Gays in baseball: The next Jackie Robinson

Posted on 18 April 2012 by Graham Womack

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.

9 Comments For This Post

  1. Cyn Says:

    Good stuff. More of this needs to be written. If you haven’t read it, you should try to get your hands on a copy of Billy Bean’s book. He actually mentions Lasorda in it and gives a heartbreaking account of how difficult it was for him while playing (especially when his partner died and he couldn’t share his grief with anyone on his team). I’ve long hoped that the first openly gay player would come out and it would be someone who was a superstar and completely loved by the MLB community (players, fans and media) just so someone even bigots wouldn’t want to harass could pave the way but it doesn’t feel like that is going to happen any time soon.

  2. Alex Remington Says:

    As I wrote on Fangraphs in December, baseball’s new Collective Bargaining Agreement forbids discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Baseball is taking extremely slow, halting steps in the right direction.

  3. Rob Harris Says:

    Thanks for writing this. I wrote a piece about Glenn Burke here and a piece on Billy Bean here

    I share your hope that one day this can be confronted by society. If gays can openly serve in the military, as well as in Judas Priest, there’s no reason we can’t have a gay ballplayer, too.

  4. Chris McBrien Says:

    ‘Coming out’ really does seem to be one of the last remaining taboos in professional sport. The only way this will ever change is if society itself changes and allows it to happen through acceptance. Slowly but surely things will (and always do) change. Writers can play a significant role in regard to promoting acceptance.

    Well done.

  5. James Bailey Says:

    Thought-provoking, Graham. Undoubtedly any players to come out would receive quite a bit of grief from fans at every stop during the season. But I don’t think it will ever come close to Jackie Robinson. I don’t even think it’s comparable, because when it happens it will almost certainly be someone who is already a star player, or at least an established big leaguer. They will face discrimination from bigoted idiots, sure. But they will also have an existing support base. Hypothetically, what if Piazza had been gay? He was a superstar. Most supporters of the team would still have been glad to see him drive the ball over the fence. He would have been razzed on the road, but he wouldn’t have had to stay in special hotels for gays or eat in restaurants for gays.

    Most baseball fans also already know gay people that work in their offices, etc. Back in the 1940s, a significant portion of the white workforce would not have ever worked with black co-workers. As wrong as it was, society was segregated far beyond the baseball field. I’m not pretending there’s no kind of segregation for straight vs gay now, but it’s nothing to the scale of white vs black in the 1940s.

  6. Dan McCloskey Says:

    Excellent piece, Graham. You hit the nail on the head when you say it’s one of the last remaining areas of bigotry in America.

    Former umpire Dave Pallone’s book, Behind the Mask, provides an interesting perspective as well.

  7. Graham Womack Says:

    @James — Interesting stuff, I forgot about segregation. You’re right, that’s probably something gays wouldn’t face today. Robinson may reign supreme for what he endured, but I still think it could be a firestorm when the first big-name gay ballplayer comes out.

  8. Cecilia Tan Says:

    Great point, Graham. I, too, believe there will be hysteria when it finally happens, and it is going to happen. There have been other pro athletes to come out (NFL, NBA) but none yet in baseball: such a bastion of American identity and therefore highly fraught. (Just look at the difference between the way performance enhancing drugs are treated in MLB versus the other sports for an example. Congressional hearings? Really??)

  9. davidinark Says:

    I guess I just don’t get it. Why is it such a big deal whether or not someone “comes out?” Why do folks EXPECT people to come out? We don’t expect people to stand up and say, “I’m hetero” or “I have one leg shorter than the other” or “I have poor vision.” So, why should it matter whether or not someone is gay? A player (or anyone for that matter) should not be judged on their sexual orientation, their handicaps, or anything else other than their ability to play the game (or not as the case may be). I don’t give a rip if a player is gay or is really a woman or is hetero or has six fingers. Big deal. Show me what they do on the field. I don’t ask if a player is gay because I don’t care. That has no effect on their ability to play, and I don’t think people should be “required” to hold a press conference to announce their orientation, not matter what it is. Maybe that’s just me.

2 Trackbacks For This Post

  1. An interview with Cecilia Tan | Full Spectrum Baseball Says:

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