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It matters that (almost) all of baseball is embracing Pride now. It changes the game.

Baseball glove and ball in rainbow/Pride/LGBTQ tint
Photo: Shutterstock

Pride celebrations are becoming increasingly frequent in sports, and baseball is becoming one of the most visible games to work on being inclusive since Pride Month falls right in the middle of the baseball season.

The San Francisco Giants made history by becoming the first Major League Baseball (MLB) team to wear Pride-themed uniforms on the field. But they are far from alone in recognizing their LGBTQ fans, although baseball is a sport heavily drenched in traditions and conservatism.

Related: Colton Underwood wishes he had been as “brave” as Michael Sam & came out years ago

The Eugene Emeralds, once a Class-A minor league affiliate of the Cubs, were the first professional American team to do so in 2019. At that game, Candace Gingrich, the lesbian half-sister of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) spoke to a crowd of cheering fans.

Eighteen of the other 29 teams have had or will have a Pride-themed celebration during a home game this season, most in June.

The Rockies already had theirs, and the Giants did as well — but they will also be holding two LGBTQ-themed outdoor movie nights at their home stadium, Oracle Park. They’ll be screening In the Heights on June 11 and Everybody’s Talking About Jamie on June 12.

The Arizona Diamondbacks, Atlanta Braves, Boston Red Sox, Cincinnati Reds, the Cleveland Baseball Team, Detroit Tigers, Houston Astros, Kansas City Royals, Los Angeles Dodgers, Milwaukee Brewers, New York Mets, Oakland A’s, St. Louis Cardinals, and Tampa Bay Rays will all hold Pride Day or Pride Night games. The Minnesota Twins will hold theirs in early July, and the Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates will in August.

Certain teams, such as the Toronto Blue Jays, are not able to plan an event due to ongoing COVID-19 restrictions. Others, like the New York Yankees, often forego specific Pride-themed games but choose to celebrate in other ways. (The Yankees had their first “Legacy of Pride” game in 2019, and awards annual Yankees-Stonewall Scholarships to NYC public school students during Pride Month since 2018.)

Only the Texas Rangers are not holding an event that recognizes or celebrates Pride in some way this year. They remain the only MLB team that has not had some sort of Pride Day since 2003. That year, they invited other gay athletes to a game in September, but it drew protestors who even launched “protestgayday.com” to object to their invitation.

The team hasn’t publicly celebrated the LGBTQ community since.

LGBTQ representation in sports has become a growing issue in recent years, as the “Big Four” major sports leagues (which doesn’t include the WNBA and MLS, which have out players) have yet to field a publicly out athlete play in one of their games.

While homophobia and support for anti-LGBTQ movements have been commonplace in sports, the tides are now changing. Baseball, and the MLB in particular, is different from the other sporting leagues in this regard though.

While stars come from all corners of the world to play here, the MLB is still heavily white (57.5 percent in 2017) compared to other leagues, and many of its players skew to the right politically. Currently, the league is amidst an incentivized COVID-19 vaccination process that has become messy, seeing many prominent players publicly state their objection to vaccines.

One thing it shares in common with other leagues, though, is the demographics of their owners and executives. Almost all MLB team owners are white men, and nearly all of them are devout conservatives.

For example, Giants co-owner Charles B. Johnson is a noted supporter of right and far-right conservatives and has donated hundreds of millions to Republican campaigns and PACs. “I don’t like the idea of politics affecting anything I do with the Giants,” he claimed in 2018.

Owners and commissioners in the NFL, NBA, WNBA, NHL, MLB and NASCAR donated at least $10 million to Republican politicians or causes in 2020 alone, according to a FiveThirtyEight report published weeks before the presidential election. Johnson was among 13 team owners (including former Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R) and Knicks owner James Dolan) to donate to Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign or PACs for a total of over $1.7 million.

Despite this, baseball is becoming one of the sporting communities that publicly embrace the LGBTQ community. Leaders in the sport are fighting to not only include, but make baseball welcoming to gay and trans people.

When the Washington Nationals won the World Series in 2019, Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle specifically forewent the team’s visit to the Trump White House because he wanted to be an ally to LGBTQ people. His wife, Eirann Doran, has two mothers.

“I want to show support for them. I think that’s an important part of allyship, and I don’t want to turn my back on them,” he said.

Doolittle previously said regarding the beliefs of his fellow players in 2016, “The league is composed of over 60 percent white men. When so much of the league has a background or comes from a place where there might be more privilege and opportunity, it’s very difficult to relate to something they have never seen nor experienced.”

As drenched in tradition as baseball has always been, it’s not surprising that people in the sport have stood with LGBTQ people. Baseball is likely the most traditional sport of choice for protests.

It helps that the MLB has been more swift, compared to the NBA, NFL, NHL, and MLS in dealing with anti-gay actions or slurs.

For example, when A’s outfielder Matthew Joyce used a slur during a game, he was suspended without pay for two games, within 24 hours of the incident. He also had to take part in a public outreach program with PFLAG and the A’s, who were “disappointed” by Joyce’s “unacceptable” language, donated his paycheck from those games of $54,000 to PFLAG too.

Last season, Thom Brennaman used an anti-gay slur while working as a play-by-play commentator for the Cincinnati Reds. He was pulled from the broadcast immediately, before exiting, he made an on-air apology, which he stopped giving midway to announce a home run had been hit.

Brennaman went on to say he is a “man of faith” and claim “that’s not who I am. It never has been.” Within days, he further apologized in an online editorial, and ultimately resigned after he was dropped from FOX’s NFL coverage as well. He has since signed on to work as a play-by-play announcer for the upcoming season of the Roberto Clemente League in Puerto Rico.

The league has not shied away from objecting to harmful actions and policies off the field, too. In 2014, the league made its objections known regarding Senate Bill 1062, an anti-LGBTQ bill proposed in Arizona.

“MLB has a zero-tolerance policy for harassment or discrimination based on sexual orientation,” they said at a time before marriage equality was even the law of the land. Arizona’s Republican governor at the time vetoed the bill and it was not enacted.

The results have shown in the inclusion of LGBTQ people in several aspects of the sports, although that has not yet yielded a major league player.

In June 2016, Rachel Lauren Clark became the first out trans person to throw a ceremonial pitch at a Major League Baseball game for the Toronto Blue Jays. Tassandra Crush, an entertainer and trans woman, is believed to be the first to throw the first pitch in a MLB game in the United States when she did so in 2017.

It’s also worth noting that as valued as traditions are in baseball, there are many LGBTQ people to thank for some of those traditions. The creator of the high-five was not only a baseball player, but a gay baseball player.

That player, Glenn Burke, was the first gay player who was out to his teammates and management in Major League Baseball. Being out in the 1970s, he was one of the earliest professional LGBTQ athletes to ever come out publicly in America.

He played for the Dodgers at the time, and then-manager Tommy Lasorda Sr. soured on Burke after he turned down a team offer for an all-expense-paid honeymoon if he married a woman. Burke also had a relationship with his son, Tom Jr., known as “Spunky.” (The elder Lasorda denied his son was gay to the end of his life, even after his son died of complications from AIDS in 1991.)

Lasorda would trade Burke to the Oakland A’s, against his team and dugout’s wishes, in 1980. Burke was introduced by manager Billy Martin to the team as “Glenn Burke, the faggot” (although Burke said that Martin never said it to his face, because “he may have known I would’ve kicked that ass.”)

But the stress, the isolation, and a knee injury contributed to Burke’s demotion to a minor-league team in Utah, where he was released before the season ended. Yet, when Glenn’s own battle with AIDS became public, it was the Oakland A’s who helped support him financially.

A year before he died, Burke reflected on his baseball career to The New York Times.

“Prejudice drove me out of baseball sooner than I should have,” Burke said. “But I wasn’t changing.”

Burke died from AIDS-related complications on May 30, 1995, at age 42.

Former A’s pitcher Billy Bean, was the second MLB player to come out in 1999, and has been MLB’s Ambassador for Inclusion since 2014.

This year, apparently influenced by a Change.org petition, the Oakland A’s have renamed their annual Pride Night game, June 11 against the Kansas City Royals, as “Glenn Burke Pride Night.”

While it’s far from complete retribution for a league where homophobia was accepted for decades and harmed several people (like Lenny Dykstra, who has openly admitted to hiring private investigators to blackmail gay umpires), it’s a sign of progress.

Author Andrew Maraniss, who wrote Singled Out, a biography on Burke, told Outsports that “It’s hard to say it makes things right… but it certainly is a great step in the right direction.”

It was only eight years ago that former Major League pitcher Mark Knudson wrote, “it remains the best option for any homosexual athlete in a team sport to keep his orientation private” because they’ll inevitably become attracted to their teammates.

This all prefaced a league that is currently on the receiving end of right-wing backlash because they removed this year’s All-Star festivities from Atlanta due to a law that will restrict people’s ability to vote in Georgia, which undoubtedly will affect LGBTQ people and others who are marginalized.

The activism happening in baseball, individually and on the corporate level, is trailblazing (at least, amongst the male-majority sports leagues.) It also sends a clear message to other teams and leagues: do something more than change their logos or send social media posts if you want the support of marginalized people.

Some are already following suit. The San Francisco 49ers are holding a month of Pride celebration programs, including profiling several of their “Faithful” fans and a panel on activism in sports with former MMA fighter Fallon Fox, who is trans. They have also made available merchandise that is gender-neutral.

All five Seattle sports franchises — the Seahawks, Mariners, Storm, Kraken, Sounders FC, and OL Reign — have teamed up to support LGBTQ-owned small businesses, and provide a gender-inclusive toolkit for all youth coaches, parents, and school administrators in Washington State.

In Florida, where a ban on trans girls in school sports was signed into law to start Pride Month, the Miami Dolphins have taken action. They will send youth to participate in Ft. Lauderdale’s Wilton Manors Stonewall Pride Parade. It’s a part of their sponsorship of the youth initiative BIGPride, through a partnership with the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Broward County.

So while the WNBA, the first professional league in the country to celebrate Pride starting in 2014, was long ahead of the other major sports in welcoming LGBTQ fans and athletes, MLB may be the next to step to the plate.

Even if Texas lags behind.

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