321. Unmasking Identity, Challenging Stereotypes, and Leading Inclusion in Baseball with Billy BeanAug 06, 2023
In this very special episode of The Daily Helping, we sit down with Billy Bean, the former major league baseball outfielder who played six exciting seasons with the Detroit Tigers, the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the San Diego Padres. Now serving as Vice President and Special Assistant to the Commissioner of Major League Baseball, Billy’s roles extend beyond the field as an advisor on LGBTQ and mental health and wellness issues. His memoir, “Going the Other Way,” encapsulates his journey as a gay man in professional baseball.
Billy’s story begins in Southern California, where he was raised in a strict Catholic household and discovered his talent for sports at a young age. His rise to major league baseball was meteoric, but it was not without personal struggles. Coming to terms with his sexual orientation and the fear of public exposure weighed heavily on Billy, leading to challenges in his personal life and on the field. The loss of his partner, Sam, to HIV, and the fear of facing rejection from his father further affected his performance.
Starting a new chapter, Billy moved to Miami after the ’95 season, where he found companionship in his Jack Russell Terrier, Paco. The ensuing years were a period of personal discovery and growth, as Billy learned to embrace diversity and support his community. Coming out as gay brought its own set of challenges, but with the acceptance and love of his family, he found peace.
Billy also shares his journey back to baseball, but in a new and pivotal role overseeing all diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) efforts for the sport. His perspective on self-confidence, self-esteem, and trust, combined with his genuine love and inclusivity, has allowed him to make a significant impact on the game.
Billy Bean’s story is not only a tale of a remarkable career but also a deep exploration of personal transformation, acceptance, and the significance of his journey in his current role in baseball.
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Billy Bean: [00:00:00] Just trust that if you just pursue things that are interesting and be curious, you will find those things. And I just believe that you’ll come out the other side and really, really feel great about yourself.
Dr. Richard Shuster: [00:00:19] Hello and welcome to The Daily Helping with Dr. Richard Shuster, food for the brain, knowledge from the experts, tools to win at life. I’m your host, Dr. Richard. Whoever you are, wherever you’re from, and whatever you do, this is the show that is going to help you become the best version of yourself. Each episode you will hear from some of the most amazing, talented, and successful people on the planet who followed their passions and strived to help others. Join our movement to get a million people each day to commit acts of kindness for others. Together, we’re going to make the world a better place. Are you ready? Because it’s time for your Daily Helping.
Thanks for tuning in to this episode of The Daily Helping Podcast. I’m your host, Dr. Richard. We’ve got another amazing episode as part of the Athlete’s Voice Series on The Daily Helping, we are interviewing incredible athletes who are doing even more incredible things in the world.
And our guest today is Billy Bean. He’s a former Major League Baseball outfielder who played six seasons with the Detroit Tigers, the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the San Diego Padres. He’s currently the Vice-President and Special Assistant to the Commissioner of Major League Baseball, and he’s an advisor on the LGBTQ and mental health and wellness issues. His memoir, Going the Other Way, chronicles his journey as a gay man in professional baseball. Billy, welcome to The Daily Helping. It is awesome to have you with us today.
Billy Bean: [00:01:51] Thank you, Dr. Richard. I’m proud to be here and I’m happy to be in Atlanta and spending the weekend with some really nice and influential people.
Dr. Richard Shuster: [00:01:59] It’s been great so far. I know we’re going to have an awesome discussion. So, what I love to do with all of my guests is jump into the time machine. Let’s hop in the Billy Bean DeLorean here. Let’s go back. I want to talk about your journey because you have your journey as a baseball player and then you have your journey as really being the first prominently and openly gay baseball player. And so, let’s start with the Billy Bean superhero origin story, and we’ll work from there.
Billy Bean: [00:02:29] Okay. Well, I was born in Southern California. My mom was a single mom until I was about seven, and then married my stepfather and he had three children. And overnight – it seemed like overnight – I became the oldest of five boys and in a new family. My dad was in the Marine Corps and then he was a uniformed law enforcement officer. We were raised very strict Catholic. And I grew up in a time when, you know, it was, I guess, innocence, right? No social media, strong family values. He was the patriarch of a very, very strictly run household.
And for some lucky reason, I was really good at sports from a very, very young age. I started playing Little League and found success, found my voice out there, and it just seemed like the only thing I ever wanted to do was to be outside. I was quarterback of my high school football team. I played on the basketball team. I was on the state championship baseball team and and we won the California State Title in Dodger Stadium. You know, I look back and it doesn’t seem real. It was incredible.
I never thought that baseball would keep picking me, which is what happens when you find your way to college baseball scholarship, professional minor league baseball. I was All-American a couple times at Loyola Marymount. I went to, in theory, a small school because my family had no understanding of sports on a high level and they wanted me to go to a school where they thought I would get a great education, which I did.
I got drafted by the Detroit Tigers in 1986, in the fourth round. And less than a year later, I was playing in the major leagues. It was, you know, again, one of those fairy tale journey.
So, the context of all of that is really the backdrop of the great irony of my life, is that, it took me until I was in my middle 20s to really understand my sexual orientation. Every hero I ever had had a baseball uniform on. That was who I wanted to be. I wanted to be Steve Garvey or George Brett or Paul Molitor. I wanted to, you know, bat 300 every year, and go to the Hall of Fame, and play golf, and get married and have kids, and do all the things that I saw from the people that I looked up to.
And I don’t ever recall, like, being by myself ever as a kid until I got to the major leagues, which is weird because I never had traveled on the road playing sports. I never had my own hotel room. You know, in the major leagues, it’s 100 percent business. You have a job and you have to be at certain places at certain times. And then, there’s no chaperoning. You either make it or you break yourself out of it.
And, you know, I got married very young. I was with my wife for almost eight years of my life. We met very early in my college career at Loyola. And as I matured and, you know, two or three years in the major leagues and playing winter ball and on the road away from my family, away from her the majority of the time, I started to have self-realization that I had a problem and that is the way that I looked at it.
And for your listeners, baseball is 154 years old in 2023 and there have been over 20,000 players that have played at least one day in the major leagues. And there have been two players in that 154 years who have ever publicly disclosed that they are gay. A player named Glenn Burke, who played in the ’70s and ’80s and died in the early ’90s. He played for the Dodgers like I did. I came along a generation after him. And that other player is me.
And I had no idea about that. There was no social media. There was no way for me to see images of whatever I was thinking. I’m not even sure I was fully formed in understanding what gay was. I just knew that there was something different about me. And even though I had never experienced it, I thought, "Well, maybe it’s not true." And so, if I stayed as far away from it as possible, I’d never saw one moment in my major league experience where there was an accepting message about someone who might be gay.
We didn’t talk about LGBTQ in the late ’80s and early ’90s. People were dying of HIV every single day on television. Every image that you saw about a gay person was effeminate, stereotypical. It was written by probably a white straight male. And so, there was no reason for me to think that I might be a part of that community. I certainly had never talked to anybody or anybody that was remotely close to sports. I was fast. I get hit. I played center field and Yankee Stadium. You know, these aren’t adjectives that you describe gay people. But I am.
And it wasn’t until I actually met somebody that I understood what maybe real love felt like to other people. And it only confused me and scared the crap out of me and made me want to run away from that even farther.
And so, you know, the great conflict of my life was my self-realization of my sexual orientation while I was playing in Major League Baseball. And it was not a good ending because I just did not think that someone like me was meant to play in the big leagues, so I literally talked myself out of it. Even though I played six years in the big leagues, which is a long time, a couple of things that were happening to me trying to conceal that secret off the field to my partner really changed the course of my whole life.
Dr. Richard Shuster: [00:09:19] And so, at the same time as you’re having these self-discoveries, you met a partner, are you still married at that time?
Billy Bean: [00:09:29] I was married when I met – his name was Sam. And immediately I told my wife that we needed to separate. And so, I probably made a thousand consecutive terrible decisions trying to please the world. And part of it is, you know, embarrassing and painful. And I hurt the people that I love and that loved me out of fear of what people might think about me, about something that I wasn’t even willing to say. You know, it’s so many layers of shame and low self-esteem. I never saw a positive example of anything remotely like that.
And, you know, we talk about representation, and if you can see it, you can be it. It matters in many ways. No different than a little boy seeing his father fish and then they want to fish or something, or a little girl watching their mother or father do something, you know, sing and just speak to their soul and then they want to emulate that. I had no blueprint for anything except imminent danger and death. You know, everything with gay to me was associated with Rock Hudson dying on Elizabeth Taylor’s arm. That was literally the first time I ever saw something on T.V. that made me think about somebody that’s living that or that is part of that community.
And so, leaving my wife and my marriage was devastating and probably every bit as painful as any part of that experience. She wanted to have children. And thankfully I was able to not make more bad decisions trying to please people, and it didn’t make the breakup any easier, but it also probably would have allowed me to perpetuate lying longer to I would have stayed and hurt more people.
And so, I met my partner and immediately I fell in love. I look back and I don’t even know how in the world I dreamt that I could pull it off. You know, in baseball, your schedule is so intense and just everyone is marching to the same beat of what that schedule is and so most times people are pretty close to each other. And that was the case for me and it was just a real challenge and something that drained me of all the energy I should have been focusing on, on the field.
And in lieu of the amount of time we have today, you know, for three years, Sam and I were together. And then, before what became to be my last season as a member of the San Diego Padres, he was diagnosed with HIV and he became extremely ill. And the night before opening day, I came home, he was completely unconscious at home and I rushed him to the hospital and he died of cardiac arrest the next morning. And I had a [1:00] game that day and I had about an hour to go home, shower, and get to the ballpark in time, and I did it.
And I had never introduced Sam to my parents. I never told a roommate. I didn’t have any gay friends. I’d never been to any gay bars or any social environments where someone might have known us. It was as if because of the depth of the closet that I was living in, he just disappeared.
And the young man in me, I guess, the stress of having to play, it helped me – I don’t know – just fend off whatever grief I was trying to stay away from. You know, I had a game and I just was determined that I wasn’t going to fall apart, lose my job. I was a wreck when I was alone. But as soon as I got around the guys, I had to try to pull it together. And I made it through that last year, I didn’t play very well.
And as soon as the season ended, that’s when I really started to really struggle emotionally with living in the closet, fear that I would become HIV positive, which I got some bad medical advice. An older doctor at the time said the chances were very, very good that I would become positive because I had been exposed to it even though I tested negative. It was just naive, uninformed nonsense.
But for anybody who’s had taken a medical exam and had to wait for the doctor, it’s scary. And when you’re trying to hit a 100 mile an hour fastball and you’re barely hanging on in the big leagues anyways, it was a rough time.
And I was my own worst enemy. I was so afraid that my dad would find out and that he would disown me or something. I looked up to him. And he’s a Marine Corps Veteran, all his guys, all his buddies, his cop friends, there’s a lot of homophobic talk around the boys when they were around us. They were like our uncles and they wanted the boys to be tough. And, you know, I got a pass because I was a quarterback of the football team and I was in the big leagues. And the great irony is that of all the five boys, I was the one who turned out to be gay.
So, my life took a huge detour as soon as that ’95 season ended. I jumped as far away from San Diego as I could. I went to Miami, and I just thought I’m just going to hang out. I knew a couple people and worked out with a few guys.
And I got a dog, you know, I just needed somebody to be around me. And I got a Jack Russell Terrier named Paco, who lived to be 17, who was the greatest gift I’ve ever had in this life. That dog saved me, and I mean literally saved me, because I needed to take care of something and he was my best friend. And I’m still brokenhearted as much of any of my experience as how much that dog helped me when I felt inadequate and not worthy of anything.
And then, finally, I think three years after my last game, I finally was a little more visible in my community. I quit playing. I didn’t go back to spring training in ’96. And, you know, for a day or two, your agent is trying to find you and your parents want to know what’s going on and I just didn’t answer any of those calls. And I just thought I would never tell anybody.
And for some people, that sounds a little impossible to understand, but I am where I come from and I think there are a lot of lessons that are hard to unlearn. And I didn’t grow up in a racist environment. My dad was all about us respecting my mother and my one sister. But it was okay to talk badly about gays because nobody thought any of them were around. And I think I believed those stereotypes.
And it wasn’t until I stopped pretending, that I got around people, a more diverse group of people, and Miami Beach was another wonderful destination where there was a much more supportive community, nobody knew who I was and I wasn’t telling anybody that I played baseball. And then, by a weird twist of fate, I had met somebody, and I opened up a restaurant that was supposed to be just nothing. And my story came out and was put on the front page of the New York Times. And only because of my association with baseball was my story different from other people or interesting. And I’ve always known that. My career did not go the way I wished it would have and people were not coming to talk to me because I got 3,000 hits.
But something happened along the way, and as I became more and more willing to just be me, and say yes, and be around people – much like this event this weekend – where I’m just meeting people, sitting at my table, and sharing lived experiences, not telling anybody their life is different or better than mine or mine was harder than yours, or you shared some amazing stories, Dr. Richard, about what you’ve persevered through and it’s inspiring.
And I think that it’s a great lesson for everyone who’s listening that we can all influence the world in wonderful ways. It might be your parents, it might be your brother or sister, it might be your children, it could be your neighbors, but people are watching how you carry yourself. And they’re not always ready to listen to what you have to say but the walk that you have talked, are you truthful, are you a hypocrite, are you real, are you loving, are you accepting, are you inclusive in your actions.
And, you know, baseball came and found me. I didn’t believe baseball would ever want to hire a gay person. I speak Spanish fluently. I played in the big leagues. I played in Japan. I played winter ball four times. I graduated from college. I’m somebody that baseball would be looking for to work. But I was the one who assumed that it will always be the way it was. It’s never going to change.
And, thankfully, I was wrong and baseball had some vision. And, again, because of the platform, I’m now senior vice-president and I oversee all DEI – diversity, equity, inclusion – efforts for the sport which helps all 30 MLB clubs, like the Atlanta Braves, and and they do some amazing things. Progress has high expectations for baseball. And we are the sport of Jackie Robinson. And we are held to our values and challenged by those who think that we need to be more progressive.
And so, everyday, my job is changing but baseball is in it to try to be better and more intentional. And we have great leadership, a great commissioner who understands that for us to be global, for us to be interesting to kids of every color, we have to speak every cultural language. We have to be relatable. We have to celebrate our past heroes. We have to introduce them to new generations. We have to go into every community and share the game and offer it to little boys and girls in hopes that they’ll want to play.
And, you know, when you and I were young, there was less options. And now, there’s so many and so everybody, we have our work cut out for us. But for me, it’s just a massive privilege to be a part of it. I wish I could go back and make one or two decisions differently and most likely that would have been a conversation with one or two people and the course of my life may have changed. But I feel very fortunate to have a chance to be impactful in ways and hopefully educate our players and help them reach more kids than ever.
Dr. Richard Shuster: [00:22:26] It’s interesting, you said a couple of things and we don’t have the time to unpack all of the amazing things you dropped on us. But, Billy, you grew up in an era where there wasn’t any outlet, right? There are kids today that if they’re having these conflicted feelings, they can find a group on Facebook or they can find this community even if it’s virtual. I’m wondering, you wanted to keep this a secret. And because of baseball, all of a sudden —
Billy Bean: [00:22:53] I wanted it to go away. I didn’t want to be gay because I didn’t even know what that meant, Dr. Richard. I thought it was bad until I had a relationship where I felt a connection. That is what I wish for everyone, you know, to feel loved and safe in the arms of someone that they care the most about.
Dr. Richard Shuster: [00:23:16] I’m curious, when your family found out, what was that reaction like?
Billy Bean: [00:23:22] My mom forced me to tell her. I think it was just my behavior seemed erratic that I didn’t want to be around my family. Most of the time I felt very emotional. Every single time I hated the holidays. I felt like I was going to be alone forever. I felt guilty that I divorced my wife. That relationship, there was an effort to resurrect that until I finally had the courage to come clean there and explain why I left.
But my dad actually was unbelievable. And I know my mom’s heart was broke a little bit because that wasn’t her dream for her firstborn son. You know, I think she wanted me to have children. And, also, she didn’t know what that meant. She didn’t know if that meant I was going to die because Sam did. And we ended up having just an agreement where I just sent her my medical tests so she wouldn’t think that I was lying to her.
But over time, I completely messed that up. My parents are amazing, and for some reason, I didn’t believe that they would love me enough to overcome how that realization would impact them. And I was wrong. And they thought because I was in the big leagues and successful and making more money than anybody else in my family, that I must be doing the right things. And so, they weren’t as aggressive as they would have been had I been a cop or a plumber or a librarian or something, as parents might be.
You know, I was still in my middle 20s. I was a kid. And it just did not feel like the right thing until it happened. And that is why, for me, I’m very, very cautious when people asks about coming out. And, for me, I thought I had to do it in my uniform on T.V. behind a step in repeat or something. And I could have done it to a friend like you and I could have lived in that space for a while and felt the world kept spinning and I had a game and I could still catch and throw a baseball. But I thought it had to be all or nothing. And I don’t know where I had that idea that that was the only way to do it.
Dr. Richard Shuster: [00:26:05] Well, it sounds like the way that it happened actually was, you know, because had you not been in baseball, you would have carried that secret forever and it ultimately is going to impact so many lives in a wonderful way. So, it worked out in a way —
Billy Bean: [00:26:21] Many people have said that, you know, my experience is why I’m able to do the job the way I do. And there’s a part of me that does believe that. It was an education that nobody planned and it was education of hard knocks, basically, of disappointment. But it wasn’t baseball’s fault and I don’t want anybody that’s listening to think that that’s ever been. You know, the moments I played in the big leagues are the happiest, the proudest moments of my life professionally and I cherish all of them. I wish there was many more. And I know that all players do. It goes by fast.
But if we can help players just feel more secure in their space, whatever their truth is, whatever their concerns, anxiety, mental health, wellness, belonging. I was the other in every clubhouse I ever walked into, but nobody knew it. I was so deathly afraid of my secret being found out. It was paralyzing. And I wish I could have played free of that burden and to see how good I might have been. But that’s for another lifetime.
Dr. Richard Shuster: [00:27:34] Another lifetime. Billy, this has been an incredible conversation. I wish we had more time together. As you know, I wrap up every episode by asking my guest one question, and that is, what is your biggest helping? The one most important piece of information you’d like somebody to walk away with after hearing our conversation today.
Billy Bean: [00:27:58] Wow. That is a provocative question. You know, I think that everyone, if they just understood that their uniqueness and their value of being one of one. And there’s this prevailing young players emulate veteran players or young kids emulate celebrities or what they see on TikTok or Instagram. We’re living in a time of it’s very, very difficult to feel self-confident and have self-esteem. And if you are a person that has purpose, loves what they do, is kind to others, you’re going to find your voice and you’re going to be happy. It takes a minute.
Money, fame, I remember thinking if I played one day in the big leagues, I would be happy the rest of my life. I don’t care what ever happens to me. And then, on the second day in the big leagues, I just thought, "Oh, my God. I have a game today," so there’s new stress. And everyone is going through tough times, tough things, reexamining themselves. And I just think that the wisdom of living through your 20s and 30s, and for athletes, some of us, it takes years to get over the depression of not playing anymore or admitting it to yourself and feeling like I didn’t play. I wasn’t Willie Mays. I mean, there’s only one.
So, just trust that if you just pursue things that are interesting and be curious, you will find those things. And I just believe that you’ll come out the other side and really, really feel great about yourself.
Dr. Richard Shuster: [00:29:48] That was fantastically said. Billy, give us a URL where people can learn more about you, get their hands on your book, and all that good stuff.
Billy Bean: [00:29:56] Well, I have a book called Going the Other Way that I wrote a few years ago. But it’s a simple website destination, Billy Bean, B-I-L-L-Y-B-E-A-N.com. As simple as that. I got a book. I’m really good about getting back to people. But, also, through MLB at mlb.com, you can search me, Billy Bean. I’m not Billy Beane from Moneyball, but I’m Billy Bean. We are two good friends.
And it’s funny, you mentioned today with Marcus Allen hosting the other panel, I thought that was cute. I was going to save that one for tomorrow. But I’m easy to find. Just someone at MLB will find me. And you have a friend out there. And my book is just a story about a kid who was trying to not let his parents down with a baseball backdrop, so it’s pretty relatable. It’d be a real honor if you made that consideration.
Dr. Richard Shuster: [00:30:58] Awesome. We will have everything Billy Bean, not the other Billy Beane, but everything this Billy Bean available at thedailyhelping.com and our show notes. Billy, this has been amazing. You are an inspiration. Thank you so much for coming on The Daily Helping. I loved our conversation.
Billy Bean: [00:31:16] Thank you. Thank you very much. Hope to see you again.
Dr. Richard Shuster: [00:31:18] Absolutely. And to each and every one of you who took time out of your day, I want to thank you as well. If you like what you heard, go give us a follow on Apple Podcasts and leave us a five star review, because that is what helps other people find the show. But most importantly, go out there today and do something nice for somebody else, even if you don’t know who they are, and post it in your social media feeds using the hashtag #MyDailyHelping, because the happiest people are those that help others.
There is incredible potential that lies within each and every one of us to create positive change in our lives (and the lives of others) while achieving our dreams.