Many of our recent presidents have had an interesting relationship with baseball. George W. Bush, like his father, was a legitimate fan who still frequently attends Texas Rangers games, and was the managing general partner of the Texas Rangers before becoming governor of Texas. Barack Obama was more of a basketball than a baseball fan, but had his baseball moments as well. Most memorably, as part of his preparation for throwing out the first pitch in the 2009 All-Star Game, Obama had some special coaching from Willie Mays. Donald Trump played baseball as a youth and was considered a very good ballplayer. However, his boast that he was the best baseball player in New York in the early 1960s might have come as news to Mickey Mantle among others.
Of the candidates running for President today, the one who has the most intriguing relationship with baseball is Bernie Sanders. A lot can be understood about Sanders from looking at his relationship to the country of baseball, but it is also very evident that Sanders enjoys the game. Sanders grew up in a time and place, Brooklyn in the 1940s and 1950s when almost all young boys played and enjoyed playing ball. Moreover, judging from how he handles the bat and glove at 78, it is evident that he must have been pretty good at it. In these videos, particularly the one of him taking batting practice, Sanders not only drives the ball well for a man of his years, but has some pretty sound fundamentals. Notice how he keeps his head down and his eyes focused on the ball. These are not the actions of somebody who has never swung a bat before.
Sanders, like many Brooklynites of his generation, grew up rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers and has described the Dodgers’ departure for Brooklyn following the 1957 season as one of the central traumas of his youth. In 2018, Sanders reflected on the move that occurred six decades earlier. “It was a disaster. Walter O’Malley, his name remains in infamy. It really was a very deep thing. Because when you’re a kid and the name of the team is called the Los Angeles Dodgers or the Brooklyn Dodgers, you assume that it belongs to the people of Los Angeles or Brooklyn. The idea that it was a private company who somebody owned could pick up and move away and break the hearts of millions of people was literally something we did not understand. So it was really a devastating moment. I remember it with great sadness.”
These comments reflect the real emotional pain Sanders and many Brooklynites felt at the time, but it also tells us something a little more nuanced about Sanders. First, there were many reasons why the Dodgers and Giants left New York for California. When I was researching my book on the move, it became clear that Sanders’ explanation of Walter O’Malley’s motivations, which in Brooklyn is still the consensus understanding of what happened, overlooks a major point. Despite being a winning team with some of the most exciting players of the era like Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, and Pee Wee Reese, the Dodgers of the 1950s were struggling to draw fans. The New York Giants, who were not quite as good for many of those years, but who had the best player of that, or any, era in Willie Mays, were struggling even more.
The reason these teams were struggling to draw fans was largely because their ballparks, Ebbets Field for the Dodgers and the Polo Grounds for the Giants, were located in neighborhoods that by the mid-1950s were undergoing demographic change as white residents were moving out and African American voters were moving in. Sanders’ selective understanding of the Brooklyn Dodgers history allows him to avoid confronting the complex and troubled racial politics of white flight and of New York City more generally. O’Malley and capitalism is a much easier villain to blame than the racism of many working and middle class Brooklynites that prevented them from going to Ebbets Field by the mid-1950s.
The latter narrative is further complicated by one of the central decisions Sanders ever made. As a young man, and committed progressive, in his late 20s Sanders decided to try to make his revolution not in the diverse borough of his upbringing, but in a state that was, and is, almost entirely white. By moving to Vermont in the late 1960s, Sanders was engaging in the kind of white flight, albeit with a radical bent, that indirectly, but unambiguously, contributed very heavily to the Dodgers moving to Los Angeles. Sanders’ distress about the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn is genuine-and Walter O’Malley clearly understood how much money there was to be made for the first big league team to get to Los Angeles-but the Senator from Vermont’s overly simple and non-racial analysis of the events is telling for a progressive candidate who has been criticized for a political approach that at times is tone deaf to the complexities around race in America.
Bernie may have left Brooklyn behind him when he moved to Vermont, but he maintained his interest in baseball. As mayor of Burlington in the 1980s, Sanders tried to bring a minor league team to his town. As part of his successful 1981 campaign for Burlington’s top job, he promised he would do just that. Sanders tried to find a way for Burlington to own and operate the team itself, something like how the city of Green Bay still owns the NFL Packers. This position grew out of Sanders’ progressive economic views, but was perhaps also informed by the fact that Burlington’s new mayor was still smarting from Walter O’Malley’s avarice a quarter century earlier.
Sanders’ inclination to have a publicly owned team in Burlington was a good idea that, as his critics claim will be the case with many of his ideas, proved unworkable. Nonetheless, it highlights the extent to which professional sports in the U.S. are defined largely by the financial interests and greed of owners who, in general, now make Walter O’Malley look like the tooth fairy. Today, professional sports franchises move to chase the new revenue with great frequency-although baseball teams do not do this as much. However, all team owners put huge profits in their pockets while telling fans they cannot afford that new pitcher, wide receiver or forward; and increasing ticket prices are now almost as certain as death and the taxes many of these owners manage to avoid.
After being unable to find a way for Burlington to support its own team, Sanders made several unsuccessful attempts to attract an owner interested in moving their team to his city. Eventually Sanders succeeded in bringing the Reds AA affiliate to Burlington. The Vermont Reds played in Burlington from 1984-1987. They were a very good team for those years and had several players who would be part of the Reds World Series winning team in 1990 including Paul O’Neill, Barry Larkin, catcher Joe Oliver, Norm Charlton, and Rob Dibble. The Vermont Reds best year was 1986 when they had a record of 77-62. Norm Charlton, who later went on to have several strong years coming out of the Reds bullpen, was the ace of that team going 10-6 with a 2.65 ERA. Rob Dibble, who would join Charlton in the Reds “Nasty Boys” bullpen in 1990, had ten saves and a 3.09 ERA for that team. Lenny Harris, who would have an 18 year-career in the big leagues with eight teams, hit .253 with ten home runs to help lead to offense.
The Reds left Vermont in 1987 and were replaced by a Mariners AA team that included an 18 year-old Ken Griffey Jr. and a 21 year-old Omar Vizquel. The Mariners affiliate only lasted one year in Vermont. The Vermont Expos played in Burlington from 1995-2005 and then became the Vermont Lake Monsters, affiliated with the Washington Nationals, the Expos successor franchise. The Lake Monsters have been affiliated with the Oakland Athletics since 2011.
The role Sanders ultimately played in bringing the Reds affiliate to Vermont is disputable, but as mayor, he certainly had a meaningful role in the effort to get Burlington a team. Minor league teams can be very important in smaller cities, particularly places as small as Burlington. They provide residents with a low budget form of entertainment. Tickets are usually cheap and many minor league teams seek to engage and entertain the audience in fun and quirky ways that frequently have little to do with baseball. In smaller cities, minor league teams can help local economies by creating jobs, bringing revenue into the city, and even drawing tourists and visitors.
During the 2020 campaign, Sanders has been one of the few candidates to engage with baseball in any meaningful way (not counting a political appearance that did not turn out quite the way Donald Trump wanted, when he was loudly booed at the World Series). Sanders has focused his attention on MLB commissioner Rob Manfred’s plan to contract the minor leagues which would eliminate 42 of the roughly 160 existing affiliated minor league teams. Manfred is a perfect foil for Sanders as the relatively new baseball commissioner is not burdened by a great deal of personal charisma or charm, and is more or less upfront about seeing his role as maximizing the profits of the owners who hired him. Moreover, his frequent public comments about baseball have led some to question whether he even likes baseball.
Manfred has given various not-exactly-convincing, or even entirely believable, explanations for why he wants to eliminate these 42 teams, but the clear real reason is that they are not generating enough money for the 30 big league owners. Manfred’s position highlights how MLB consistently tries to have it both ways on economic questions. When the anti-trust exemption, or pesky issues like paying minor leaguers a living wage, are raised, MLB claims that it is a sacred American institution that deserves special treatment. But, when the bottom line is at stake, MLB argues that it must act like a business. Sanders is right to challenge Manfred on this. Regardless of whether Sanders wins this election, it would be good for progressives in Congress or the White House, if the 2020 election goes well, to address baseball related issues in the future. The poor pay for minor leaguers, the appalling exclusion of women throughout the industry, and even how teams continue to shake down local governments for stadium subsidies remain important issues.
Some may question why Sanders has spent time in the middle of a presidential campaign to focus on minor league baseball. After all, while he is on the right side of the issue, health care, gun reform, wealth inequality, climate change and a bigoted, authoritarian, criminal president are issues that seem, and are, more important. However, what these critics are missing is that there are a lot of minor league teams in smaller and more rural states and regions that often have a disproportionate impact on presidential primaries, and even the electoral college. One of those states, for example, is Iowa.
Bernie Sanders’ decades long relationship with baseball somewhat tracks his political evolution. His recollection of the sadness he felt when the Dodgers left Brooklyn, while almost certainly genuine, also reflects a soft spot for simple economic explanations that ignore more complex racial dynamics. His actions as mayor of Burlington are those of an ideologue who over the course of his first political job figured out how to deliver for voters even when there was no ideological solution at hand. That skill set may have atrophied a bit during the Senator from Vermont’s almost thirty years in Congress, but the current fight he has taken up with MLB suggests his progressive instincts have not.
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