In 1920 Rube Foster launched the Negro League. The Negro Leagues, beyond giving black ballplayers an opportunity to play baseball for a living, supported a widespread cottage industry of black-owned businesses from newspapers to restaurants and hotels. Baseball was politically on both sides of segregation until 1945. In 1946 Jackie Robinson plays for the Montreal Royals, a Brooklyn Dodgers farm team that had recently moved to a more socially progressive city in Canada in anticipation of Robinson’s arrival. And oh, does baseball love patting itself on the back for what happened in 1947.
Now, we also have to remember that there was a second agreement that lead to a quota where teams, once they finally integrated, would only have one black ball player on their major league roster.
More recently, we remember the September Yankees games in 2001. George H.W. Bush’s first pitch. The teams wearing FDNY, PAPD & NYPD hats. It was a story that we all needed in the moment.
Baseball has always been intimately woven into the fabric of the country, whole cloth and fro better or worse. From Rick Monday interrupting a flag burning protest in Los Angeles to the crowd chanting “USA” as word of the assassination of Osama bin Laden began to trickle around Citizens Bank Ballpark in Philadelphia. Baseball has been both backdrop and center stage to America’s growth spurts, failures and triumphs.
Baseball cannot shy away from it’s place in our culture when politics make the game inconvenient. It cannot because we cannot. The political conversation of our day is saturating, and it is tiring, but it is more important than even the game of baseball.
Specifically with the move of the All-Star Game away from the Atlanta Braves, we need to consider a few things.
First, we are still seeing restricted capacity attendance across the country (except for Texas, because Texas is insane). This is not an average All-Star Game, the financial impact is not the crushing blow it would be in a typical year. The club’s notion that the workers and small business owners in Atlanta would suffer is borderline ridiculous. All businesses are suffering right now, but the All-Star Game in Cobb County in a stadium surrounded by businesses owned by the team.
The anticipated ceremony celebrating Henry Aaron in Atlanta being lost to Atlanta is not the radical injustice some might think. Aaron was no fan of Atlanta, he did not want the team to move from Milwaukee, and while in Atlanta he was the target of an overwhelming flood of hate mail, threats, and mistreatment at the hands of southern fans. Because of the hatred, Aaron missed milestone life achievements of those around him, including his childrens’ graduation ceremonies, he wasn’t allowed to open his own mail for three years, and he would often, even in retirement, scan crowds for potential threats.
Returning to Schlossberg’s piece, he notes that Rob Manfred is a registered Republican (as are, he assumes the majority of MLB ownership groups). Making the suggestion that this may be some sort of knee-jerk reaction to avoid criticisms of his own politics. However, Major League Baseball doesn’t represent just Rob Manfred and the owners, it represents the coaches, players, clubbies, and everyone else that draws a paycheck from Major League Baseball interests. If we pair that with the Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United decision, being that corporations may use their financial leverage as protected speech, gives Major League Baseball the legal precedent to do just that, use their money as speech.
Withdrawing the financial benefits of the All-Star Game is, thanks to Citizens United, protected speech, and using that speech to draw national attention to a horrendous law that could find its way, as Schlossberg points out, to 20 other states is proper and necessary.
I make no claim to know Dan Schlossberg’s personal politics. I do not want this to make presumptions as to whether Dan supports this law or not. Dan is an incredibly talented writer with a passion for two things I also enjoy, baseball and traveling. This is just simply an issue on which we disagree.