As spring dawns and a new season begins, Opening Day not only marks the start of games that count, it’s also the unofficial beginning of milestone anniversary celebrations on the diamond.
In 2023, Opening Day is especially significant for the Bay Area LGBTQ community as it kicks off the 50th anniversary of the San Francisco Gay Softball League.
On March 19, despite a steady rainfall, the SFGSL held its annual opening ceremonies to begin the new season with more than 700 players on 44 teams ready to take the field throughout the city.
Founded in 1973, the SFGSL has been home to more than 30,000 players in its 50 years of existence and has been a major part of San Francisco’s LGBTQ social scene over that same time.
Veteran outfielder Bob Siefert originally joined the league in 1981 and witnessed its tremendous growth in both size and significance. After playing for five years, Siefert took a break until his partner brought him back into the league in 2005. While the SFGSL was originally a one-division league in the early 1980s, Siefert noticed immediately how it had subsequently exploded in popularity and added enough players to split into five divisions of varying skill levels when he rejoined.
“I think a lot people who either didn’t play because they felt they wouldn’t be accepted being gay or people who were gay that played now had kind of a safe haven to go out and hang out with people like themselves,” he remarked, “So it was very much a safe haven but also very competitive. If you had any competitive streak in you at all, you definitely wanted to play.”
Pitcher Russ Smith, who joined the league in 1986, described how the SFGSL not only provided a safe space for the LGBTQ community during the often-hostile Reagan era but was set up in such a way as to encourage explorations of the city’s other queer-friendly hangouts.
“Most of the teams here were sponsored by a bar,” he recalled, “So you’d go to the losing team’s bar first and then everybody would go to the winning team’s bar and you bought each other rounds. So it was really a good social thing and the 80’s [otherwise] weren’t the most pleasant time.”
That sense of safety and camaraderie led some of the Bay Area’s most prominent LGBTQ residents to join the league. After being run out of Major League Baseball by homophobes like Tommy Lasorda and Billy Martin, Glenn Burke restarted his career on the diamond and became a local folk hero with tape-measure home runs and jaw-dropping defense for the SFGSL’s Pendulum Pirates. He was even recruited as a ringer for other bars in the city.
Meanwhile, Gay Games co-founder Rikki Streicher also showed off her athletic prowess on the fields of the Gay Softball League. She was one of the most prominent LGBTQ rights activists of the 1960s and 70s and the owner of Maud’s, one of the longest continuously operating lesbian bars of that era.
Throughout the years, the league has also served San Francisco’s LGBTQ community during periods of crisis.
During its founding year, the SFGSL established a tradition of playing an annual exhibition game with the San Francisco Police Department. But when the city was rocked by the assassinations of Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone by former police officer Dan White in 1978, the SFGSL cancelled the game and discontinued the tradition for decades. The exhibition briefly reappeared in 2012 and was scheduled to be brought back this year until it got washed out by rain on Opening Day.
Years later as the AIDS crisis exploded, the toll on San Francisco’s gay population could be seen on the SFGSL’s rosters and playing fields. “I played with guys who died during the season and it’s really hurtful,” Smith remembered, “You see them not playing. Let’s say they played for five years. Then all of a sudden, they’re not at a game. You’re like, ‘What happened?’ And they’re like, ‘Well, so-and-so died and so-and-so died.’ It was really sad.”
In order to provide some stability, many of the SFGSL’s female allies stepped onto the playing field during the crisis to make sure that teams would continue functioning and the survivors would have an opportunity for recreation.
As the SFGSL persevered, there have also been numerous moments of triumph. Chief among them occurred during the 1977 season when SFGSL hosted the inaugural Gay Softball World Series and San Francisco Badland took home the championship. The league has overseen three other World Series since then and will be doing so again in 2027.
In addition to looking back on its growth, the SFGSL plans to celebrate its 50th anniversary by taking part in Giants Pride Night ceremonies on June 10. Throughout the season, it will continue to provide opportunities for Bay Area LGBTQ players to create a sense of community.
“The thing about the Softball League is it’s very inclusive,” Siefert said. “You build lifelong friendships there. Some of the people that I played with — even in 1982 — I still know. They become your family, your friends…and then if you start traveling for tournaments, then you meet all these other teams from other cities and now you’ve got friends all over the country. It’s a big family.”