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.”
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.”