MLB’s Political Donations

Author: Madeleine Smith | UC Berkeley School of Law | J.D. Candidate 2020 | Posted: February 15th, 2019 | Download PDF

The World Series ended over a month ago, but, this weekend, Major League Baseball was back in the headlines.

A flurry of critical commentary began when Judd Legum of Popular Information broke the news that the MLB, through the Office of the Commissioner of Major League Baseball PAC, had donated $5,000 to the campaign of highly-criticized Mississippi Republican Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith.[1] Then, the day after the story broke, the MLB publicly requested that Hyde-Smith’s campaign return the funds.[2]

While corporations like the MLB have had a long history of contributing to political campaigns (whether those contributions caught the attention of the media or not) [3], the league’s donation to Hyde-Smith quickly became the subject of vicious scrutiny.

Undoubtedly, much of that scrutiny was tied to the candidate herself. Hyde-Smith made headlines throughout her campaign for numerous racially-insensitive comments – including sharing that she had attended an all-white “seg academy” in the 1970s and chose to send her daughter to another nearly all-white school.[4] However, the most poignant outrage arose after video emerged of her saying of a supporter, “if he invited me to a public hanging, I would be on the front row.”[5]

The timing of the MLB’s contribution in relation to that video is yet another reason the league came under fire. Hyde-Smith made the comment at an event on November 6, and the video went viral when it was posted by a reporter at the Bayou Brief on November 11.[6] The contribution disclosure form filed by Hyde-Smith’s campaign notes the date of the MLB’s donation as November 23.[7] However, according to unnamed sources familiar with the matter, the league wrote the check on either November 12 or 13.[8] Either way, the MLB made the contribution after Hyde-Smith’s highly offensive comments had already become frontpage news.

Journalists pointed out that Hyde-Smith’s positions seemed to directly contradict much of what the MLB stands for. The league frequently touts its diversity programs – from celebrating groundbreaking historical figures like Jackie Robinson[9] to advertising that 22 countries are represented on current MLB rosters.[10]

But, beyond wondering why the MLB would choose to donate to a candidate like Hyde-Smith, many people wondered what the MLB was doing donating to candidates at all.[11]

Nearly all large corporations take part in some kind of lobbying or political efforts, but often the tie between the business and the issue or candidate is relatively clear. For instance, Patagonia took an unprecedented step this election cycle by bypassing the PAC intermediary and directly endorsing two senate candidates, Nevada’s Jacky Rosen and Montana’s Jon Tester.[12] Both Rosen and Tester are vocal supporters of protecting public lands – a cause that Patagonia and its founder have long championed.[13]

Conversely, it is much more difficult to find any kind of logical connection between the MLB and Hyde-Smith. Another Republican member of Congress, Kentucky’s Brett Guthrie, previously introduced the Save America’s Pastime Act to exempt minor-leaguers from wage-and-hour laws;[14] but that is a tangential tie at best.

It is more likely that the MLB’s donation was more of a “deposit” or favor that it could potentially cash in further down the line when Hyde-Smith’s support was needed.[15] After all, the league’s PAC donated $245,500 to 70 federal candidates, on both sides of the aisle, in the 2018 elections alone.[16]

While hedging contributions across the political spectrum might have been a shrewd strategy for corporations like the MLB in the past, the backlash from a relatively small contribution to a controversial figure like Hyde-Smith might indicate that companies will have to be more discerning with their donations going forward.

Consumers expect want to see a company’s values reflected in its actions, including its political involvement. And as MLB learned the hard way, when you donate to a candidate who has actively ignited debate about her own problematic values, you might get burned.



[3] The MLB also wasn’t the only company to donate to Hyde-Smith and subsequently request that the donation be returned,;