Major League Baseball is almost back, but it never left Capitol Hill

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Charles Johnson, the principal owner of the San Francisco Giants, has contributed more than $11.2 million to federal campaigns since 1989. (Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

With Opening Day fast approaching on March 28, baseball fans are counting down the days until the season begins. Perhaps the only thing more American than baseball is its government, and the two have a long relationship.

It’s been 14 years since baseball sluggers like Barry Bonds, Mark McGuire, Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro testified in front of Congress as part of congressional hearings on doping in the sport and 13 years since the Mitchell Report blew open baseball’s prevalent steroid scandal. Even as the doping scandals have settled, professional baseball still retains a presence on Capitol Hill and an interest in political candidates. And it’s still a massive business. At the end of the 2018 season, it was reported the league made $10.3 billion in revenue.      

Like any other major organization, the MLB Commissioner’s Office retains a robust lobbying presence on Capitol Hill. The league has spent roughly $1.32 million in each of the last three years on lobbying. A primary focus of the MLB’s lobbying in 2018 was the Republican tax reform bill. The law added a new tax which affects sports franchises and may impact how baseball trades are made. Team owners pushed the IRS to allow them to take advantage of a new tax break that the law created.  

In March 2018, Congress as part of a massive spending bill passed the Save America’s Pastime Act which exempted organized baseball from federal wage and overtime rules which help keep the pay of minor league players extremely low — most minor leaguers only make around $7,500 a year and aren’t represented by a union. One of the issues that the MLB lobbied on was “clarification of the FLSA [Fair Labor Standards Act]” which sets the standards for minimum wage and overtime.

Another major issue subject to MLB lobbying was the American government’s relations with Cuba. The Caribbean country has a storied baseball history with a robust league of its own. Since the deterioration of relations in the 1960s between the two countries and the ensuing embargo, Cuban baseball players that wanted to play in the MLB had to defect, often in dangerous conditions sometimes utilizing human traffickers.

In December 2018, the MLB, the MLB Players Association and the Cuban Baseball Federation reached a deal that would ease and regulate the flow of Cuban nationals seeking to play in the MLB and not force them to defect. However, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) publicly opposed the effort and is pushing the Trump administration to end the deal the MLB negotiated. Another prominent Republican and Trump administration official, Elliott Abrams, authored an op-ed denouncing the deal as “steal[ing] from players’ salaries to fund a Communist regime.”

The league also maintains a PAC which was active in the 2018 midterm cycle, spending $510,556. Democrats received a majority of its contributions for the first time since the 2012 cycle. The top House recipient of the PAC’s contributions was Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) who received $7,500 from the Commissioner’s Office. Two Senate candidates received $10,000 each — former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) and Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.).

A subject of controversy were MLB contributions totaling $5,000 to Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith who made controversial comments joking about public hanging and her support of the Confederacy. The MLB asked for the donations to be returned.

Minor League Baseball operates a PAC as well and raised $75,200 and spent $12,500 in the 2018 cycle. Only $7,500 went to five federal candidates, with Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) being its top recipient with a $2,500 contribution. The organization spent $45,000 on lobbying in 2018, primarily on labor issues.

Unlike other leagues like the NFL, the MLB Players Association has been fairly uninvolved in the political realm. The union hasn’t employed a lobbyist since 2014 and hasn’t spent any money on lobbying since 2012. The union may become more active in the future, especially if talks of a strike pick up. Team owners purposefully not signing free agents over the winter has led to a denouncement of the league from the players association and fueled talk of collusion, perhaps creating a stage for the first major baseball strike since the 1994-1995 one that canceled the World Series.

Baseball team owners are major political contributors. Overall, owners who have contributed have given more than $41.5 million all-time to federal political organizations from 1989 to present, according to data from The Center for Responsive Politics. This includes donations to federal 527s. Owners have generally favored Republicans, 64 percent of their total contributions have gone to conservative or Republican causes.

The leader of all the current team owners in terms of political spending is billionaire Charles Johnson, principal owner of the San Francisco Giants, and his wife Ann. The Johnson couple’s all-time political contributions total nearly $11.2 million, 99 percent of which have gone towards Republican and conservative causes.

The second-biggest political contributor among the owners gives almost solely to Democrats. Peter Angelos, the majority owner of the Baltimore Orioles and former mayoral candidate in Baltimore, and his wife Georgia who contributed almost $8.8 million since 1989.

The Ricketts family, which owns the Chicago Cubs, has long been mixed up in politics. Thomas Ricketts, the chairman of the team, and his wife Cecilia have contributed $196,675 almost solely to Republican and conservative causes. His father, Joe Ricketts, contributed to an anti-Obama super PAC in 2012, helped fund a Dinesh D’Souza film and recently was criticized for racist emails. On Feb. 22, 2016, President Trump tweeted about the Ricketts family, Thomas’ mother, for contributing to an anti-Trump effort. Another family member, Pete Ricketts, is the current Republican governor of Nebraska.    

At the bottom of the list are two owners that run their teams very differently — Robert Nutting and his wife Leslie of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Hal Steinbrenner of the New York Yankees. Nutting, consistently one of the least popular owners in baseball, contributed just $69,750, mostly to Republicans and conservative causes. Contributing even less than him however is Hal Steinbrenner, part of the Steinbrenner family dynasty known for their extravagant spending for on-field talent. Steinbrenner has contributed only $47,000, also mostly going towards Republicans.

 

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