July 15th, 2014

A Level Playing Field

Billy Bean

Billy Bean

I am a true believer in the power of baseball to serve as a beacon to the nation and, increasingly, the world. Our game is about equal opportunity whatever the color of one’s skin; an open door for people of differing national origin, and an understanding that everyone, whatever their gender or sexual orientation, will play by the same set of rules. How different from the customs and practices of everyday life!

Today has been a big day for baseball and for America, marking one of those times when baseball has taken a position to lead the nation rather than belatedly follow it. Commissioner Bud Selig announced the creation of a new post, that of “ambassador for inclusion,” for Billy Bean, a former major league outfielder who struggled in his career because of the strain of keeping secret the fact that he was gay. In his new position Bean will provide guidance to support those in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community throughout MLB, and will help MLB personnel to deal with this community sensitively and within the structure of the  joint MLB-MLBPA Workplace Code of Conduct.

“Major League Baseball is delighted that Billy, a member of the baseball family, will advise and represent our sport on a wide range of matters,” Selig said. “As a social institution, our game has important social responsibilities. To this day, the vibrant legacy of Jackie Robinson revolves around inclusion, respect and equal opportunity. I believe that Billy will help us proactively cultivate those fundamental principles, and he will serve as a significant resource to our clubs, current and future players and many others throughout our game.”

Selig and Bean were accompanied by Lutha Burke, the sister of the late former Major League outfielder Glenn Burke, whose homosexuality was acknowledged to his teammates on the Los Anglese Dodgers and Oakland As but was not widely own outside those clubhouses.

Jews who came to this country after the Holocaust—I was one, the child of survivors—understood being singled out for unequal treatment, but in this we were by no means alone. While Jews were admitted into Major League Baseball from its inception, African Americans were, with a handful of exceptions, institutionally barred at the door. For Jews, Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947 served as an indicator of changing American values toward difference. Coming after the horrors of World War II, we Jews embraced Robinson, the Dodgers, and hope for a level playing field for ourselves, too.

Playing baseball, attending games, trading baseball cards, and following the records of favorite players all served as outward affirmations of faith in the idea of America as a new home. My parents never took to baseball and lived their lives as strangers in a strange land, no matter that they were grateful, patriotic Americans for many more years than they had been embattled Europeans.

The parallel trials of Blacks and Jews illuminate the ongoing problem in American society: who is in, who is out, and who gets to decide? The Jewish experience in baseball was different from that of any other minority that sought to elevate its social and economic standing within the majority culture. But so have been the paths of African Americans, Italians, Slavs, Hispanics, and Asians.

Jackie Robinson

Jackie Robinson

Let me suggest that no path through baseball could have been as lonely, as isolated, as utterly without consensus, as that of gay players. They did not see the game as a way out and a way up; acceptance and inclusion, they may well have thought, were the primary goals. 

As our national game, baseball in no small measure defines us as Americans, connecting us with our countrymen across all barriers of generation, class, race, creed, gender, and sexual orientation. Meritocracy is what we are promised as Americans and—despite societal inequities of long standing, and a widening gap in real income between the top and middle and the bottom—that is more nearly, practically true of our nation than anywhere else in the world. And meritocracy is what characterizes our national game more perfectly than in our nation. Can you play?—today that is the only question asked.

With Branch Rickey, Jackie Robinson had forced America to confront the falsehood that baseball could truly be a national pastime while intentionally excluding anyone. America is a nation of nations, and its emblematic game is enriched by reflecting that truth. Today, baseball took another step toward leveling the field for all its citizens.