Minor league baseball player David Denson last month publicly announced that he is gay, making him the first openly gay active player on an MLB-affiliated team — he is in the Milwaukee Brewers organization. Denson told the Associated Press that former major leaguer Billy Bean helped him.
Last year at the 2014 MLB All-Star Game in Minneapolis, Bean was announced as baseball’s first inclusion ambassador. He made known his sexual orientation in 1999, several years after he retired from baseball.
“I was trying to play baseball with a very difficult secret,” recalled Bean. “I was living a life of deception and secrecy from my family, my friends — people that love me and the people I love the most, as well as my teammates.”
Looking back, Bean said he’d wished he had stuck it out and not quit a modestly successful baseball career so abruptly, a decision he now calls “a terrible mistake.”
Glenn Burke left baseball also abruptly at age 27 after several major league seasons and an unexpectant demotion to the minors. However, he endured rumors that he wasn’t straight. A team executive supposedly once offered him $75,000 to get married in order to squelch the murmurings. His Oakland manager, the manly-man Billy Martin, “used homophobic slurs around him freely” and teammates distanced themselves from Burke in the clubhouse, baseball’s man-cave.
“My brother was a man among men,” said Burke’s sister Lutha Burke last summer in a brief MSR interview. “He loved his family and he loved his fans. He was a good guy. He loved the sport.”
Like Bean, Burke came out after he left baseball, announcing his sexual orientation in a 1982 sports magazine feature. He later died in 1995 from complications due to AIDS.
“Your brother was a pioneer,” said then-MLB commissioner Bud Selig of Glenn Burke. As he announced Bean’s appointment, the commish added, “We’re pleased to honor his memory.”
Major League Baseball in 2011 established anti-discrimination policies in its collective bargaining agreement with the players. A “clubhouse code of conduct” was instituted in both the major and minor leagues in 2013, taking “a clear stand against discrimination in the workplace.”
“I don’t want to change baseball,” said Bean to the MSR, “but I want players not to feel that we are trying to force them to do or act like something they’re not.”
The comfort level in any clubhouse, or in society for that matter, can’t be legislated, collectively bargained or mandated. We witnessed this last week when a Kentucky elected county clerk would rather sit in jail on court contempt charges than serve any person who comes to her window to buy a marriage license. Acceptance of different lifestyles is still a sore spot for some, especially among the self-appointed moral judges.
It’s two decades too late for Bean and Burke, but their stories will help make things a bit better now, said Lutha Burke. She applauded Selig’s action, which took place in his final year as MLB commissioner.
“Glenn had a story to be told,” she said. “I’m very happy they [MLB] are honoring Glenn. I’m very proud they stepped forward. It is overdue.”
Asked about MLB’s inclusion efforts during his watch, Selig told the MSR, “We’ve come a long way, but we have a long way to go.”
“It’s not one person trying to change the minds,” said Bean. “I’m not here to change how people think.” But if he can convince straight players that it’s all right to have a teammate who is different from themselves, Bean said he’d be pleased.
Information from the Associated Press and Vice Sports was used in this report.
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Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.