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Bringing diversity to the big leagues: An interview with Major League Baseball’s Billy Bean

12/19/2017 Harry O'Neill

 Bringing diversity to the big leagues

The following is an edited version of the interview. Scroll below for video excerpts.


The testosterone-charged world of professional male sports is not an environment many would associate with workplace tolerance and the acceptance of diversity. Major League Baseball’s Billy Bean is working to change that perception. Although Bean’s priority is generating greater acceptance of gay MLB players and front-office staff, his experiences are relevant for any executive striving to create equality across gender, ethnic, and sexual-orientation lines.

Bean, a former major league outfielder, came out as gay in 1999 after retiring from the sport.

As the only living major league baseball player to be openly gay, Bean has a unique platform from which to discuss tolerance and inclusion. While a small number of top athletes in individual sports and women’s team sports have come out as gay during their active careers, the very few athletes from major North American male team sports1 who have announced did so almost exclusively after retirement. Bean returned to baseball in 2014 as the league’s first ambassador for inclusion. In January 2017 he was named vice president and special assistant to commissioner Rob Manfred.

Bean recently spoke with Heidrick & Struggles partner Harry O’Neill in Chicago. The retired outfielder discussed how he faced the challenges inherent in his sport, as well as the attitudes and lessons that could help companies generally with their efforts to foster greater diversity. Bean also reflected on personal experiences, including how his 15 years in self-imposed exile from baseball prepared him for his current mission.

Heidrick & Struggles: How did your experiences as a player prepare you for your current role in baseball?

Billy Bean: I was the golden child. I had a chance to play 10, 12 years in the majors. But I was hiding a partner, and I lived a double life. I wanted to be seen as a baseball player who made it to the big leagues just like everybody else, and the thought of walking into a clubhouse and being looked at differently . . . I just preferred not to be there. I didn’t want to be a martyr. I wasn’t on a crusade for LGBT2 rights; I was living in shame. In retrospect, I think those guys loved me like a brother, but I was afraid to trust that.

I left baseball just when I was starting to make a contribution at the highest level. I was just reaching my prime when my partner passed away. I was in the closet so deeply, and I had a lot of anger about baseball because it was all I knew. I did not even go to his funeral. I had a game that day, and the day he died I went straight from the hospital to the ballpark. I just pretended that it didn’t happen. I didn’t talk to anybody about it. Those are choices that are really hard to let go of.

And I was afraid. My partner died in 1994 of HIV-related causes, and I was told by a doctor, not an HIV specialist, that I would become positive because I had been exposed. And rather than going to my family or going to my team, I just thought I’d better take myself out of this equation. And I moved as far away as I could, to Miami. I didn’t tell my parents about my personal life until two and a half years after my last game. Then I went from hiding a secret to being asked about it on national television and on the front page of the New York Times Sunday edition, with a picture of me in my uniform from five years before.

I felt I had not thought clearly about what I was going to do when I stopped being a baseball player. Everything had been contingent on that false identity as a straight player. And it wasn’t until I had been away for a while, long enough that I started to meet people in the community, and I started to see a whole different potential of where I might have value aside from just hitting a baseball and running fast and all that.

Heidrick & Struggles: How did that time away from the game change you?

Billy Bean: It was a very complicated time, and I think it helped give me compassion and understanding for everyone’s journey, whether it’s in a work environment in a company or you’re a teacher in an elementary school or you have parents who are the most important people in your life and you just don’t want to break their heart by coming out because they had certain dreams for you. Part of my job is to be able to communicate that experience in a way that allows a player, or a room of people who may never have thought about why diversity is important, to see my story as a human experience—not something where I’m telling them what to think or say.

My life changed a lot, and I became involved in the LGBT culture in ways that ironically did prepare me for this position, but I had no plan. I just simply assumed there would never be a job in baseball for someone who was out. There was no one else at my level of play who had ever come out, at least not after me, and there didn’t seem to be an evolution happening. I was very humbled by the fact that baseball was ready to start that conversation.

If I had just had the courage to talk to somebody, it would have changed my life, but I stayed isolated. And I feel those kinds of things would resonate more with the kid who is living in that space now.

Heidrick & Struggles: Was bringing you on as the champion of inclusivity in Major League Baseball a risky move, considering the challenges on and off the field?

Billy Bean: It was scary for me, I can tell you. I don’t think I was hired with a real specific definition of the role. It was an example of baseball embracing its responsibility to the people who invest in the game, whether it’s for entertainment or for sponsorship. Baseball has a wonderful way of bringing people together, creating communities of people of different colors, genders, and languages. If you have a Cubs jersey or a White Sox jersey or a Yankee jersey on and the game begins, everyone’s heart starts to beat a little faster. It brings us together.

When I was appointed, it wasn’t an effort to show how great baseball is, but rather a group of people saying, “We have to do better.” I had 15 years to rest up and was ready to start a conversation. When I walk into a room of alpha males who are multimillionaires and in the prime of their lives, even though I’m going to talk about something that may not interest them, for the first time they’re hearing it from a peer who played at the same level that they do. There’s an automatic level of mutual respect for a moment. It’s like a challenge for them to be the ambassadors to the people who look up to them.

Heidrick & Struggles: Diversity and inclusion, whether focusing on gender, ethnic background, or sexual orientation, is an important issue today in a wide range of industries. What makes the challenge in professional baseball different?

Billy Bean: Baseball is a very hard sport to be great at. You don’t just become great because of your height or your size. To hit a ball or throw a ball requires a lifetime of work. I know a few players who struggled with the decision of coming out, and they just couldn’t quite get there because they were baseball players first; they knew you don’t even get to the minor leagues unless you’re really good. There’s a list of things that people are putting into that equation before they make that choice.

If you’re in an individual sport, and you have talent, you’re going to be invited to the Olympics regardless because of your skill. Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova were iconic gay athletes who were global celebrities. That doesn’t mean their experiences weren’t difficult. Both were subjected to situations beyond their control. The difference is a team or a front office didn’t need to worry if Billie Jean or Martina were going to get along with their teammates or about the chemistry in the clubhouse.

Teams are concerned about all of those different kinds of things. It doesn’t mean that baseball’s not ready for it; it’s just there’s no specific absolute example of how it has played out. And without one, I do worry that if a young player were to come along who was out—and could throw pitches at 97, 98 miles an hour and had a great support network—a team might very well still pass on him and pick the next player because they weren’t sure how it would all mesh. That’s kind of the little dark secret about team sports: it’s complicated enough just managing personalities, backgrounds, and cultures. Adding sexuality to the mix is another challenge on top of all that.

Heidrick & Struggles: How do you create an environment where other sexual orientations are understood and accepted?

Billy Bean: The biggest thing is to be a relatable example to the high percentage of people who are not a part of the LGBT community. For those who are and are not in a position to share, I want to be their greatest warrior in a way that allows me to bring people together and not alienate people or create a divide. That would be easy to do because a lot of people want their sports to stay the way they are.

I’ve tried to find ways that allow that conversation to begin without the players becoming defensive. Talking about social issues or social responsibility is not on their radar. Their job is to play really well, hit home runs, and strike out hitters. Then, all their dreams will come true. I used to be the same way. Finding a relatable message allows us to feel like we’re connected.

I would venture to say that almost all of them expect to be a father and have a family. So for an athlete, I talk about my relationship with my dad, parenting, and the conversations we had at the dinner table. Are we accepting, or are we going to perpetuate and raise our kids to be bullies? I’m not submissive to the athletes; I want to meet them in the middle with something that is substantive.

I am not an expert on LGBT decision making or choices or history. I’m an expert in, I think, an evolution through my life choices and a lifetime inside of baseball. And I understand the dynamic of the sport. Putting all that together allows me to be a part of a deeper conversation. My job is not to be a semantics teacher or to tell people what they should and should not feel. It’s sharing life experiences and the experiences of others that makes you a good communicator.

Heidrick & Struggles: What would it take for a player who is privately gay to come out?

Billy Bean: That is the million-dollar question, for sure. Jason Collins, who was in the NBA, came out in 2013 and then was not signed by a team. He ended up coming back and playing 20 games in the NBA as an active player and openly gay. Collins is seven feet tall, graduated from Stanford, and is wonderful, but he had a body of work to convince everyone to continue to see him as an NBA basketball player, not a gay person who played basketball.

Major League Baseball is going to be 150 years old next year, and in 150 years, only two men who played in the major leagues have ever disclosed that they were gay. I’m one of them, and the other one was Glenn Burke, who unfortunately passed away of HIV-related causes in the early ’90s. There’s been almost 20,000 players in those 150 years who played at least one game in the major leagues.

Part of my role is to let people know that if they’re ready to make that choice and come out, if it’s the best decision for them, then they’re going to be supported. When you put your private life out in this world of social media, you put a target on your chest. But there’s also going to be a lot of love and adoration and support. It’s a lot to digest. And people who are part of those decisions—whether an agent or a manager or parents—might not show as much support for that decision because of the consequences, despite that it’s true and a part of their life.

Having visible LGBT leaders is vital, either on the field or in the front office, but it doesn't happen overnight. It might take 10 more years for someone to come out, but when someone decides to be that person, I want that experience to be a positive one, because then another player or two will see that the world didn’t stop spinning. The LGBT athlete still went to the park every day, got paid, and got signed to an extension of a contract. It wasn’t the end of the road.

These are the kinds of things that keep me up at night. I don’t want to see a player come out and have a bad experience. I want to have done the work that allows that player to make a healthy decision and thrive and to make his family feel happy. I’d rather change the whole culture and have that not happen for 10 years than for it to happen tomorrow and have it not go well.

Heidrick & Struggles: What does success look like in your role?

Billy Bean: When Jackie Robinson crossed the color barrier in the 1940s, people would throw the “n word” around with freedom and not feel any accountability. And racism still exists today. You would think that 70 years after baseball integrated, racism would not be an issue in the United States, but it’s never been more of an issue.

The current conversation on inclusiveness is still new to baseball. And it’s daunting at times. There’s a part of me—that player who’s still in his 20s—who feels the responsibility in a profound way of how this message is introduced, because if we mess up, it could go backward. So I don’t know if my job will ever be over.

Having supportive organizations helps, and clearly some clubs are becoming more aggressive on LGBT issues. For example, the Chicago Cubs are one of the most progressive organizations, ironically owned by a very conservative family. Laura Ricketts3 has been brave enough to be her most authentic self and has helped her family fast-forward and evolve. The Cubs have captivated the world right now by finally winning the World Series. What they say and do is important, and they’re fearlessly supportive of the LGBT community.

That institutional support matters, but we can all contribute to building respect and support. If you’re trying to be a healer or a uniter and have compassion for someone who you care about or you work alongside, you can never underestimate the value of just being supportive.

Heidrick & Struggles: Are there lessons that can be shared by what Major League Baseball is trying to achieve and efforts in companies to increase diversity?

Billy Bean: I think corporate America understood the value of diversity sooner than baseball because a consumer needs to see something that’s relatable, whether it’s a product or a type of business or a career path.

But business is far from perfect, and in both sports and business, there are so many dynamics to inherent prejudice or discrimination that snapping your fingers and writing a glowing mission statement doesn’t mean that change is actually happening. Just today, for example, I had a conversation with a banker who told me that he was paralyzed with the fear of sharing his sexuality at work because he thought clients whose money he was investing might assume he’s some crazy gay person who’s partying all night or whatever. I’ve met with neurosurgeons and dentists who were afraid to come out because they thought their patients would not want them touching them. We all have a job to do to make a shift in culture so that people feel completely comfortable with being their best self, because that’s how we’re going to be authentic and the most productive.

And whether you’re an athlete or an executive working at a company, you can’t be as effective if you’re not your authentic self. When my partner passed away, I had no support group. I was dealing with three significant secrets: being in the closet, the loss of a partner, and the absolute certainty that I was going to become HIV positive.

And the result of all that is that I was probably running at about 20% capacity as a baseball player. How many people are still living in that place—living their lives in ways that are totally disconnected from who they really are?

My hope is that, if someone is managing their life in a space like that, they have a strong support network. My life would have changed if I would have talked to my parents. My life would have changed if I’d talked to my roommate . . . just one conversation, even just to say, “I miss my partner.” I can’t believe I didn’t find the courage to do that, and I feel that a first goal for me is to make athletes feel valued, and not just for their batting average or how many runs they score or strikeouts they throw.

Billy Bean

Growing up in Southern California, as a high school student Billy Bean was a standout outfielder, landing a baseball scholarship to Loyola Marymount University, where he played in the 1986 College World Series. Between 1986 and 1995, Bean played in the major- and minor-league clubs of the Detroit Tigers, Los Angeles Dodgers, and San Diego Padres, as well as a brief stint with the Kintetsu Buffaloes in Japan. In 1999, after leaving professional baseball and going into the restaurant business in Florida, Bean came out publicly as gay in a newspaper interview, and four years later his memoir, Going the Other Way: An Intimate Memoir of Life In and Out of Major League Baseball, was published. In 2014 he was named ambassador of inclusion for Major League Baseball, and in 2017 his role was expanded to vice president and special assistant to the commissioner.


About the author

Harry O’Neill (honeill@heidrick.com) is a partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ CEO & Board and Financial Services practices and the co-leader of Pride@Heidrick; he is based in Hong Kong.

The author wishes to thank Mitch Montoya for his contributions to this article.

References

1 Major League Baseball, National Basketball Association, National Football League, and National Hockey League.

2 Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender.

3 Co-owner of the Chicago Cubs and first openly gay franchise owner of a major league sports team.

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Podcast episode 7: Beyond diversity to inclusion

Three ways analytics can improve diversity in the workplace

The business relevance of diverse leadership


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