The gay Babe Ruth

The first active major leaguer to come out of the closet may ruin his career -- or he could become a cultural hero.

By King Kaufman

Published May 23, 2002 7:36PM (EDT)

The list of great gay baseball players is long and distinguished. It would astonish you to see who's on it.

Of course, nobody knows who's on it.

Wouldn't you love to see it, though? Wouldn't it be fun to put together an all-time all-gay team with a five-man starting rotation that accounted for 1,500 wins, or a starting lineup that hit 3,000 home runs? Who's the gay Babe Ruth, anyway? Maybe it's Babe Ruth!

A century from now we'll be able to put together a team of openly gay stars, I have no doubt. (Well, I won't be able to, with my crappy eating habits, but you'll still be around.) If even the conservative estimates of gays in the population are right -- let's say 2 percent -- hundreds of gays have played in the majors, and odds are that every other team that ever took the field had a gay player.

This is a topic of conversation for the second straight season because of comments made this week by New York Mets manager Bobby Valentine and his star catcher, Mike Piazza. Valentine says in the upcoming June/July Details magazine that baseball is "probably ready for an openly gay player."

Last year gays in baseball were a brief cause célèbre because Brendan Lemon, the editor of Out magazine, wrote in an editor's letter that he had been having an affair with a player on an East Coast club, "not his team's biggest star, but a very recognizable media figure." Lemon urged his friend to come out, arguing that it would ease the player's "psychic burden" and adding, "I'm pretty confident there'd be more support from the team than he imagines."

No player ever copped to a relationship with Lemon, whose opinion was called naive by the only living openly gay man who ever played major league ball, former utility infielder Billy Bean, who came out in 1999, four years after the end of his undistinguished playing career.

"There's so much money involved, you'd have to be foolish or very rich to put your career in jeopardy," Bean said in response to Lemon's letter. "It would become a circus. I've never met the person that I think could do it."

Now here's Valentine telling Details that "the players are a diverse enough group now that I think they could handle it."

The New York Post speculated Monday that his comments were a sort of preemptive strike. "Some may think that Valentine is getting in first, before one of his big guns is outed," wrote gossip columnist Neal Travis. "There is a persistent rumor around town that one Mets star who spends a lot of time with pretty models in clubs is actually gay and has started to think about declaring his sexual orientation."

Yeah, not that a gay player would be any kind of big deal or anything in this day and age, but New York sports radio has talked of nothing else all week. I said this was a topic of conversation. Well, nobody's even come out yet, and this is a topic of conversation in New York like "Attack of the Clones" is a topic of conversation in "Star Wars" chat rooms.

In Philadelphia on Tuesday, before the Mets' first game following the release of Valentine's comments, the press pounced on Piazza, a Mets star who spends a lot of time with pretty models in clubs -- not to mention his creative facial hair, if you know what I mean, eh, boys? "I'm not gay," Piazza said.

Everyone: Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Piazza said he agrees with Valentine. "In this day and age, it's irrelevant," he said. "I don't think it would be a problem at all."

Well, of course it would be a problem. It would be a problem for the player who came out, or was outed. Ask Bean, who put the word out that he would like to have a front-office job and hasn't exactly been inundated with offers, or ask the first openly gay major league player, Glenn Burke, who said, before he died of AIDS complications in 1995 after years of drug addiction and living on the streets, that he was hounded out of baseball in the early '80s because of his sexuality.

It's been frequently noted that American team-sports locker rooms are centers of Neanderthal thinking, homophobia, misogyny, the whole business. Even in that world, baseball players are a conservative lot, suspicious of outsiders and wary of change. Valentine and Piazza are either being naive or overly optimistic by saying that a gay player would have no problem.

On the other hand, I do think there's something to what Lemon wrote last year: "I'm pretty confident there'd be more support from the team than he imagines."

I do think we might be surprised. I keep thinking of Manon Rheaume, the female goaltender who became the first woman to play for a major American pro team when she played one period in an exhibition game for the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1992. She played for a few years in the minor leagues as well and always said that the other players accepted her.

Hockey players, a majority or at least a huge plurality of whom are either Canadian farmboys or suburbanites, tend to be as conservative as baseball players. Maybe even more so when it comes to encountering what social scientists call "otherness," since hockey players are overwhelmingly white and don't have the ever present racial issues their baseball cousins deal with every day. That and the multiple nationalities on every team make up the diversity Valentine was talking about.

Now, Manon Rheaume was cute, and young men are always inclined to like and accept cute women who share their interests, but it was still pretty surprising that these supposed Neanderthals cared a lot more about whether she could stop a slapshot than about whether letting a girl play would somehow ruin the sport, or their precious locker-room culture, or whatever.

That's one of the nice things about living in these times. Every once in a while, our assumptions about who will accept what are proved to be overly cautious. Remember when it was assumed that gay entertainers who came out would torpedo their careers? That was just a few years ago. Now a handful of actors and musicians of both sexes have come out, and not only has it not torpedoed their careers, but if the Rosie O'Donnell revelation of a few months ago is any indication, it's ceased even to be big news, though it remains to be seen how the public will react to a big-time leading man coming out.

I think the pessimists will be surprised when that happens, just as I think they'll be surprised when a ballplayer comes out, which is bound to happen one of these days.

One thing it's easy to forget is that ballplayers get younger and younger every year. What I mean is, they were born later and later. There are players in the major leagues now who were in diapers when MTV was launched. They've lived their entire lives, at least the Americans among them, in a culture where gays are at least an acknowledged presence. These aren't the same guys who played in Glenn Burke's time a quarter century ago, most of whom probably would have said they'd never met a gay person.

I predict the major leaguer who breaks the lavender barrier will be a pretty big star, someone who can be confident that his teammates will stick with him despite any misgivings they might have. As Phillies manager Larry Bowa pointed out Tuesday, "If he hits .340 it probably would be easier than if he hits .220." If Sammy Sosa says, "I'm queer," the Chicago Cubs suddenly become a very gay-friendly bunch.

Still, it won't be easy. The first openly gay player will take some abuse from the opposition even if he doesn't take it from his teammates, and he'll probably take it from his teammates. Pioneers always have it rough.

On the other hand, unlike Jackie Robinson when he broke into the National League, he'll be lionized in the rest of the mainstream culture, not to mention becoming a full-on god in the gay community. He'll likely become the most famous baseball player in the world. Billy Bean thinks it would be financial suicide. I think it would be a gold mine.

And 100, or 50, or let's be optimistic and say 20 years from now, we'll look up from our bar-stool game of naming an all-time all-gay team -- Carstairs at short! No, McGillicutty! -- and have to remind ourselves why it was such a brave thing to do when that first player came out of the closet.

King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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