For years, former commissioner Bud Selig liked to refer to Major League Baseball as a “social institution” -- and honestly, it felt unearned.
Sure, Jackie Robinson’s debut in 1947 was a seminal event in civil rights, but that was generations ago. In the first two decades of this century, both the league and its athletes seemed to do everything they could to avoid any civic or social engagement that risked turning off a single customer.
In 2011, some MLB players called for the league to move its All-Star Game from Arizona in response to that state’s immigration laws.
Not only did the league proceed with that game as scheduled, but several star players who initially spoke out, including the Mets’ Carlos Beltran and the Red Sox’s Adrian Gonzalez, backtracked and reported to Phoenix for the game
A decade ago, that was the norm in baseball. Most players and officials seemed intent on avoiding the “social institution” label that its own commissioner used.
What a difference a decade makes.
On Friday, the league made an extraordinary decision that demonstrated the extent to which both it and the world had changed. In stark contrast to the pointed disengagement of Selig and players in 2011, the league and commissioner Rob Manfred announced that it would move this year’s All-Star Game and amateur draft out of Atlanta.
The move was a reaction to a recently passed Georgia law that makes access to voting more difficult, particularly for people of color. That law was a response to unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud in the 2020 elections.
The decision was Manfred’s, and was not subject to collective bargaining or any agreement with the Players Association, according to people briefed on the situation.
The league also experienced pressure from a variety of entities, including the White House, that would have acted differently a decade ago.
In recent days, Atlanta-based companies Coca-Cola and Delta spoke out against the new law.
Delta CEO Ed Bastian reportedly wrote this week in a memo to employees that "the entire rationale for this bill was based on a lie: that there was widespread voter fraud in Georgia in the 2020 elections.”
President Biden, who called the Georgia Law “Jim Crow on steroids,” spoke out on Thursday in favor of MLB moving the game.
“I would strongly support them doing that,” Biden told ESPN. “People look to them. They’re leaders.”
These outside actions and pressures provided Manfred cover to act, even as many players, executives and fans surely disagreed with his decision. It had become smart business to oppose certain kinds of injustice -- and that in itself was a significant change.
This was not MLB’s first move toward social justice and voting rights. In the wake of the unrest that followed the death of George Floyd last summer, the league issued a statement and staged Black Lives Matter-themed demonstrations.
If those actions felt more like public relations than bold action, the league did push farther in subsequent months.
In the fall, it became the first professional sports league to join the Civic Alliance, a nonpartisan group of businesses that promotes civic engagement and access to voting. It also committed to Time to Vote, described on the MLB website as “a business-led initiative to help ensure employees have access to and information about early voting or vote-by-mail options, updating policies to ensure paid time off on Election Day, and supporting employee efforts to volunteer as poll or election workers during the election cycle.”
Now, in moving the All-Star Game and draft, Manfred took his strongest step yet.
Clearly, these moves were made possible by a changing world and business climate, not pure altruism. But in opposing voter suppression, Major League Baseball has taken a significant step toward living up to Selig’s claims about its role in society.