Get to Know Pro Baseball's Gay Pioneers
Never mind those amazing baseball pants or lookers like Matt Kemp and Mike Piazza on the field (hello-o-o, nurse!). Baseball is America's pastime, and it's starting back up quite soon. Now that both professional basketball and soccer have active openly gay players and the NFL likely will in a few weeks after the draft, we're looking at baseball as the sport on deck. Here are a few LGBT things about American pro baseball.
Though we definitely loved the gals of summer portrayed in A League Of Their Own, the movie did have one pretty significant omission: lesbians. While many of Major League Baseball's top talents were overseas fighting World War II, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League employed 60 women to play ball. And just as in the movie, there were tons of rules, including one that essentially barred any woman who even looked like she might want to round the bases with another lady. JoJo D'Angelo was a (quietly) out lesbian who played for the South Bend Blue Socks. But at the end of her second season in the league, her baseball career was cut short by a short haircut. A league official told her that she was released because of her "butchy" haircut, in a style she said she actually did not want.
D'Angelo rallied and returned to Chicago, where she earned a degree in physical education from DePaul University. She later got her master's in counseling and spent the bulk of her career working at Chicago-area high schools. At the out athlete's funeral, guests received a picture from JoJo's ball-playing days made to look like a baseball card, in lieu of a prayer card with a saint on it.
By the 1970s, professional baseball clubs had been around for over a century in America, but it wasn't until Glenn Burke came around that there were any known gay players in the MLB. Burke signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1976 and was out to his teammates. He later became known as the soul of the Dodger clubhouse, even while possibly carrying on a relationship with the son of baseball legend and then-Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda. But Lasorda Sr. was not pleased by such rumors. He often chewed Burke out and continuously denied that his son was gay. Eventually Burke was traded to the Oakland A's, where he faced discrimination and harassment from teammates, especially under manager Billy Martin, according to ESPN. He was demoted to Triple-A ball in 1980 and soon retired, at age 27.
Still, Burke is credited as possibly being the co-inventor of the high five with Dusty Baker, October 2, 1977. Burke was on deck, when Baker hit a home run, putting the Dodgers ahead of the Astros and into the playoffs. As his teammate arrived at home plate after rounding the bases, Burke thrust his hand in the air. Baker felt the instinct to slap palms, and so he did.
In 1982, Burke came out in Inside Sports magazine, where writer Michael J. Smith called the high five a "defiant symbol of gay pride." The former outfielder struggled with drug addiction, and in 1993 he tested positive for HIV. Two years later, he died after a rapid decline. His obituary read that at the end of his life, the man who invented the high five "could barely lift his arm."
National League umpire Dave Pallone made calls in the major leagues for 10 years (plus another eight in the minors). In fact, he is known quite famously for his scuffle with Cincinnati Reds manager Pete Rose (see below). In fact, Rose was later suspended for 30 days and fined $10,000. But Pallone was fired abruptly in 1988, after it was revealed that he is gay. At the time, the umpire was indicted as participating in a teenage sex ring. The allegations were cleared after police questioning, but then-baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti told Pallone that he didn't think the umpire could handle all of the negative publicity, so he had to fire him.
He had the last laugh, though. According to Outsports, Pallone had received at least 700,000 letters from people since writing his New York Times best-selling book, Behind The Mask: My Double Life in Baseball, where he said he could have built an All-Star team with all the closeted players in the game.
Billy Bean's first game during his rookie season was undoubtedly a major hit. The Detroit Tigers outfielder tied the record for the number of hits in a player's first game with four in 1987.
Bean went on to play with the L.A. Dodgers and the San Diego Padres until he left the league in 1995. Four years later, Bean came out, sparking a media frenzy. He was on the front page of The New York Times, got interviewed by Diane Sawyer, and was even in HBO's comedy series Arli$$. Though he caught flak for somewhat encouraging gay players to stay closeted, Bean said a lot had to happen in the league in order for a gay player to comfortably come out. He said he was "ready to be the face" of a movement that demanded diversity education for ballplayers in college and the minor leagues, and other elements that could help a player come out.
"What’s the risk of implementing same-sex partner health benefits on a pro baseball contract?" he asked in a 2003 interview with The Advocate as his book was being released. Creating a gay-friendly league included more than what's going on while on the field. “I think we just need to get the dialogue out there and not limit it only to the playing field but also open up the front office, the stadium workers, the scouts, the umpires — and then, soon, the baseball players."
In the sale of the Chicago Cubs franchise for $845 million in 2009, Major League Baseball gained its first openly gay team owner in Laura Ricketts, a member of the highest bidder's family.
Laura Ricketts and her three siblings, Pete, Tom, and Todd, control the team as its board of directors. They act alongside former owner Tribune Co., which retained a 5 percent stake in the ball club. The acquisition included the team, Wrigley Field, and 25 percent of Comcast Sportsnet, which broadcasts many of the Cubs games.
Ricketts is also on the board of gay rights organization Lambda Legal and a major fundraiser for the Democratic Party.
"I think for a long time I wasn't really out to myself growing up in Omaha, Neb., to a Catholic conservative family," Ricketts said at the time of the purchase. "It took me a while to come out to myself and not long after that I came out to them. I think that it really couldn't of been a better experience. They were all immediately supportive. ... I have been really really fortunate in that regard."
In 2012, Ricketts was one of the founders for a super PAC that specifically focused on the issues of lesbians and bisexual women, called LPAC. She said it was important to create such a PAC because lesbian and bisexual women were often shut out of the LGBT political conversation.
"Being a woman and being gay is really a unique position in our society," she told CBS Radio after the group was announced. "I know in my experience of activism, oftentimes it makes a difference if something is woman-focused. It's likely to get the attention of women much more easily."
The former owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Kevin McClatchy, is still amazed that not a single pro baseballer has come out while playing.
When he came out in September 2012, he told The New York Times that he was bothered that “tens of thousands of people have played either professional minor league baseball or major league baseball. Not one has come out and said that they’re gay while they’re playing," which was why he was coming out publicly at that moment.
McClatchy left his position with the Pirates in 2007, but he said he was worried about coming out while he was with the team because of its precarious place in the world.
"I was frightened that my own personal situation could in some way jeopardize the whole franchise," he said.