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Sports

America's Oldest Game Takes A Political Stance. Why The MLB Moved The All-Star Game

coors_field_ken_lund_cc-by-sa.jpg
Ken Lund
/
CC BY-SA 2.0
File photo taken in July 2005 of Coors Field in Denver.

Last month, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law the Election Integrity Act of 2021. The new bill places the tightest restrictions on voting that the state has seen in years, and already critics have slammed it for being emblematic of Jim Crows laws of the past, which often created intentional voting roadblocks for people of color.

Since the bill's passage, many have boycotted the state’s top businesses, including Coca Cola and Delta Airlines. And earlier this week, Major League Baseball announced that its annual All-Star Game would be moved from the suburbs of Atlanta to Coors Field in Denver. In a statement, Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said that moving the game out of Atlanta was “the best way to demonstrate our values as a sport.”

Tom Zeiler is a professor of history at the University of Colorado who co-teaches a course called “America Through Baseball.” He is also the author of the books National Pastime: US History Through Baseball and Jackie Robinson and Race in America. He spoke with KUNC’s Alana Schreiber about the significance of this decision.

Interview Highlights
These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity

Alana Schreiber: When it comes to athletes protesting injustices, baseball is not exactly top of mind. A lot of people might think of Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the anthem at football games, the Miami Heat putting their hoodies up on the basketball court in solidarity with Trayvon Martin, or the U.S. women's soccer team fighting for equal pay. Why don't we normally see baseball players fighting against injustices like other athletes? And why is baseball taking a stand now?

Tom Zeiler: Baseball might not currently be the leader in protesting race relations, but if you go back to 1947 and Jackie Robinson, baseball was the leader. Maybe not in protest, but certainly in an experiment in race. It also drew the color line and was one of the first institutions to do that in the 1880s, well before the Supreme Court ruled separate but equal. But in 1947, before people really knew the name Martin Luther King, baseball was sort of at the forefront. Baseball integrated before the U.S. military, the other sort of institution that is quintessentially American.

So baseball has been there in this kind of social movement, but certainly is behind now. I can't help but think it’s not only due to the demographic of the fans, but also demographic of the players. A quarter of the league is foreign born, and though there are many Black Latin Americans, the number of Black Americans has declined.

And not only does the sport mainly consist of white players, but mainly white staff, management and owners as well. There's only one majority owner of color and many club owners are also Republican donors. That being said, were there significant risks to this decision? Was it surprising to anyone? And were there any repercussions?

I think it was surprising. I imagine you're going to see some raucous crowds, some protests against Major League Baseball. But I think the commissioner weighed his options. I think the focus was on Atlanta and Georgia was larger. Not only the Biden victory there, but the two senators. And again, suspiciously coincidental that the legislature and the governor passed this this voting restriction. I think Stacey Abrams was worried and disturbed about the loss of business to the locals. But I think overall she believed that this was the right move. So I think the commissioner probably was looking at many of his players saying, you know, we need to do more here. How can we really allow something like that to happen?

Speaking of the commissioner, this decision to move the All-Star Game didn't come from the athletes. It came from the league, from MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, whose job it is to appease everyone: players, managers, fans and especially owners. What is the significance of this move that it was not an athlete speaking out, but a top-down decision?

Very big. And that's a very big decision and a very tough one for the commissioner. And I mean, if you go back again to Jackie Robinson, the fact that the commissioner then, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, really was a racist and really didn't do anything to help that cause. The commissioner in baseball has usually been the servant of the owners. Commissioners usually are. So it's a very important statement. In a way, it was courageous. And I’ve got a feeling there's going to be fallout from it.

Sports are often seen as this great unifier, you know, Republican or Democrat, rich or poor. Anyone can pick a team and root for them. But this decision might pull people apart. How do you think this moment will be remembered?

Oh, I think we'll remember this one. I think the combination of the times we live in the fact that this crossed into politics and into race, this is going to be a big moment. I think you're going to hear more and more comments about politics should never enter sports.

Well, it always has been in every sport. Let's think of 9/11 and President George W. Bush showing up at Yankee Stadium to throw the first pitch of the World Series. You go to a Coors Field since 9/11 at the seventh inning stretch, you not only sing Take Me Out to the Ballgame, but America the Beautiful. And there's a military family or somebody marched out for patriotism. Nationalism has always been there, certainly the last twenty five years, but has always been there. The Star-Spangled Banner was first played in World War One at a ball game. If that's not politics, what is?

This conversation is part of KUNC’s Colorado Edition for April 8. You can find the full episode here.