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Culture shift: MLB is only pro sports league in North America to have paternity-leave policy

Paternity leave seems like a reasonable request nowadays, but until 2011 — when it was added to the collective-bargaining agreement — most MLB players opted out of taking it because it put their teams in a tough spot.

Tim Anderson
Tim Anderson
Getty Images

Less than two hours before the White Sox played the Indians in Cleveland on April 2, shortstop Tim Anderson received a text from his wife, Bria.

“Get here now,” it read. Bria was going into labor.

Anderson dropped everything and rushed to the Cleveland airport. He jumped on the first flight back to Chicago.

Despite his best efforts, Anderson didn’t make it for the birth of his second daughter. But he was happy he could spend quality time with Bria and their newborn.

“You don’t want to miss it,” said Anderson, who missed two games before returning to the Sox. “Those are moments you’re going to remember forever. It was mandatory for me to be there, and regardless of what the rules were, I was going to be there.”

Less than a month later on the North Side, Cubs infielder David Bote hit a walk-off single at Wrigley Field. There was no time for a Gatorade bath, and he only could spare a brief moment for a postgame interview with NBC Sports Chicago, which had the broadcast rights to the game.

Bote had a flight to catch as his wife, Rachel, was scheduled to be induced in Colorado in mere hours.

“I’m a dad [and] I’m a husband — to be there for my family is important to me,” said Bote, who spent three days on the paternity-leave list for the birth of his third child.

While it might seem like a norm for men to be by their partners’ side during labor, it hadn’t always been this way — especially in Major League Baseball.

Before three-day paternity leave was added to the league’s collective-bargaining agreement in 2011, players were hesitant to leave as it would put teams in a tough situation because they couldn’t call up a replacement player.

Take Hall of Famer Billy Williams as an example. He didn’t even consider the idea of being there for the birth of his first child.

“First of all, we were afraid of somebody taking our job,” said Williams, who played for the Cubs from 1959 through 1974. “And secondly, when you play baseball, you wanted to stay with your team. So it’s allowed now, and I can see where it’d be good for the players because then you can go and have a free mind when you come back.”

Williams can’t remember a single teammate during his 18-year career who took paternity leave. Looking back, he has some regret about not being there with his wife.

“You would love to be there for your newborn coming into this world,” he said. “It would’ve been a great thing to do that, but at that time, we didn’t think about it because it wasn’t feasible. Nobody did it.”

Former Sox slugger Ron Kittle was an exception to the rule when his first daughter was born. His now ex-wife had a high-risk pregnancy, and Kittle missed one game to be with her. The nurses rolled a TV to their room so he could watch the Sox play.

The next day, Kittle went to the ballpark.

Over the last decade, there has been a cultural shift that makes paternity leave more acceptable. Most Fortune 500 companies have improved their parental-leave policies.

Still, Major League Baseball is the only North American professional sports league that has a parental-leave policy in its collective-bargaining agreement.

But that’s not to say other leagues don’t allow players to take time off for the birth of a child.

Bulls star Lauri Markkanen missed three games during the 2017-18 season for the birth of his son. Likewise, Hurricanes defenseman Jaccob Slavin took some personal days during the Stanley Cup playoffs this season while he and his wife adopted their daughter.

Anderson was surprised to learn that MLB was the only league with a paternity-leave policy. He hopes that changes in the future.

“Family first, that’s overall the most important thing before we come here,” Anderson said. “It was helpful for me [mentally and emotionally] to get those three days and be there for my wife while she gave birth to my daughter.”

Bote also said paternity leave is valuable.

“I have the players to thank before me to help work for stuff like this because obviously it’s very important for fathers who want to be there for the birth of their child,” Bote said. “It just helps your mind be at ease, being able to take care of your family if you need to. . . . It just humanizes it.”

Contributing: Gordon Wittenmyer