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Why MLB donated money to Cindy Hyde-Smith

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The cynical calculations of baseball and political donations.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke Testifies To Senate Committee On Interior Dept’s Budget Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Yesterday, news broke that Major League Baseball donated $5,000 to Mississippi Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith, and all hell broke loose. Hyde-Smith is a Republican running for reelection in a runoff vote to be held on Tuesday. Her opponent, Democrat Mike Espy, is vying to become the first African American Senator from Mississippi since the 1870s.

She gained recent infamy for attending a segregated high school and praising Confederate soldiers. Recently, she proclaimed that she would love to see a public hanging.

“If (a local farmer) invited me to a hanging, I’d be in the front row.” -Cindy Hyde-Smith

Due to Hyde-Smith’s racially dubious history and comments, several large corporations have withdrawn support of her campaign. This includes Walmart, AT&T, and Leidos. In spite of this, MLB decided she was still worthy of its financial support.

After baseball Twitter exploded, MLB released a statement early this morning stating they requested that the contribution be returned.

There are a lot of villains in this story, and all of them have flimsy excuses. Hyde-Smith apologized for her “hanging” comment and blamed the liberal media for portraying her as a racist. President Trump calls her an “outstanding person.” For its part, MLB feigned ignorance.

There are really two possibilities here. 1) MLB is lying. They’re trying to backpedal and cover up this public relations disaster. They knew all along what kind of person Hyde-Smith is and didn’t care. 2) They’re telling the truth. In this scenario, they didn’t do their research on candidates to whom they write $5,000 checks.

But what business does MLB have donating to Senate candidates in the first place?

First of all, it’s worth noting that MLB does operate minor league teams in Mississippi. The Biloxi Shuckers and Mississippi Braves (who play in Jackson) both compete in the double-A Southern League. However, the U.S. Senate writes laws for the entire country, so home state sometimes matters very little.

Secondly, this has nothing to do with partisanship. They donate to Democrats and Republicans, and even more to the former than the latter.

MLB is a business, first and foremost, with annual revenues surpassing $10B. Like most industries of this magnitude, they use their financial might to influence legislators. This past spring, the Save America’s Pastime Act ruled that minor leaguers are exempt from minimum wage and overtime laws.

Minor league players make an estimated average of $8,000 per year, though some make far less. The entirety of minor league baseball— about 6,500 players— costs somewhere around $50-55 million in salary. That’s about $1.7 million per team. Given that most minor leaguers work far more than 40 hours per week during the season, overtime laws would force these costs to nearly double. An “investment” of a few thousand dollars to grease the wheels of democracy saved them millions in player costs.

Many minor leaguers live in poverty. They often can’t afford basic necessities like food and clothing. It bears repeating that MLB rakes in upwards of $10 billion every year. They could more than double the salaries of minor leaguers for the cost of one year of Jeff Mathis. That they choose not to is reprehensible; paying off legislators to enforce it is even worse.

Funding political campaigns doesn’t end with minor league pay, either. MLB relies on its antitrust exemption to operate outside the laws governing conventional corporations. They’re also eyeing a potentially lucrative pot of money in legalized gambling.

Even if you pinned down Commissioner Rob Manfred, forced him to drink truth serum, and coerced an admission of all of this, he would still probably tell you this has nothing to do with race. He would be profoundly incorrect.

People, including Senators, are complex and flawed. We all have good and bad attributes. None of us are qualified to truly measure one another, and we all make mistakes of judgement. Nonetheless, we are the sum of our parts, and they cannot be separated from the whole self of each person.

MLB didn’t donate to Hyde-Smith because she is racist (I hope). Surely, they expect her to support some upcoming legislative scam designed to make billionaires even richer— perhaps at the expense of their employees and perhaps at the expense of all of us. But they did donate to her, and she is racist.

When they ally themselves with Hyde-Smith, they have to take responsibility for her whole self. There’s no discernment between the pro-corporate Hyde-Smith and the racist Hyde-Smith. Again, there are no perfect people, and certainly no perfect Senators, but when MLB supports a candidate for whatever reason, they have to understand that they support everything that candidates stand for. In Hyde-Smith’s case, that includes public lynchings and the Confederacy.

Every April 15th, MLB honors Jackie Robinson. Players are allowed to wear number 42, and there are moving speeches and video presentations. In this way and others, they claim to honor diversity. But honor requires more than just an annual ceremony. Honor is a way of conducting one’s self ALL the time, even (especially) when you think no one is watching.

When MLB represses minor leaguers, buys and sells democracy, and backs racist political figures, it renders Jackie Robinson Day disingenuous. But it was never about honoring his legacy or committing to equality in the first place. The Hyde-Smith contribution reminds us that MLB has only one motive: profit. (You can buy Robinson’s jersey at MLB.com for $188.99 on sale!) If honor is trampled for the sake of squeezing every last dollar, so be it.


Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at www.OffTheBenchBaseball.com. Tweets @depstein1983