[Note: This is an updated version of a column that first appeared in Boston Baseball in August of 2009. I post it here because, well, it's about TIME.]
It is time.
July is the anniversary of the addition of Pumpsie Green to the Red Sox roster in 1959, a move that integrated the Red Sox and marked the end of a shameful legacy. And each year on the anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s first appearance in the major leagues in 1947 Major League Baseball celebrates the end of the color line in baseball.
During these twelve years baseball played a pivotal role in American society and proved itself worthy of its status as the National Pastime. Robinson’s call-up to the Dodgers in 1947 was controversial and feared and debated, but by the time Green belatedly integrated the Red Sox, integration and the rights of African Americans not only to play major league baseball, but to participate in all facets of society, had gained wide acceptance. While the battle for equality continues to be fought, equal opportunity, as a right, can no longer be questioned.
Sometime in the future baseball will someday commemorate the moment when the first openly gay major league baseball player chooses to reveal himself both to his teammates and the general public. Although there is, thankfully, no “ban,” legal or assumed, against a gay athlete playing major league baseball, there is still considerable social pressure within the game and within society that has thus far prevented a gay major leaguer from “coming out” and, if he chooses, simply to be himself, just like any other major leaguer.
Dating from the very beginning of the game there have always been gay players, and there are undoubtedly gay players on the field at Fenway Park each and every day of the season. The late Glenn Burke of the Dodgers – according to some, the inventor of the “high five” - and Billy Bean of the Tigers, Padres and Dodgers, both came out publicly after retiring as active players, and are perhaps the best known. It is inevitable that an active major league baseball player will one day publicly step out of the closet and into the spotlight. Yet, primarily due to fear, none has yet done so.
Acceptance of homosexuals in much of society is now rapidly becoming the norm. Several years ago a survey conducted by the Tribune newspapers revealed that fully 74% of all major league players believe that having a gay teammate would not be an issue in the clubhouse. Gay marriage is now legal in Massachusetts and in several other states. I suspect that if the players were polled today that number would be closer to 90%. Intolerance of this kind is disappearing.
Just as baseball took the lead in regard to racial integration it is time once again for major league baseball to take action and lead the way toward the acceptance of gay athletes in mainstream professional sports. In regard to its closeted, gay players, it is time for MLB – or perhaps even individual teams, such as the Red Sox, - to be proactive. The time has come for the Commissioner of Baseball and every team and club owner in baseball to prepare for that inevitability and to pronounce, clearly and openly, that baseball will not only tolerate an openly gay player, but will welcome that player – and protect his rights. The game needs to make clear that intolerance or prejudice of any kind, by any member of any major league baseball club or by any spectator in any major league ballpark, will not be tolerated.
More than twenty years after Pumpsie Green integrated the Red Sox, I heard Jim Rice and other African Americans sometimes showered with epithets in the bleachers of Fenway Park. Neither the Red Sox nor their fans did anything to prevent this. Neither, I am embarrassed to admit, did I at the time. Similar harassment of gay athletes simply must not be allowed. Think what you want, but keep your mouth shut.
This is the right thing to do, and a statement to that effect would be of immeasurable assistance to the first few players to have the courage come out. It might even give that first player the nerve to make that leap today. Maybe I am naïve, but I believe that once a player does so, in only a few short years the question of an athlete’s sexual orientation will largely cease to be an issue.
But there is also an even more compelling reason for major league baseball to do this. Every day, on a playground or on a street corner or in a backyard or in a classroom, there is a young gay person who is the object of teasing and taunts, scorn and worse. This young person - he or she – may not have a defender – or a role model – to help he or she withstand those taunts, or to answer such cruelty with the proud confidence to be one’s own self.
Baseball – if it is truly the National Pastime, a game for all people - should step up to the plate.
[Note: It is interesting to note that when this column first appeared, I did not receive withe a single complaint or any response of any kind from either a reader or anyone else. That is both a measure of progress and a measure of how much remains to be done]
Glenn’s next book, Fenway 1912: The Birth of a Ballpark, a Championship Season, and Fenway’s Remarkable First Season, will be published in October. To order now, visit www.glennstout.net.