Since Major League Baseball established a foothold in the nation’s capital at the turn of the century, the league has exploited a truism about politics in America: Influence is unbelievably cheap. Over the last 17 years, through its political action committee, MLB has donated slightly more than $3.7 million to 321 members of Congress, according to an analysis of federal election records by Yahoo Sports. For less than one season of the average salary for a single baseball player, the league wooed senators and House members, Republicans and Democrats, men and women, a few thousand dollars at a time, in hopes that someday their power could work in the league’s favor.
On March 22, the strategy paid back manifold. Late that night, Congress tucked a two-paragraph provision – laughably called Save America’s Pastime Act – into the 1,967th page of its $1.3 billion spending bill. Two years earlier, a bill by the same name had been scuttled after outcry over its intent – to make law the cartoonish underpayment of minor league baseball players – prompted one of its co-sponsors to almost immediately wash her hands of it. Now, all those donations, and the millions more the league spent lobbying, were making for a handsome return on investment. The lawsuit seeking fair wages for minor league players was now running up against codified law.
All of the league’s success in Washington made its recent stumble that much more calamitous, particularly because of its damages far beyond Capitol Hill. The revelation by Popular.info’s Judd Legum over the weekend that the league had recently donated $5,000 to Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.), whose racially tinged remarks about lynching and voter suppression have become the focal point of her run-off election Tuesday against Democratic challenger Mike Espy, prompted the league to ask for Hyde-Smith to return the donation.
In addition, multiple sources familiar with the situation told Yahoo Sports, MLB has asked Hyde-Smith to return two previous donations, made June 30 and Sept. 30, totaling another $5,000. While those came before her infamous comment – in which Hyde-Smith evoked the brutal history of lynchings in Mississippi by saying of a supporter: “I would fight a circle saw for him; if he invited me to a public hanging, I would be on the front row” – the recent donation was made as early reports of Hyde-Smith’s words started to circulate.
When a lobbyist who works for MLB could not attend a fundraiser put on by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in mid-November, the league was asked instead to donate money to Hyde-Smith, according to sources. The league cut the check for Hyde-Smith’s campaign on Nov. 12 or 13, two sources told Yahoo Sports – a day or two after the lynching comments were first made public by the Jackson Free Press. The campaign reported the contribution in a Nov. 24 filing.
MLB was one of at least nine companies – including Google, Ernst & Young, Pfizer, Boston Scientific and AT&T – that have asked for Hyde-Smith to return contributions since Legum’s reporting showed the donations.
The ugliness is particularly acute for MLB because of how the league’s efforts to celebrate its diverse history and recruit young black players run in contrast to its support of a candidate who attended a so-called segregation academy in Mississippi. While Hyde-Smith isn’t the only candidate charged with racism to whom the league has donated – it gave $1,000 in 2004 and 2006 to Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), according to campaign contribution records – the supercharged political climate brings a narrowed focus on the league’s distribution of PAC funds.
Certainly the oversight from the league will tighten, according to sources, particularly with how easily the donation to Hyde-Smith following the lynching comments could have been avoided. The last time the league faltered so clearly in Washington was during the steroid hearings, under former commissioner Bud Selig. His successor, Rob Manfred, had avoided political firestorms.
If any good can come of the current conflagration, it’s added incentive to redouble the league’s commitment to vital causes. Among racist tweets, ridiculous remarks from announcers and now this, MLB has unloaded half a pistol in its foot this year. It needs more resources, more staff and, most of all, more commitment from higher-ups that the league’s efforts aren’t simply window-dressing to placate the public.
Because companies that are committed to ideals of inclusion don’t throw $5,000 at a senator who makes references to lynchings in a state with a wretched history of them while opposing a candidate who is black. No matter how MLB has divvied up its contributions – 56.6 percent of its donations to candidates this year went to Democrats, and since 2002, it has given $1.28 million to Democrats and $1.1 million to Republicans – nothing can wash away the stain of the money given to Hyde-Smith.
MLB asking for the return of $10,000 is a good first step in moving past it. Taking that $10,000 and donating it to a cause that helps celebrate the rich history of baseball and black culture – perhaps the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum – would be a reasonable redirection of the funds. And perhaps rather than firehosing millions of dollars at politicians in hopes they’ll cure some small ills or grease some tiny wheels, MLB can put its money where its mouth is and woo boys and girls, black and brown, a few thousand dollars at a time, in hopes that someday they’ll see baseball the way baseball wants to be seen.
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