Baseball, Political Donations, and the Impact of Unforced Errors

Cindy Hyde-Smith is not a baseball player. This is undoubtedly the first time her name has ever been mentioned on this site, and, with any luck, it will also be the last. That’s because Ms. Hyde-Smith is a Republican United States Senator from Mississippi, a state that has no major league baseball team. After being appointed to the seat earlier this year to replace the ailing Thad Cochran, she’s running to be elected in her own right, facing Democrat Mike Espy in a high-profile run-off Senate election set for November 27.

Ordinarily, this isn’t something we would cover at FanGraphs. But over the weekend, Major League Baseball found itself in a bit of hot water after donating $5,000 to Ms. Hyde-Smith’s campaign.

Now, for the sake of accuracy, let’s get a couple of facts straight. First, despite reporting to the contrary, Major League Baseball wasn’t the entity that provided money to Ms. Hyde-Smith’s campaign. Instead, the donation was made by the Office of the Commissioner of Major League Baseball Political Action Committee, a separate legal entity that exists for the purpose of “aggregat[ing] contributions from members or employees [of MLB] and their families to donate to candidates for federal office.” Second, it’s important to note that MLB donates to lots of politicians through various political action committees and other political arms. MLB also has a separate lobbying arm with its own office in Washington, D.C. The PAC’s donations go to candidates of both major political parties, including $30,000 in donations over the last two years to each of the Democratic and Republican congressional campaign committees. In 2016, MLB spent over a million dollars on lobbying, a figure that doesn’t include campaign donations.

So MLB–or its associated PACs–donates to lots of politicians. If you’ve been reading my work at this site for a while, that shouldn’t surprise you; MLB is involved in political activity ranging from endeavoring to reduce its tax burden to staking out a position on sports gambling to maintaining its antitrust exemption to curtailing minor league pay. There are any number of issues that might inspire MLB to attempt to influence an election, and its winner’s future agenda.

Indeed, it wasn’t the existence of the PAC’s donation that raised eyebrows, so much as it was the recipient. And that’s because Cindy Hyde-Smith has, while on the campaign trail, demonstrated a penchant for what one might call “unforced errors,” many of which were racially charged. She said she would be in the “front row” if she were invited to a public hanging, a remark that to many recalled Mississippi’s history of lynchings. She then made news when she was quoted as saying, “There’s a lot of liberal folks in those other schools who maybe we don’t want to vote. Maybe we want to make it just a little more difficult. And I think that’s a great idea.” After dismissing the remark as a joke, Hyde-Smith ended up on the defensive again after Politico reported that she attended a school founded for the express purpose of continuing racially segregated education after the Brown v. Board of Education decision required that schools be integrated before later sending her own child to a similarly intentionally segregated school. She also wrote legislation praising Confederate soldiers for “defending [their] homeland,” and posed for pictures with a white nationalist neo-Confederate while holding and wearing Confederate paraphernalia.

The string of missteps has led several corporations that had previously donated to Hyde-Smith, including Walmart, AT&T, and Pfizer, to ask for their money back. But the Office of the Commissioner of Major League Baseball Political Action Committee’s donation was listed on public disclosures filed on November 24, 2018 as having been made a day earlier, on November 23. That’s three weeks after Hyde-Smith’s public hanging comment, and two full days after Walmart demanded its own donation be returned. It’s also three days after the picture above became public. MLB’s PAC didn’t ask for its donation to be returned until November 25.

For its part, MLB’s spokesperson said the PAC wasn’t aware of Hyde-Smith’s checkered campaign statements when it made the donation.

Still, the earliest the donation could have been made was November 22, 2018, as federal election law requires that donations over $1,000 given close to election day be disclosed by candidate committees within 48 hours. MLB gave a different explanation for the donation.

This struck me as odd given that MLB has a separate lobbying arm, which makes separate financial disclosures, though the spokesperson’s language is admittedly vague. (It should be noted while MLB demanded the return of the PAC’s donation, as of this writing San Francisco Giants co-owner Charles Johnson and his wife, who each donated the legal maximum to Hyde-Smith, have not publicly asked for their contributions to be returned.)

Now, to be fair, there’s no evidence whatsoever that MLB donated to Hyde-Smith because of her comments, or because they share her expressed views. On the contrary, MLB told Jon Heyman Hyde-Smith’s comments were “reprehensible.” They have asked for the PAC’s donation to be returned. Indeed, it seems more likely this tragicomedy was the result of ignorance rather than animus.

But where does such an assumption really leave us? Does it excuse the donation? After all, if there is a lesson to be learned, it seems to be that the PAC considered MLB’s business interests important enough as to render it unable or unwilling to research Hyde-Smith before making the maximum allowed donation to her campaign. The necessary implication is that MLB didn’t consider her other positions or public statements to be that important, or at least, not as important as the value of whatever influence their donation would garner. That indifference is deeply concerning. To the extent that this is a fair representation of MLB’s hierarchy of values, it is another in a long line of instances in which MLB has prioritized its own interests.

And what’s more, it seems to reflect a continuing blind spot for MLB, one that I’ve discussed several times before: MLB’s difficulty appealing to diverse audiences, particularly as it concerns young fans of color. If we are going to examine this decision solely from an economic standpoint, as the PAC seems to have, I am left to conclude that it’s an incredibly shortsighted move, made with far too narrow an understanding of the league’s interests. Donations to Hyde-Smith, with all of the publicly available information on her candidacy, could further alienate the very fans the sport needs in the future to sustain itself and its place in the cultural landscape.

Of course, Major League Baseball, like other corporate entities, has the legal right to use PACs to donate to politicians who will further its interests. But it might behoove the league moving forward to remember its future whilst fighting for its present. After all, donations like this have very real consequences, ones that, for baseball, could reverberate beyond a special election.

Sheryl Ring is a litigation attorney and General Counsel at Open Communities, a non-profit legal aid agency in the Chicago suburbs. You can reach her on twitter at @Ring_Sheryl. The opinions expressed here are solely the author's. This post is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.

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5 years ago

Definitely a dumb, own-goal move here. Do a google search, just one single search.

5 years ago
Reply to  JustinPBG

Agreed. This seems less like an indictment of MLB’s diversity sensitivity or race-related policy preferences, and more like an indictment of whoever is running the PAC. It sounds like MLB needs to find someone more competent for the position–i.e., someone who can take a wider view towards what will really promote MLB’s goals in the long run, and then do the diligence necessary to make sure any donations are consistent with that view.

5 years ago
Reply to  JustinPBG

I suspect they were fully aware, didn’t really care, and didn’t think anybody would notice. Then lied about being unaware when people did notice.

5 years ago
Reply to  JustinPBG

You really believe they didn’t know anything about her when they made the donation? They just never thought the donation would come to light before the election was over.