Another Jackie Robinson Day has come and gone. I don’t have any major problem with Major League Baseball’s annual celebration of its first black player, which fell on Sunday this year. I’ve heard some suggest the day’s a sham, an excuse to make money. That may be true to some extent, I don’t know. I don’t really care. Robinson endured more hatred and bigotry than any player in baseball history. His 1947 debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers brought jeers from fans and opposing players alike, death threats, and rumors of strikes, even from his teammates. The more baseball can celebrate Robinson’s triumph and his spirit, the better.
No other race or group of players in baseball history went through what Jackie Robinson endured, and today, it’s hard to imagine any pioneering player facing similar scrutiny. I can think of one exception. The first time there’s an openly gay star baseball player, people are going to lose their minds.
It’s one of the last remaining areas of bigotry in America, persecution of gays, and not surprisingly, baseball isn’t much evolved. I know of one player openly gay, at least to his team, during his career: Glenn Burke, an outfielder in the 1970s who was touted as the next Willie Mays but crashed spectacularly between his own drug abuse and homophobia. Burke died of AIDS-related complications in 1995, and besides his sexual orientation, he might be most known for helping popularize the high-five in baseball. I also know of one player who came out in retirement, Billy Bean (not to be confused with Billy Beane) who wrote a 2004 book about it.
Meanwhile, baseball remains a sport where Mike Piazza once held a press conference to say he wasn’t gay, where the publication of a recent all-time dream team project I conducted for my website brought a few comments that Johnny Bench may have been gay as well. Then there’s Tommy Lasorda, whose son died of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1991. “My son wasn’t gay,” Lasorda reportedly told GQ Magazine. “No way. No way. I read that in a paper. I also read in that paper that a lady gave birth to a [expletive] monkey, too. That’s not the [expletive] truth. That’s not the truth.”
Lasorda’s comments might be excusable as the irrationality and denial of a grieving parent, though similar sentiments have been expressed in baseball since. John Rocker essentially torched his career in 1999 by giving an ill-advised interview to Sports Illustrated where he took shots at gays, among many other groups. And just last year, Atlanta Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell was suspended after asking a few spectators at AT&T Park in San Francisco, ”Are you guys a homo couple or a threesome?”
Perhaps society on the whole is less bigoted though I doubt it. I live in California, one of if not the most socially progressive areas in the country, and I watched in disgust a couple of years ago as a majority of voters in my state voted to constitutionally ban gay marriage. I imagine baseball fans in areas politically similar to Modesto or Fresno or Bakersfield would have no problem taunting or threatening a player brave enough to come out.
That’s just the thing. With estimates that 10 percent of people are gay or lesbian, chances are good that a sport of 750 players (up to 1,200 after September call-ups) already has a gay All Star or two. I’ll celebrate when the day comes that he plays openly.