MILWAUKEE — The backlash last May was quick and harsh. Players, fans, veterans and Gold Star families saw the advertising for baseball’s special Memorial Day military-themed uniforms and called the league out for looking like it was trying to cash in on a day set aside to honor those who had died for their country.
It was so bad, even one of their own players, Brandon McCarthy, tweeted out his snarky disgust after seeing the ads to buy “Fresh” camouflage hats and uniforms on social media.
@BMcCarthy32: “generations of soldiers died protecting our country and its freedoms — don’t forget to buy an official baseball hat to say thank you.”
Other players had reached out to the union or league to ask about this approach to paying respect to fallen soldiers and ask where the money raised by this was going.
“I heard that feedback directly from some individuals as well,” said Melanie LeGrande, MLB’s vice president of social responsibility, said last week. “What we’ve done here is moved forward in a purposeful manner to make sure everyone is on the same page and improved our communication around what is best to do in those situations.
“The way we should be promoting our products, the way we should be communicating how we spend our charitable proceeds from the products.”
In a day when patriotic displays in sports have become a third-rail topic, MLB has regularly boasted of its strong connections to the military. They have marketed the Memorial Day and July Fourth military-themed uniforms as salutes to the troops and a way to raise funds for organizations supporting veterans and their families.
But that should come with a high responsibility to be clear about the fundraising and respectful with the advertising, said Nick Francona. The son of Cleveland manager Terry Francona and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan challenged baseball to be more transparent with their veteran programs behind the scenes.
“By explicitly marketing apparel as honoring the memory of fallen service members, MLB has a moral obligation to be transparent about this,” Francona said. “If it is actually a charitable endeavor, it shouldn’t be this difficult to get answers to very simple questions.”
According to LeGrande, from 2008 until 2016, MLB’s proceeds from these items went to the Welcome Home Veterans initiative, which supported mental health, transition and education. Two years ago, in response to what she said were changing charity landscapes, baseball shifted focus to more specific programs. In 2017, baseball used funds to work on a big project with the USO, which will be introduced this summer, and they supported a patient airlift program based at Walter Reed Hospital and the HeadStrong Project, which private physicians support military personnel in different areas with resilience and mental health and getting them back on their feet.
This year, however, MLB shifted to programs that support grieving families of fallen soldiers. They will donate 100% of their royalties, a minimum of $250,000 each, to Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors and Folds of Honor Foundation. Teams can also receive funds from MLB to work with local veterans charities.
With a father who served in the Army and a mother who worked in transition assistance for the Army and Air Force, LeGrande said she is sensitive to the issues. Baseball also privately heard from the few veterans working in baseball, including Mets GM Sandy Alderson, who also served in the Marines.
Francona, however, took his frustration public this month on social media. He explained his passion for these issues as a duty.
“I feel like I owe it to those who I fought alongside,” Francona said. “There’s not always a good reason why some people come home and others don’t. These are young men and women in the prime of their lives. Their stories deserve to be told, and I feel like the way it’s been done is just this gross bastardization of it. Specifically, I feel like I have a certain amount of responsibility as someone who grew up around baseball and works in baseball to do whatever I can to make this better.