In the past month, starting with the San Francisco Giants, four different Major League Baseball teams have joined the It Gets Better Project, the fast-growing campaign that uses the power of personal videos to help LGBT youth grapple with the many challenges they face on the path to adulthood. Following a Change.org petition campaign launched by an ardent fan named Sean Chapin, the Giants recorded a video, which they contributed to It Gets Better, the site founded by activists Dan Savage and Terry Miller - so far, more than 10,000 LGBT adults and allies have contributed videos to the site, and another 368,000 (as of June 15) have taken the pledge to join the It Gets Better movement.
The Giants video on Youtube, which features players Matt Cain, Sergio Romo, Andres Torres, and Barry Zito - along with the team's batting coach Hensley Muelens, received more than 125,000 views during its first two weeks.
Since San Francisco joined the campaign, the Chicago Cubs, Boston Red Sox, and - on June 10 - the Seattle Mariners have also announced they will produce "It Gets Better" videos. There's also a petition circulating on Change.org urging the New York Yankees to join the campaign. Currently more than 6,500 people have signed the Yankees petition.
This story makes me happy for all kinds of reasons, having grown up an ardent baseball fan (and player, right into my high school years). I can still recite inanely obscure bits of baseball trivia off the top of my head. I continue to follow MLB baseball enthusiastically, and I can't say that before this year I'd ever thought much about the sheer absence of GLBT outreach from the sport. I just figured that this would happen eventually, as prevailing attitudes change. And one might argue that these recent efforts by four big-league teams are a sign of just that, a steadily rising acceptance of gays and lesbians throughout the country (albeit more dramatically in some places than others).
There's been only one openly gay Major League player, a backup outfielder named Glenn Burke, who played briefly for the A's and Dodgers in the late '70s. He died of complications from AIDS in 1995, and his struggle to fit into the staunchly hetero framework of pro baseball was chronicled last year in the documentary Out: The Glenn Burke Story. Interestingly, Burke's manager with the Dodgers, Tommy Lasorda, had an openly gay son (Tommy Jr.), whom Burke befriended (some say dated). It's been alleged that Lasorda had Burke traded to the A's because his chummy relationship with his son, whose homosexuality he never accepted. Tommy Lasorda Jr. also died of complications from AIDS, a few years before Burke.
The only other openly gay man who ever played in the Majors is Billy Bean, who came out in 1999 a few years after the end of his seven-year career - Bean has become a great supporter of LGBT causes, and authored a memoir, the Going the Other Way: Lessons from a Life in and out of Major League Baseball. One other openly gay figure with close ties to the sport is former MLB umpire, Dave Pallone, who authored his own coming out tale, Behind the Mask: My Double Life in Baseball. There have been rumors about other players and even umpires over the years, but none has come out publicly. Several past teammates of Billy Bean - notably former Astros catcher Brad Ausmus, who contributed a touching review of Going the Other Way to Bean's website - lent their encouragement after he came out. It may be a while before openly gay men are commonplace within the ranks of MLB baseball, but certainly these partnerships with It Gets Better are a step toward a time when sexual orientation won't be an obstacle.
It's fun to see some big-league teams with particularly strong GLBT followings acknowledging and giving back to the gay community - some of these franchises have stadiums in the heart of neighborhoods with significant gay visibility. The Cubs, for example, play at ancient and venerable Wrigley Field, which fringes Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood, aka "Boystown." The team has made donations in the past to Lakeview's GLBT Center on Halsted, and last year owner Laura Ricketts and baseball legend and former Cub Ernie Banks sat atop the team's float in the Chicago Gay Pride parade.
The Red Sox also play in a historic stadium, Fenway Park, that's also close to many gay-frequented restaurants and bars. Safeco Field in Seattle is on the edge of one of the city's most atmospheric neighborhoods, Pioneer Square, and a short walk south of downtown's famed Pike Place Market. In San Francisco, the Giants play at the stunning AT&T Park in the trendy South Beach neighborhood, close to the gay clubs of SoMa.
Other ballparks relatively close to gay-popular neighborhoods include Nationals Park, just south of Washington, DC's historic Capitol Hill nightlife district; PNC Park, just across the river from several gay bars on downtown Pittsburgh's Liberty Avenue; Coors Field, which looms over Denver's lively LoDo (Lower Downtown) district and is also close to the popular gay nightclub, Tracks; and Target Field, the new home of the Twins, which is near the gay nightlife along Hennepin Avenue and in the Warehouse District in downtown Minneapolis.
If you haven't thought much about catching a baseball game during your summer vacation, now just might be the time.