On April 2, Major League Baseball (MLB) decided to move this summer’s All-Star Game from Atlanta to Denver in response to outcry over new voting restrictions passed along party lines by Georgia’s majority-Republican legislature. But the MLB should have done much more.
In an egregious affront to American democracy masquerading as an election security law, limits were placed on access to absentee, early voting and ballot drop boxes. Provisional ballots will be easier to disqualify, and organizers are no longer allowed to offer food or drink to voters standing in line. Accordingly, many voting rights organizations filed suit, describing the law as imposing “unjustifiable burdens disproportionately on the State’s minority, young, poor, and disabled citizens.”
In backing up their own response, the MLB cited past moves by the NBA in 2017 and the NFL in 1993 to move their All-Star Game and Super Bowl, respectively, over civil rights concerns of their own. The NBA swapped Charlotte, North Carolina for New Orleans, Louisiana, due to North Carolina’s passage of a bill that erased protections for the LGBTQ+ community. The NFL traded Phoenix, Arizona, for Pasadena, California, due to Arizona’s failure to recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
The tragedy of these decisions is that they are largely punishing left-leaning cities because of actions that their Republican state officials are responsible for—in Charlotte’s case, state officials were reversing an extension of rights that the city itself instituted. Further, some of the revenue that these events bring in goes to the state. But the money is likely most impactful for the host city.
In 2017, state Senator Jeff Jackson (D-NC) voiced his support for the NBA’s move and framed the revenue loss as a necessary consequence of his governor’s actions: “100 million hit to the city of Charlotte and the state. A lot of that money would go to schools, health care and roads. We’ve sacrificed all of that for Gov. McCrory’s [R-NC] social agenda.”
Stacey Abrams, former gubernatorial candidate in Georgia and now the state’s foremost voting rights activist, expressed a similar sentiment in a Twitter statement. Echoing Jackson, she noted that Republicans “prioritized making it harder for people of color to vote over the economic well-being of all Georgians.” But while she undoubtedly agreed that the Republican legislature shared the brunt of the blame, she seemed to question the MLB’s logic as well: “I am disappointed that the MLB is relocating the All-Star game…I respect boycotts, although I don’t want to see Georgia families hurt by lost events and jobs.”
What the Senator failed to acknowledge, and what Abrams alluded to, is an option that could have saved the city’s revenue and punished the state at the same time: Rather than just adopting a stance towards the issue and withholding its business, the league could have actively worked to advance civil rights from within the state itself.
In a recent op-ed, acclaimed journalist Jeff Greenfield wrote that while “the decision of MLB to act was right, in an abstract, pro-democracy moral sense,” the league also chose “to ignore a heaven-sent opportunity to actually do something concrete.” Don’t get him wrong, he’s not hung up on the money (even though he notes that Cobb County will miss out on a $100 million opportunity). What really gets on Greenfield’s nerves is the failure to “Bring the full force of baseball’s celebrity power to bear on Georgia itself.”
Baseball has vast amounts of social capital at its disposal. Speaking out and withholding business, as the MLB has done, is one way to spend that capital and encourage others, especially their myriad fans, to fight authoritarian policies. But they just as easily could have utilized their influence by keeping the All-Star Game in Atlanta and employing all-star weekend as a full-court press to advance voting rights. Widespread ballot access is slipping through Georgians’ fingers, despite historic and hard-won victories in the January Senate runoffs. Imagine if, at the same time, Atlanta’s All-Star Game had voter registration booths next to concession stands and infographics about voter suppression on the back of every ticket. Envision Stacey Abrams throwing out the first pitch and Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff coming to speak in the days leading up to and following the game. I’m sure they would have come for free, but if not, baseball has plenty of monetary capital too.
Now let’s zoom in a little. This was supposed to be a truly special All-Star Game for Atlanta, the metro-area home to the second-largest Black population in the country. The voting laws are horrifying and targeted, yes, but they still could have been passed in many states. However, no other city was more fit to honor the late great Hank Aaron during this Midsummer Classic. Hammerin’ Hank played for the Braves for 21 years, nine of which came after the club moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta. Aaron, who passed away in January, hit the second-most home runs of all-time and walked more often than he struck out, a rarity especially by today’s standards. His feats are all the more impressive considering he did it as a Black player throughout the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s; Aaron debuted just seven years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, and, like Robinson, he was subject to death threats and constant verbal abuse by fans and the press, documented in hundreds of thousands of letters that he saved as a reminder of how far our country still has to go in the ever elusive quest for racial equality.
After retiring, Aaron became one of the first Black individuals to work in the upper echelons of a baseball front office, serving the Braves for many years. His wife, Billye Aaron, continues to break barriers entering her 45th year on the board of directors for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Aaron maintained strong ties to the NAACP as well, and he and Billye joined other civil rights icons shortly before his passing to demonstrate the safety of the new COVID-19 vaccines.
A proponent of justice until his dying day, Aaron deserved an all-star sendoff on his home turf. His lack of one can and should be attributed to Georgia’s Republican legislators, but the MLB shouldn’t get off scot-free. They should not be absolved of their racist past by virtue of a virtue-signalling boycott they rolled out at little personal expense. They need to do more. Cleveland’s team, still called the Indians, only announced plans to change their name by 2022 this past December. While Aaron and Robinson at least made the Hall of Fame easily and in their lifetimes, their contemporary Dick Allen, who endured racial derision from fans of his own team, was not so lucky. His candidacy has been considered many times already, but Allen passed away in December, just before it could be weighed once more; while it seems he will finally be inducted, it will have to be posthumously.
I began this article by sticking to facts and reason. Allow me to make an emotional appeal here: the MLB’s decision has clear shortcomings, but not just on a league-wide, state-wide level. Their oversight is a personal insult to one of their all-time greats. And Hank Aaron wasn’t just a one-of-a-kind player; he was an exceptional human being, as his resolve to pursue glory in the sport he loved helped him withstand years of bigotry. While boycotting does have its merits, had Aaron walked away, he wouldn’t have had the opportunity to change the game from the inside out. If the MLB truly wished to honor him, they would have kept the All-Star Game in Georgia and, like Hank, sought to effect change from within.