Major League Baseball struck what partisans are eager to portray as a historic blow for justice and progress earlier this month when Commissioner Rob Manfred announced that the league was moving its annual All-Star Game from the Atlanta metro area to Denver in protest against Georgia’s recent voting law. Some have characterized the new legislation as a revival of the system of racial apartheid practiced in that state within living memory. Whether calling the law a return to Jim Crow is justified, or whether that’s a trivialization of a very real and painful history in the service of partisan politics, almost doesn’t matter anymore. Whatever the merits of its decision, MLB has risked the alienation of a major fanbase (that of the disgusting Atlanta Braves, mind you, whose fans basically deserve it), and the loss of some part of its right-wing fandom, not to mention the cancellation of its federal antitrust exemption, a priceless piece of corporate welfare that is now the target of congressional Republicans.
The All-Star Game decision, which many leading Georgia Democrats opposed, also marks a potential shift in the relationship between professional sports and its fans—and in American society more generally—which could eventually prove more or less positive for the leagues and for the country over time.
But as a self-appointed bender of the arc of history, MLB may attract some well-deserved scrutiny of its own less savory practices, which—unlike Georgia’s voting laws—the league’s leadership is actually capable of fixing. Those practices include exploitative minor league pay controls, which the league has sought to protect through congressional action; the survival of that antitrust exemption, which is almost unique among major businesses in the United States; and its alleged violation of child labor laws in the baseball camps and feeder leagues it runs in the Dominican Republic and elsewhere, which reportedly exploit children as young as 12 years old to create a steady stream of capable but desperate players at cheap prices.
A more politically activist MLB might also draw attention to the replacement venue it has chosen for the Midsummer Classic.
Home to the Colorado Rockies, Coors Field is famously located some 5,200 feet above sea level, an altitude at which baseballs carry into the alpine heavens as if they’re made of hollow rubber. An exciting contest awaits on July 13 in Denver, where the All-Star Game will allow fans to forget about seven-inning double-headers, pitch clocks, extra innings starting with a runner on second base, the cyclical and weirdly clandestine juicing and dejuicing of baseballs, the relocation of the pitching rubber, the aging and shrinking fanbase, the tinkering with the designated hitter rule, and the tyranny of the Three True Outcomes, and instead celebrate what is still called, with increasing irony and panic, the “national pastime.” But a specter will still haunt the game, at least for people who remember the culture wars of 40 years ago: the name of the ballpark.
In the 1980s, the Coors family—whose company owns the naming rights to the ballfield—straddled an uncomfortable intersection of self-made success and corporate petty tyranny. The Coors lived modestly (well, for billionaires) in tiny Golden, Colorado, where three generations of the family built a small local brewery into a national market leader, in part by keeping their debt low, pioneering the development of the aluminum can, and preventing their workforce from unionizing, sometimes through the use of surprise lie detector tests, which had the added bonus of being able to “ferret out employees who were gay or whose politics were considered radical,” per The New York Times. Coors, the only U.S. brewer of its size not to have unionized, moved to dislodge the Brewery Workers Union’s nascent beachhead amid a bitterly fought strike in 1977, subjecting the company to an AFL-CIO-led boycott later joined by civil rights groups.
Coors’ biggest political headaches came from the very top. Company chief William K. Coors infamously referred to Mexican immigrants as “wetbacks,” adding during a speech before a group of minority businessmen in Denver that slavery had perhaps been a boon for Black people, who lacked “intellectual capacity.” His brother, fellow executive Joe Coors, “contributed to almost every right-wing cause of any consequence, from the John Birch Society to the Heritage Foundation, to wars against the Equal Rights Amendment and the Nicaraguan Sandinistas,” according to the Los Angeles Times, and “wound up center stage at the Iran-Contra hearings, after personally donating a $65,000 airplane to the Nicaraguan ‘freedom fighters.’” Activists also alleged that Coors funded various anti-LGBT causes through the family’s Castle Rock Foundation. When William died in 2018, at the age of 102, The New York Times referred to him as an “ultraconservative voice.”
Coors eventually changed its leadership as the family changed its image—the next generation of the family softened its stance on organized labor, negotiating an end to the standoff with the AFL-CIO in the late 1980s. When Pete Coors, son of Joe, nearly got elected to the Senate in 2004, he ran as a suburban-friendly moderate. Yet the popular resonance and symbolism of the Coors name dies hard. According to the Anti-Defamation League, members of a radical right-wing skinhead group in California—the Comrades of our Racial Struggle—“occasionally appropriate the logo for Coors Beer.”
Maybe the Coors saga is proof that boycotts work, and thus the choice of Coors Field vindicates the MLB in its decision to move the game out of Atlanta. Or maybe it’s also a reminder of how untainted nearly everything is in this country, or any country, if you operate on a long enough timeline. Coors became large and successful enough to be able to buy decades of naming rights on an MLB stadium partly as a result of blocking their employees from unionizing over several decades. The family used its power to help spread ideas now rightly considered poisonous—or perhaps the spreading of those ideas made them even more powerful, back in a very different country and world.
Other baseball-related offenses also continue into the present. The National Congress of American Indians considers the names and logos of the Cleveland Indians and the Atlanta Braves to be blatantly racist, a plea that got little sympathy from MLB until very recently. Horrible injustices abound in jurisdictions where the MLB is happy to do business; the league’s headquarters are based in New York City, where low-income children are currently locked out of public school classrooms while economically privileged children enrolled in private schools are allowed to learn in person, and a police department considered a menace to human rights by the state’s own attorney general continues to patrol the streets.
It’s possible that the MLB’s passion for social justice extends to only a single showcase event in a single state. But offenses against decency are everywhere, depending on when and how and why we choose to see them. Baseball’s top policy priority has long been the protection of that antitrust exemption, an outrageous carve-out in the law that allows it to, among other things, more easily extort local governments for funds that might otherwise go to, you know, schools and housing and stuff like that. There doesn’t seem to be any real excuse for why some of MLB’s billionaire owners are allowed to pay their minor league affiliate players less than minimum wage while stuffing their own pockets with the proceeds of having government protection from legal challenges—the kind of corporate foul play that has attracted the attention of Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, not just vengeance-seeking Republicans.
As a report from the Center for Investigative Reporting put it, “MLB has exploited loopholes in federal law to get around paying minimum wage and overtime”; the league responded to a recent lawsuit by players “by lobbying Congress to explicitly rewrite federal law to say baseball doesn’t have to follow the same pay standards as other industries.” If he’s really serious about making the world a better place, Commissioner Manfred has his work cut out for him—and he doesn’t have very far to look.
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.