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How the Red Sox, who were the last team to integrate, became champions of LGBTQ Pride

Red Sox Pride Night returns after a one-year hiatus.

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Texas Rangers v Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox would’ve hosted their eighth Pride Night this season, coinciding with Boston Pride’s 50-year anniversary.
Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

UPDATE: After a one-year hiatus, Red Sox Pride Night returns Thursday. As always, it coincides with Pride Week in Boston, though it will be one of the few in-person celebrations for Boston Pride this year.

The first 1,000 fans in attendance will receive a t-shirt with the Progress Pride “B,” and as expected, the pregame ceremony will be dedicating to celebrating Pride. There is also a pre-game party (remember those?) featuring featuring DJ Rich DiMare.

“It’s been so exciting welcoming our fans back to Fenway,” said Travis Pollio, the Red Sox’ senior manager of group sales and promotions. “The LGBTQIA+ community support and interest for Pride Night has been tremendous, and I’m look forward to an awesome celebration!”

The Red Sox held their first Pride Night in 2013, back when the concept wasn’t commonplace. In the ensuing years, they’ve become champions of LGBTQ pride. The story is below:

IT was going to be the biggest Boston Pride yet, and the Red Sox were planning to play an integral role in the festivities. The Boston Pride Committee was set to celebrate its 50-year anniversary this week, concluding with Pride Night at Fenway Park. Ever since the Red Sox started their Pride series in 2013, they’ve ensured the event is officially part of Boston Pride Week. For this proud gay man and lifelong Red Sox fan, it’s one of the surefire harbingers of summer.

Boston Pride is postponed this year, along with the MLB season, and our social lives, due to the coronavirus pandemic. Even if MLB returns at some point this summer — assuming owners and players stop bickering over stimulating subjects like prorated pay scales — theme nights will be put on hold until 2021. It is hard to celebrate fandom when fans aren’t physically allowed in the stadium.

Despite their obvious limitations, the Red Sox say they still intend to commemorate Boston Pride Week in some fashion, whether it’s raising the Pride Flag at Fenway or sending out messages of support to their LGBTQ fans and community at large. The Red Sox have made inclusivity one of their priorities, which is remarkable, considering the franchise’s shameful history as the last team to sign an African-American player.

Righting history

Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey signed outfielder Pumpsie Green in 1959, which was 12 years after Jackie Robinson had debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Infamously, Yawkey passed up on Willie Mays and Robinson.

As Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel notes, Yawkey was even considered regressive in his day. Boston politicians ordered him to host a tryout for Black players in 1945, which is where the team declined to sign Robinson.

Throughout Yawkey’s ownership tenure, the Red Sox were dogged with allegations of racism. That even continued after his passing, when his wife became president of the club. Perhaps most notably, former outfielder Tommy Harper filed federal discrimination complaints against the team in 1986, saying they retaliated against him for exposing the whites-only policy for team employees at a private social club near their then-Spring Training facility in Winter Haven, Fla.

“They called it Red Sox Nation, but it was never my nation,” Harper told The Boston Globe in 2014.

Ever since John Henry purchased the Red Sox in 2001 — part of a complex agreement that included Jeffrey Loria selling the Montreal Expos to MLB — they’ve made cleaning up the organization’s image a priority, both literally and figuratively. They invested $285 million into Fenway Park in their first decade of ownership, modernizing the 108-year-old stadium and spurring massive economic development in the surrounding area. And from a public relations standpoint, they’ve never shied away from the organization’s racist past, successfully pushing to rename the short road that houses Fenway Park, “Yawkey Way.”

The Red Sox have also acted swiftly when confronted with incidents of racism at their own park. In response to Adam Jones being called the N-word at Fenway during a game in 2017, the Red Sox launched their “Take the Lead” initiative along with the other major Boston teams, campaigning against racism and discrimination. They also banned a fan for life in the 2017 season for using racist language at a game.

Despite progress, episodes like those show some Black players still have uncomfortable experiences in Boston. Former outfielder Torii Hunter said recently he asked for the Red Sox to be included in his no-trade clause, because of the racial taunts he often endured in Boston. The Red Sox released a statement Wednesday addressing Hunter’s claims, saying there were seven documented racial incidents at Fenway last season.

“I applaud the ownership, because they’ve never run away from the fact they were the last team to ever have an African-American with Pumpsie Green in 1959,” says Boston sports columnist Steve Buckley, who came out in 2011. “They’ve met that head-on, rather than run away from it and deny it. I’ve always appreciated that.”

Leading on Pride

Despite Boston’s reputation as a liberal bastion, elements of discrimination remain ingrained in the city’s social fabric, including towards the LGBTQ community. It took until 2015 for Boston Pride and OutVets to be allowed to march in the signature St. Patrick’s Day Parade, and organizers tried to ban the group of gay and transgender military veterans from marching again in 2017, only to reverse course.

Two years before the St. Patrick’s Day Parade opened up to LGBTQ groups, the Red Sox hosted their first Pride Night, holding the event on June 8, 2013. Former NBA center Jason Collins, who two months earlier became the first active male athlete to come out as gay in one of the major pro sports leagues, threw out the first pitch.

For Travis Pollio, the Red Sox’ senior manager of group sales and promotions, putting on Pride Night became an instant priority when he arrived in Boston prior to the 2013 season. A Philly native, Pollio scoured the city schedule for events, and reached out to Boston Pride president Linda DeMarco. A few months later, Red Sox Pride Night was born.

“There weren’t as many Pride Nights around the game. We were definitely on the front side of things, and had the support of senior leadership within the team, and we made it happen,” he says. “I’ll never forget some of the notes, phone calls and emails I got from our fans saying how special of a day it was.”

Detroit Tigers v Boston Red Sox
David Lopes and Danny Tyrrell, members of Boston’s LGBTQ flag football league, pose for a photograph during Red Sox Pride Night in 2017.
Photo by Michael Ivins/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

As of last season, all but two MLB teams hosted a Pride event. MLB’s decision to name Billy Bean as its Ambassador for Inclusion has helped change the culture around the league, and make LGBTQ inclusivity a priority, even though there are still no active openly gay players. But the Red Sox have done more than just host a Pride Night. The Fenway Sports Group has donated to LGBT causes around the city, including a $200,000 pledge to Fenway Health, a well-regarded neighborhood LGBTQ resource center.

The Red Sox have also become strong partners with Boston Pride, even having their own float in the annual parade (every Boston sports team, to their credit, has participated in the Pride parade). Each year, the Red Sox seek to honor different LGBTQ organizations during Pride Night, including sports leagues. Danny Tyrrell, who previously served as commissioner of Boston’s LGBTQ flag football league, threw out the first pitch in 2017.

For a Boston native, it was an unfathomable experience.

“I would say I can now knock it off my bucket list, but it was never on the list to begin with,” he says. “I could never of imagined that was possible.”

“They literally carved Pride into Fenway”

While the Red Sox seek to improve their Pride Night every season, there’s nothing quite like the symbolism of the first one. Collins throwing out the first pitch was a big deal — he went on to march in the Pride parade with former college roommate Rep. Joe Kennedy III — but first pitches are fleeting. An even bigger deal were the efforts the Red Sox took to transform Fenway, carving a rainbow onto the field, and flying the Pride flag high.

To Buckley, who grew up in nearby Cambridge, it was a monumental image.

“That, more than anything, really struck home to me,” he says. “They literally carved Pride into Fenway. That meant a lot to me, because you can roll Jason Collins out, he can throw out the first pitch, wave, answer some questions, and then he’s gone. God Bless for him being there, God Bless him for everything he’s done. But when you carve Pride into Fenway, you’re going to see it all night. When you see it, you have to mull, and ask yourself why it’s there.”

Fenway Park definitely has a different vibe during Pride Night, and that’s not just because of the groundskeeping. Fans flood the gates when they open at 5:40 p.m., mobbing the pre-party for well over an hour before first pitch.

“That party pre-game is amazing,” Pollio says. “Not very often do people come out to the ballpark when gates first open, especially on a weeknight. It’s amazing. People are flying their flags, and showing their support not only to the Red Sox, but their friends and family who are also supportive of the cause.”

Above all else, LGBTQ sports fans just want to feel welcomed. Even today, athletics can be exclusive and demeaning spaces. Goodwill and support from an institutional franchise, especially one with a fraught history, means the world.

This post has been updated.