By Andrew McGregor
Major League Baseball doesn’t care. If you have been paying attention to the sport over the last several months, it’s difficult to come to any other conclusion. Amidst the uproar and panic of the global COVID-19 pandemic and a summer of intense social unrest and protests against systemic inequality and police brutality, the sport doesn’t care. It has routinely acted in selfish and self aggrandizing ways aimed at protecting its bottom line. The sport has consistently shown that selfishness is its guiding principle as it seeks to protect the “good ole boy” system of our national pastime, which reflects the very institutionalized racism and power structures used to extract wealth from people of color that is no longer acceptable in our society.
The hiring of Tony La Russa as a manager of the Chicago White Sox is emblematic of MLB’s nonchalance towards matters of race and social activism. The blatant disregard for public health and safety, most recently displayed by Justin Turner but also seen during the season by players like Zach Plesac and Mike Clevinger, further illustrates how the league’s selfishness is animated. Throughout the summer, MLB showed a tacit permissiveness of these risky behaviors as the St. Louis Cardinals and Miami Marlins experienced widespread COVID-19 outbreaks with little repercussions. The sport, instead, chose to deal with the issue in-house, as Cleveland did in its handling of Plesac and Clevinger. Major League Baseball did not care to send a strong message or show its fans the importance of taking the deadly virus seriously. Money took precedence.
Dealing with issues in-house is how things are often done in sport. It’s a coded way for authoritarian coaches and front offices to rule by decree, intimidation, or not at all. Major League Baseball has long shown a preference for this kind of discipline. Unwritten rules frequently govern the game’s decorum in a kind of playground justice that has no use for grand juries or long drawn out investigations. Keeping things in-house it tantamount to saying “boys will be boys” and controlling narratives by ignoring the court of public opinion. In short, MLB managers prefer to decide themselves who should and should not be canceled.
MLB chose not to cancel itself during the pandemic, nor did it ban or punish any of its players. Instead, athletes were shuttled from “alternate training sites” and placed on the disabled list while they quarantined. In most cases infections were treated like normal injuries, rather than an indication of more serious issues or protocol violations. As it privileged profit over safety, the league created new rules to allow teams suffering substantial outbreaks the chance to make up games, often in a new 7-inning double header format. They managed the pandemic by taking cues from the Whtie House and largely ignoring it.
Major League Baseball didn’t care during the season, which enabled Justin Turner’s selfish and dangerous actions during Game 6 of the World Series. Likely further emboldened by the fact the season is now over, Turner weighed the potential repercussions, which up to that point had been minimal. No doubt, he understood the sport’s reluctance to take a firm stand. He probably gambled because the evidence shows they don’t care.
It’s unclear how MLB will respond and whether they will punish Turner. Disciplinary matters are further complicated by the tension between MLB and the Major League Baseball Players Association. In the lead up to the shortened pandemic season, players and owners engaged in heated negotiations about working conditions, compensation, and more. Even if most players disagree with Turner’s behavior, they will more than likely be unwilling to cede any ground to the owners.
The labor tension endemic to Major League Baseball is one factor in the sport’s penchant for eschewing written formalities. Almost every manager, and many front office personnel, are former players. They constitute an institutional network of privilege that until very recently remained primarily white and required proving one’s aptitude and loyalty by climbing the ranks. Once you’ve reached the top, this good ole boy network rewards you for maintaining the status quo and often protects you with a number of second chance “retread” opportunities. Within this system, the unwritten rules flow back and forth between labor and management to “protect the game” without the unwieldy protections of a formalized justice system.
Similar to keeping matters in-house, the unwritten rules allow for a degree of performative justice that appeals to players, managers, and fans alike. Their opacity is a key feature of the systemic privilege and inequality found in baseball. These mythic behavior codes act as both a site of struggle and negotiation as players and managers battle each other, and their opponents, to shape the game.
Bean balls police bat flips, attempting to humble over enthusiastic athletes. Demonstrative and emotional players are similarly quelled. While at times these actions do result in formal penalties and warning, they are similarly celebrated as part of bringing teams together. Narratives of defending one’s honor or the sanctity of the game accompany these actions. More often than not, players take cues from managers when enforcing these codes. The so-called “old school” method represents a time before the Player’s Association had power in adjudicating conflicts and an era when resentful white managers sought to “welcome” non-white players to the Major Leagues. The Old School approach is emblematic of the systemic privileges and powers manifest in baseball. It is a way for management to recognize an athlete is equal, perhaps even highly paid, but to demonstrably show that they do not care.
Race is a critical part of the unwritten rules. Look no further than baseball’s own exclusionary “gentlemen’s agreement,” which included its own sliding scale of race and pigment. Latin American and Hispanic players frequently remain ensnared in the grips of the unwritten rules and their updated applications. Since athlete-activism has reemerged within professional sports in America, baseball players have remained similarly cautious. Tony La Russa’s record as a manager and his public statements reveal much of the reason why.
When it comes to social activism and decorum, La Russa follows the old school approach. He also embodies the phrase “do as I say not as I do.” As Jeff Passan made clear in 2016, La Russa is far from a model citizen, yet he views himself as a defender of the game. He’s frequently spoken about the “unwritten rules” as they apply to pitching and sought to defend “his guys” when necessary. Yet, La Russa doesn’t want his guys speaking out. He doesn’t care what they have to say.
Adam Jones’ commented that “baseball is a white man’s sport” in 2016, when asked about why African American baseball players weren’t protesting like Colin Kaepernick. Tony La Russa is one of those white men. He warned players in a series of interviews during 2016 that he would not tolerate protests, “If you want to make your statement you make it in the clubhouse, but not out there, you’re not going to show it that way publicly and disrespectfully.” To La Russa, protesting or kneeling, disrespects the flag and the game. As a manager and executive, the game is his top priority, not players or social issues like systemic racism.
La Russa is not alone, of course. In 2017, Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman used a racist analogy to explain his views on athletes who speak out about social and political issues. “The higher on the tree the monkey climbs, the more you see of his ass. So if you’re going to choose to climb that tree, you’re putting your ass out there. So I think you just educate everyone on dealing with the media. And you’re educated to know the waters you’re choosing to swim in. It doesn’t mean you have the ‘Don’t swim’ sign. It just means, ‘Caution, no lifeguard.'” The clear implication is that Cashman doesn’t have your back. He doesn’t care.
But why would Cashman, La Russa, or Major League baseball care? Those within the conservative bubble, and even the broader media, often speculate (without much evidence) that protests are a distraction and lead viewers and fans to tune-out. Just this year the NBA made $1.5 billion less than it had forecasted. While there are many factors for this dip, the quickness that some point to politics and protests creates anxiety among executives in other professional sports. Baseball, unlike the NBA, has an aging and majority white fanbase. According to Bloomberg, “Only about 24% of baseball fans are under age 35, compared with 45% of basketball fans.” Similarly, The Atlantic found that 83% of people who watched baseball on TV were white. Due to these demographics and their correlation with political ideology, MLB along with La Russa worry that social activism would hurt its bottom line.
La Russa has revised his original stance on player activism, telling Sports Illustrated: “If you talk about specifically baseball, I applaud and would support the fact that they are now addressing [and] identifying the injustices, especially on the racial side.” Yet, his comments still prioritize baseball. Baseball and money are the top concern. Permissible activism is only that which centers the game. One has to wonder what La Russa might consider acceptable within this framework. Where would his allegiance lie in the bitter feud between players and owners? How will he (re)build trust with Black players, like the White Sox’s Tim Anderson?
As Dan Bernstein reminded us on Twitter, everything is conditional with La Russa. Conditionality is part and parcel to the unwritten rules as well as the sporting middle ground. Its liminality services an uneven application of power integral to systems of exploitation.
More than any other professional sport, baseball is in the exploitation game. While the abuses of professional football are hard to ignore, particularly given the twin maladies of CTE and COVID-19 in 2020, baseball has created its own plantation system of neo-colonial extraction. Money is the most important thing to Major League Baseball and it will search far and wide to identify inexpensive talent in order to populate its teams. Latin American academies groom future stars, selling the promise of a better life. This practice of mining talent is seldom accompanied by large scale investments in these communities. Players are signed, developed, and then brought to America where they often languish as underpaid minor leaguers for years. These conditions are worsened by language barriers among teammates and coaches as well as media members. Indeed, as recently as 2014 over 90% of sports editors and nearly 85% of sportswriters identified as white.
Although Major League Baseball players remain roughly 60% white, at the minor league level its exploitation is universal. In 2018, MLB lobbied for the Save America’s Pastime Act, which limited the rights and incomes of Minor League Baseball players. The law strained the relationship between MLB and MiLB as owners sought to save money and seize control of their independently owned minor league affiliates. Players salaries, which are often paid by MLB clubs, were capped at 40-hours per week irrespective of how many hours they actually worked. In short, it stripped players of extra income and work protections. The ongoing struggle seeks to reduce the number of minor league teams, seize control of merchandising and broadcast rights, and form a new partnership where Minor League Baseball is subordinate to Major League Baseball. Extraction remains the name of the game for MLB owners where minor league teams and players alike are subject to the greedy whims of their “masters.”
As the superior league, or masters, Major League Baseball doesn’t care about the Minor Leagues. The precarious position it puts these players and affiliates in is central to maintaining its leverage and power. Extraction and exploitation require the maintenance of desperation, which is rebranded as loyalty in its “good ole boy” system of hard work and luck. Deference to authority and power is central to success.
Players have occasionally broken through this system and disrupted the power dynamics of exploitation. Responding to exclusionary policies of Major League Baseball, the Negro Leagues, which are celebrating their centennial this year, found ways to build their own successful and entertaining brand of baseball. Under the leadership of Andrew “Rube” Foster, the league sought to cultivate Black control due to his concerns over white exploitation. The Negro Leagues, at least initally, tried to prioritize Black ownership, use Black umpires, and cooperate to promote the game. By 1944, the difference was clear: 44,247 fans attended the Negro Leagues’ East-West All-Star Game while only 29,589 attend the all-white MLB All-Star game. The Negro Leagues forced Major League Baseball to care.
Curt Flood stands as another figure who forced MLB to care. Flood famously declared to Howard Cosell, “A well-paid slave is nonetheless a slave.’’ Along with Marvin Miller, the head of the MLBPA, he refused to be treated like a piece of property. Together they challenged the Reserve Clause and fought for Free Agency. His revolt, which coincided with an era of athlete protests and militant activism, ushered in a new consciousness among players regarding their economic standing.
Flood never benefited from the fight, which cost him his career, and, despite his historical significance, remains absent from the Baseball Hall of Fame. Major League Baseball has avoided celebrating or honoring his cause. After all, Flood represents a direct threat to the sport’s carefully crafted system of exploitation. The MLBPA, on the other hand, honors his legacy and values his contributions. This year they created a new Curt Flood Award introduced this year, which will be given to “a former player, living or deceased, who in the image of Flood demonstrated a selfless, longtime devotion to the Players Association and advancement of Players’ rights.”
MLB’s erasure of Flood, its half-hearted support of the Negro League Baseball Museum’s celebration, its assault on Minor League Baseball, its colonization of Latin America, and its flimsy COVID-19 protocols, reveal just how little it cares about players’ rights. The White Sox’s hiring of La Russa similarly showcases the sport’s persistent systemic racism and investment in whiteness. It shows just how little Major League Baseball cares.
MLB’s rejection of a unified front allows it to dither on these topics. Player development is an individual club issue. Merchandising and broadcasting rights are negotiated by each team. They have their own networks. Teams compete against each other for media, for players, and for fans. Unlike the centralized powers of the NFL or NBA, Major League Baseball thrives on a loose federation. It’s united in its exploitation and greed, but selfish in its individualized execution. The varying approaches and philosophies towards analytics, roster construction, and payroll heighten competition not on the field but in the negotiating room. It produces a liminality, or a gray area, where teams can thrive. This is precisely why a salary cap is anathema to Major League Baseball.
This ruthlessness is supposed to be in support of rewarding loyal fans with a high quality product. Fans matter. They’re the reason the sport exists. But, baseball’s efforts to grow the game have routinely failed. A sport that doesn’t care about its players, doesn’t embrace a united front in terms of marketing and development, rejects large segments of the population by refusing to address its own history of racism, exploitation, and colonization, and is actively abandoning its feeder communities, stands little chance. Charity and building community are difficult when your entire business model and ongoing negotiation tactics focus on extracting wealth and talent by isolating and seizing leverage.
Baseball will survive, of course. It’s “too big to fail” and too entrenched in American culture. Justin Turner’s selfishness is the norm and the unwritten rules are flexible enough to accommodate him. The sport has also dealt with Tony La Russa before, survived a previous pandemic, adapted to new social and political climates, and mostly rebounded from a mass exodus of fans. Baseball’s plasticity and longevity have given it the ability not to care. Hopefully, however, Major League Baseball will discover its conscious. Hopefully it will soon recognize the profound harm caused by its radical apathy. Hopefully it will discover that human dignity is worth more than an extra buck. Hopefully, someday it will care.
Andrew McGregor, PhD is the founder and co-editor of this blog. He teaches history at Dallas College.