Billy Bean Is MLB’s Ambassador for Inclusion. What Does That Mean?

Billy Bean has a chance to make people's time in the game easier than his was (via Greg Hernandez).

Billy Bean has a chance to make people’s time in the game easier than his was (via Greg Hernandez).

During the All-Star break, Major League Baseball made a momentous announcement, naming Billy Bean as its first Ambassador for Inclusion. (This is Billy Bean, the former outfielder, not Billy Beane, the current general manager of the Athletics.) “Inclusion” is a broad term, but the mandate was clear: Bean, who came out in 1999 after his 1995 retirement, is the only living gay major leaguer, and his job will be to help pave the way for LGBT people within the sport to feel comfortable coming out. He is the first professional hired by a major league with the mandate to improve conditions for gay players.

That may be because baseball feels it has some catching up to do. Seventy-seven years after Jackie Robinson broke the color line in the major leagues, baseball appears to be lagging behind the NBA and NFL. Pro basketball player Jason Collins came out in 2013 and football lineman Michael Sam came out in early 2014, before the NFL draft; now baseball and hockey are the two major team sports without an active openly gay player.

Bean acknowledges that Sam and Collins may have provided baseball with an impetus. “I’m proud of baseball,” Bean said in a telephone interview. “I think the bravery and courage of Jason and Michael are going to make it better for everyone. Maybe seeing those examples is what made baseball call me.”

Bean was not the first major leaguer to declare himself gay. That would be Glenn Burke, who came out in a 1982 magazine article, not long after his 1979 retirement. Burke died of AIDS in 1995, two decades before the league hired Bean. His sister, Lutha Burke, attended and spoke at the All-Star Fanfest ceremony at which Bean was appointed.

Burke played on a team and in a time when being out was nearly impossible. His manager, Tommy Lasorda, never acknowledged that his son Tommy Jr. was gay — not even after Tommy Jr. died in 1991 of complications related to AIDS. “Deep inside, I know the Dodgers traded me because I was gay,” Burke told his interviewer for the article.

It may take time for teams and teammates to adjust. That is the most charitable reading of comments like this one in July from former NFL coach Tony Dungy. “I wouldn’t have taken [Michael Sam],” he told the Tampa Bay Times. “Not because I don’t believe Michael Sam should have a chance to play, but I wouldn’t want to deal with all of it. It’s not going to be totally smooth … things will happen.”

Dungy is expressing a very vague worry — so much so that his comment and others like it have frequently been dismissed as concern trolling — but there’s some precedent for concern, at least in the early going. Baseball writer Allen Barra remembered an interview that he had done with Larry Doby, the man who integrated the American League a few months after Jackie Robinson integrated the National League in 1947. “When I talked to Larry Doby, he told me that by the second year there was a general acceptance, that most people didn’t care,” Barra recalled in a telephone interview. “He was always, though, conscious of the fact that he was being thrown at and knocked down.”

The integration of gay players into baseball invites inevitable comparisons to Jackie Robinson crossing the color line. And it is not an unfair comparison. “I think that socially and historically it is every bit as significant,” says Barra, a biographer of Willie Mays. But times have changed, and largely for the better.

The bigger problem may just be the outsized standard to live up to. “It’s a terrible burden to place on the next gay baseball player to say that he has got to rival Jackie Robinson,” says John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball. Robinson was a Hall of Famer, one of the greatest second basemen who ever lived. The use of the phrase “gay Jackie Robinson” may do more harm than good, if it causes a role player to worry whether he’s a good enough ballplayer to be able to be first.

And yet, for the past 30 years, since Burke’s article, Major League Baseball has been waiting for a “gay Jackie Robinson,” a phrase that’s so cliched that it deserves a cliched descriptor: a Google search for that phrase yields 226,000 results. The anticipation reached a fever pitch a decade ago. The editor of Out Magazine wrote a piece in 2001 that began: “For the past year and a half, I have been having an affair with a pro baseball player from a major-league East Coast franchise.” In 2002, Mets manager Bobby Valentine said in an interview that he thought that baseball was “probably ready for an openly gay player.” Shortly thereafter, the New York Post — again — printed a rumor that Mets star Mike Piazza was gay. That prompted Piazza to give an informal press conference, announcing, “First off, I’m not gay. I’m heterosexual. That’s pretty much it.”

And that pretty much was it. No baseball player has come out since Piazza’s press conference. Baseball clearly hopes that Bean will change that. But Bean is more circumspect about his goals for the players that he will advise. “If they felt like they had the resources in front of them, and if they were making an adverse decision, I would tell them to go with their heart,” he says. “It’s my job as they work to make that an easier decision. I don’t want a person to be judged.”

Only one other openly gay man has participated on a major league field: Dave Pallone, an umpire who was outed in a New York Post article. After that, Major League Baseball quickly fired him. He is glad that Bean will be in a position to help players decide to come out on their own terms. “I truly believe that this could be the catalyst to have some of the major league baseball players who happen to be gay to finally come out,” he said by telephone. “I think you find that people play harder and better when they’re free.”

Bean and Pallone bear deep scars from their experiences. Bean was so afraid of being outed that he refused to ask his team for time off to attend his partner’s funeral, explaining in his autobiography that he had done so because he worried that “someone might start asking why I cared enough about the guy to attend.” Pallone had to endure the additional public humiliation of being accused of participating in a teen sex ring — an accusation that was later withdrawn. But he could not deny that he was gay. “I wasn’t ready at that time for everyone to know, in 1988,” Pallone said. “For someone to be forced to talk about a secret that they have not prepared to talk about is nothing less than psychological rape.”

A big part of the reason that the issue is complicated is one of appearance. Jackie Robinson could not pass as white; Billy Bean could and did pass as straight. Gay players have come and gone through baseball, many of them known to their teammates (like Burke) but not to their fans. Baseball’s first openly gay active player will need to make a doubly difficult choice: not just to be out to their family and friends, but to total strangers. “It is inviting the judgment of other people,” says Bean. “It’s a very generous decision to come out.”

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Bean’s first step will be to connect with each individual team, and to help the league to craft a unified message that the league will broadcast to players. He views the mission as educational. “I know from my experience, when you’re submerged in that world as a player, you don’t have time to evolve emotionally and intellectually as you do physically,” he says. “You want to give them the same opportunity to succeed outside the lines as well as inside the lines.”

Building those bridges will be important, because the explicit incentive structure still makes it difficult for a player to shoulder the uncertain burden of coming out. But Bean will not be the only person working on it. On the same day that it announced Bean’s position, Major League Baseball announced that it was deepening its partnership with an organization called Athlete Ally, which seeks to build ranks of straight allies of LGBT players and officials in professional sports.

Hudson Taylor, the founder of Athlete Ally, explains that many of the obstacles can be unseen. “I think the biggest challenge in the sports world is even when you have a nondiscrimination policy in place, unless you’re the number one athlete at your position, there will always be a hint of fear that your orientation will negatively affect your employment,” he said in an interview. “If we as a collective community can show that there’s no risk to coming out, that in fact it’s welcomed and wanted, we can get to a place where an athlete doesn’t have to be afraid.”

To Thorn, that is what makes this move so meaningful. “I think it is a significant advance over simply the responsiveness that the NFL has employed to Michael Sam’s being drafted,” he said. “What MLB has done here is to create a welcoming environment and a league-wide mandate for inclusion. We have taken steps to make sure that the road that gays have to travel will be simpler, will be easier, than Jackie in 1947.”

By mandating the full support of the league and the teams, Bean’s office will ensure that players will not face the open hostility of other players and other managers, as Robinson and Doby faced at the hands of managers like the notoriously racist Ben Chapman. “I don’t think you’re going to see any Ben Chapmans go after any gay players in baseball,” says Barra. “Anybody who would demonstrate against this in a ballpark would be removed.”

In the end, success probably will not be measured by the number of out athletes in any sport. It will be measured by the amount of attention that greets every subsequent player who comes out. Pallone put it simply: Bean will have succeeded if “his appointment doesn’t mean as much in a year or two as it did when it was made at the All-Star Game in 2014. Because we’ve made so many strides that it’s just a matter of fact.”

For his part, Bean is sanguine. “It’s a tremendous honor for me personally to be asked back into baseball,” Bean says. “Basically for the same reason I left it.”


Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is an enterprise account executive for The Washington Post.
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tz
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tz

The timing for this is perfect, given that we have this going on:

http://espn.go.com/nfl/story/_/id/11401408/michael-sam-st-louis-rams-mimics-johnny-manziel-money-sign-sacking-cleveland-browns-quarterback

No need to be Jackie Robinson level talent, just a solid big leaguer who does what any other professional would do. I’m betting Michael Sam has a long enough NFL career to allow others to be comfortable coming out before the tail end of their career (like Jason Collins). Having Bean as an official source of MLB support would certainly help whoever becomes baseball’s equivalent of Sam.

bob
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bob

It would be a good story if Sam did have a long career, but that would be an anomaly for a 7th round draft pick.

Dungy's Muse
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Dungy's Muse

7th round picks sometimes catch on big time but, yes, most do not have a substantial careers. Also, I wouldn’t read too much into the sack. Sam’s problem in college was he dominated bad teams but struggled badly against good teams with, presumably, good offensive lines. I do not think he has been facing the first stringers in the pre-season. There are lots of players who look All-Pro against the pre-season third string that do not translate against the first string.

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

The comparison to Jackie Robinson is simpy inappropriate. Robinson came up in a time when racism was prevalent almost everywhere in the United States. In some places in the South, black people had to step off the sidewalk when whites approached. It’s nothing like that now for gays; if someone had come out fifteen or twenty years ago, the comparison might have been more appropriate. But, today, you have courts and legislatures legalizing gay marriage, and the culture is far more open to gay people than it was to African-Americans when Robinson came up. I do suspect a gay baseball… Read more »

Richie
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Richie

Doesn’t a solid majority of MLB have some college? This is hardly dissimilar to NFL and NBA, where my understanding is most don’t finish their degrees prior to going into the pros.

I’m also curious about the ‘insularity’ remark. Both far more racial and national diversity in MLB, isn’t there?

Ronald Wieters
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Ronald Wieters

The college education received by basketball and football players on the path to professional leagues is of truly zero value. Additionally, the culture around baseball is less thoroughly anti-intellectual than that around either of the other big three male sports in the United States. I predict that if every NBA, NFL, and MLB player took the GRE, the MLB players would have the highest mean and median scores and the most results that are actually halfway decent.

Billy
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Billy

The fact that he has the exact same name as our more well known friend with the Oakland A’s may cause a bit of confusion. I know I did a double take.

Rocky
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Rocky

Yeah I think a little clarity that the article was not about “the Billy Beane” was warranted, to say the least.

Richie
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Richie

Myself, I would think if you’re currently closeted and debating the switch from in to out, I don’t know that you’d want a whole stinkin’ office waiting just for you. If you’re currently in, it’s likely because you don’t want any part of a circus. This is a PR stunt for Major League Baseball and a feel-good thing for you liberal types. Both of which I’m fine with, PR is a fact of socioeconomic life, feeling good beats feeling bad, and as a nonpartisan myself I got nothing more against you liberals than I do against them conservatives. But if… Read more »

Jerry Pritikin aka The "Bleacher Preacher"
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This is the 21st Century, and I have been in the front lines of the gay rights movement for over 40 years. For many years,the movement moved at a snails pace. I knew Glenn Burke when he was with the Dodgers back in 77, and during the off season he was playing in a charity basketball game between gay athletes and S.F. firemen. I was working for a gay newspaper and they asked me to take photo’s of a practice. Glenn asked me not to take any photos of him and I respected his request. We became friends. There is… Read more »

Paul G.
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Paul G.

Couldn’t find a better photo than that one?

Dungy's Muse
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Dungy's Muse

“Dungy is expressing a very vague worry — so much so that his comment and others like it have frequently been dismissed as concern trolling…” You do know that Michael Sam had a reality show lined up before he was drafted, right? Apparently that came as a surprise to the NFL and they had that quickly nixed. The man was intentionally trying to be a distraction before he was even drafted, not something that is valued in 7th round picks. Dungy’s opinion was, at least partially, well founded in past behavior. (To his credit, Sam has since behaved himself and… Read more »

Jason B
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Jason B

“The man was intentionally trying to be a distraction”

Ugh. Obvious trolling is obvious.

hopbitters
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hopbitters

On a right-now basis, sure. But in the long run, you can only write so many stories about a guy coming out. He’s not going to do it again, so the best you can hope for (as somebody looking for a story, that is) is that he gets married or breaks up with his partner. But again, a one shot deal. There are no judges, lawyers, victims, trial dates, community service, or anything you can drag a few more articles out of. Once you get past that initial revelation, which will become more and more of a blip every time… Read more »

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

I disagree with the notion that the college experience of football and basketball players is worthless. Sure, they aren’t generally there for the education and they are often isolated from the regular students, but I think being on a campus has some effect, especially compared to kids coming straight out of high school-often from very conservative communities. On the other hand, there is often a great deal of homophobia in minority communities. My impression is that baseball is the most anti-intellectual of the major US sports-it’s only the intellectualism of the sabermetric fan community that makes it seem more intellectual.… Read more »

Frank Jackson
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Frank Jackson

This Billy Bean ambassadorship has CYA 101 written all over it. If contemporary civil rights and hate crimes legislation had been around in 1947, then every NL team would have been in trouble with the feds. That precious antitrust exemption might have come under the microscope by the feds. Today no one would dare to treat an admitted homosexual ballplayer the way NL players treated Jackie Robinson in 1947. Each player shouting slurs would be in trouble individually, his team would be in trouble, and all of MLB would be in trouble. But there is a way to preempt or… Read more »