As the heart of the Yankees’ order prepared to bat in the top of the ninth inning on June 27, 1969, a game-changing miracle was still possible. Baseball allows -- indeed, practically fetishizes -- such last-second turnabout.
America was about a month from landing two men on the moon. Miracles were in the air, a sense of possibility never before imagined. But these were fallow times for the most successful franchise in baseball history, a down decade in between two historic eras. On this Cleveland night, Indians starter Sam McDowell was in control of the once- and soon-again Yankees, ahead 5-1. He struck out Bobby Cox and Joe Pepitone, leaving matters to Bobby Murcer, who singled. But nothing changed on this night, in this city. Frank Fernandez struck out, and that was that. Sometimes, life progresses in a straight line.
But sometimes, it twists. Turns on its head. Back home in the Bronx, it was a mostly normal Friday night. A few miles downtown, though, as midnight turned to Saturday, the world was about to change.
Today, as New York City and the entire world prepare to celebrate the 50th anniversary of that remarkable night at The Stonewall Inn, the first pitch in a global revolution, it’s nevertheless undeniable that the new world order has been more visible in some places than others. Down in Greenwich Village, during annual Pride celebrations each of the past 48 Junes? Certainly, but not exclusively. New York City is a font of eclectic tastes, interests and activities.
But the sports arenas -- male sports, to be clear -- were lagging indicators. There was baggage from both sides, a cultural divide that lingered all too long, and the Yankees were neither especially guilty nor especially unique. It didn’t have to be a gay slur, or an act of violence. It was often less explicit, less visible -- a “Kiss Cam” prank at one ballpark or a dig at an outfielder’s weak throwing arm in another -- but it was enough to convey a sense of who was fully welcome inside and who had to hold some part of his or herself back.
And perhaps that’s because, at their core, sports venues throughout the country perfectly encapsulated the emotional divide at play on the streets around Stonewall in that after-midnight scene from 1969. While the Yankees players were struggling through a series in Cleveland, they would eventually return to their own stadium, with their well-appointed clubhouse. A group of men from every part of the United States could nonetheless share a common home in the Bronx, no different from the thousands of fans -- certainly encompassing all races, all religions, all socio-economic circles -- to whom Yankee Stadium provided a comforting sense of communal belonging.
Most of the kids outside Stonewall, though, would share no such feelings of domesticity at Yankee Stadium. Martin Boyce, who participated in the riots, recalls admiring the Yankees players as a kid, finding their superpowers on the ballfield to be fascinating. “The Yankees are New York history,” he says. “I mean, the Yankees would win games that would almost make kids in wheelchairs able to walk. Baseball fans, generally, my crowd wasn’t. But we all knew the game. We all knew the names. Our parents watched it. We knew all of the great players.”
But he also knows what many of his friends did, that trips to Yankee Stadium were about more than enjoying a pleasant afternoon. “Our dads would take us,” Boyce says, “because they were training us to be straight.”
Yankee Stadium could never truly be a second home for the kids on Christopher Street, many of whom didn’t even have a first home. Stonewall, and places like it, could serve that purpose. Despite its lack of running water behind the bar and the mafia presence and its wink-wink relationship with the New York Police Department, Stonewall offered what no other place -- not their parents’ houses, not the surrounding restaurants and bars, and certainly not the giant baseball stadium -- could: the ability to live openly as themselves.
“When you went in to the Stonewall, you could hold hands, you could kiss, and guess what -- you could even dance with someone you loved,” says Mark Segal, who was inside Stonewall when the raid began. “For many of us who were young, that was our place where we could feel free. We knew who owned the bar. We knew we were probably being treated a little differently than you would in other bars. But it was the one place we had freedom, where we couldn’t in other places.”
With WorldPride bringing its global celebration to New York this summer, the Yankees and The Stonewall Inn are partnering on an educational initiative that will do much more than change lives through college scholarships. Rather, the union of two such essential and iconic New York institutions will finally complete the long process of making Yankee Stadium the truly universal home -- one that can demonstrate its long-held commitment to welcoming all comers -- that it wants to be.
“The Yankees are part of New York and have been for a long time,” team president Randy Levine said at the emotional and inspiring ceremony on May 22 at Stonewall, at which the first class of five Yanees-Stonewall Scholars was introduced. “And we feel like we have a responsibility to contribute and be a part of this community, and to recognize very significant historical events. And there’s no doubt that this is one of them, both in the history of New York, and the history throughout the country and the world. It symbolizes the beginning of a great civil rights struggle that continues to this day. A fight for opportunities for everyone. And the Yankees have always stood for excellence. These students are excellent, the process is excellent, and we’re just thrilled to be a part of it.”
While the first public announcement of the Yankees-Stonewall Scholars came in September of 2018, the work had begun long before that, when Yankees senior vice president of corporate and community relations Brian Smith reached out to the New York City Department of Education. Working with Jared Fox, the DOE’s LGBTQ Community Liaison, as well as corporate partners such as Pride Live Nation, Smith and his team were able to build what would become the process for selecting the first class of five winners -- one from each of the city’s five boroughs -- to receive a $10,000 college scholarship from the New York Yankees.
“It’s probably one of the most rewarding parts of my job, when we have these initial conversations in-house and we talk about concepts,” Smith said outside Stonewall. “Then we reach out to our amazing community partners, and we put together this All-Star team, and you see it come to life. Today, with these amazing young people, it came to life, in bigger scales than we could ever imagine. We are so honored to be a part of this process, and we look forward to doing this for not only this year, but for years to come.”
For Fox, it was an experiment, an interesting idea that might have become truly special, or might have turned into a bust. But he saw the Yankees’ commitment from the very first minute. He built an application system, then opened it up to all 565 New York City public schools, allowing each school to nominate one student who had best demonstrated leadership or allyship in the LGBTQ community.
In April, he assembled a group of approximately 35 school administrators, teachers and guidance counselors to read the 142 applications that they received, with each application receiving evaluations from three different people. The process, which took place over a full day at Yankee Stadium, helped narrow the list down to the 26 that would receive full interviews from a group that included Yankees general manager Brian Cashman and assistant general manager Jean Afterman.
“The Yankees, from the top down, and the Department of Ed, from the top down, essentially said, ‘Yes! We’re all in,’” Fox says. “It was a true collaboration from the jump. For the general manager to give up two days on his calendar to sit there and interview kids; it wasn’t just cutting a check. They literally had a hand in making these scholarships come to life.”
Cashman and Afterman spend their days assembling a team of championship-caliber players, trying to find the best mixture of experience and potential. Not surprisingly, a lot of the same skills proved valuable during the interview process, as the group sought students who showed achievement, but also an intangible quality -- what an announcer might call “grit” on a sports broadcast. There was the young woman from the Bronx, the daughter of a woman who had immigrated illegally from the Dominican Republic, who believed that her achievements in the LGBTQ community were helping her mother’s dreams come true. Or the student from Brooklyn Technical High School, who as president of the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) at the school, saw its membership grow from about 20 to 170, with its goals and scope expanding beyond LGBTQ issues.
At heart, though, the process demonstrated a commitment to building a better future. And it wasn’t lost on any of the participants that the interviews -- often inspiring, occasionally tragic, always emotional -- were taking place in rooms more likely to host conversations about Gleyber Torres or Babe Ruth than existential identity struggles. This was about listening, about seeing, about representing and, certainly, about acting.
“The New York Yankees are an organization steeped in history and tradition, and if you are invested in the past, then you also have to look to the future, and there’s no better way to the future than the education of young people,” Afterman said. “That’s what these scholarships are all about, is to give these leaders of the future a voice, and to give them a legacy.”
Yankees general manager Brian Cashman introduces the Yankees-Stonewall Scholars recipient Hugh Goldstein.
It’s my world that I want to have a little pride in
My world, and it’s not a place I have to hide in.
Life’s not worth a damn, ’til you can say
Hey world! I am what I am.
-- “I Am What I Am,”
La Cage Aux Folles (1983)
Walking along the area around Christopher Street in 2019, it’s easy to fall into a state of complacency, to believe that life progressed due to some natural evolution. Windows all over teem with rainbow flags, to say nothing of the Big Gay Ice Cream storefront just a block away from The Stonewall Inn. Out in the world beyond Greenwich Village, openly gay Pete Buttigieg mounts a viable candidacy for the presidency. There is pride in the air, not just in the annual parade to mark the Stonewall anniversary, but in everyday life, filled with a blissful normalcy.
That didn’t just happen. In 1969, the Village was the center of New York’s bohemian life. But it was contained. Sure, you could see The Boys In The Band off-Broadway, but even on the Great White Way, it wasn’t until 1983 that audiences could hear George Hearn belt “I Am What I Am” in La Cage Aux Folles, a song that would eventually (and understandably) become a rallying cry in the LGBTQ community.
To look superficially at the happy, multicolored pride around The Stonewall Inn today is to ignore the violence of everyday life that the LGBTQ community endured in the pre-riots era, and that many people still fight. And speaking to the crowd during the ceremony in the bar’s upstairs room, co-owner Stacy Lentz was quick to point out the struggle that created the movement.
“You are standing in a sacred place,” Lentz said. “You’re standing on the shoulders of heroes. Of brave men and women who on June 28, 1969, took the courage to stand up and fight back against their daily oppression. Not only did they say, ‘We have a right to exist in society,’ but, ‘We have a right to love. We want to love. And to be who we want to be.’”
When the bar was raided after midnight, it had, to that point, been a mostly ordinary night, one that neither the police nor the patrons had any reason to believe would turn out differently. Boyce, who says he identified with “the Loud Queens,” hadn’t made it into the bar that night, but standing outside, he saw someone get beat up in the police paddy wagon. He recalls something clicking in that moment, an emotional earthquake that changed the world. “And then the cop did what he always did, what they always did,” Boyce recalls, “‘All right. You saw enough. Now get the hell out of here.’ And he turned around with all the assurance that we would do it because we always did. But this time, we didn’t listen. We just kept marching toward him. And he turned around, blinked, gulped, and the riot was on in my section.
“That was it. It was a consensus. Total consensus. Something had happened. We didn’t look at each other -- whatever he saw in our eyes, we didn’t see because we were moving toward him. But he saw it. And it was a complete consensus, and everyone just went crazy. I remember very well because it was as if we were liberated from Dachau, and now we had our tormentors in our hand.”
Nights followed with more of the same, the police trying to restore order on the streets outside Stonewall as the street kids rose up to meet the police officers. In the ensuing years, there was progress, measurable and noticeable, both in national political advancements and day-to-day dignities. The May afternoon when the Yankees and Stonewall announced the scholarship winners was certainly another day to celebrate all that had happened over the past 50 years.
But Ashley Farrell, the scholarship winner from Staten Island, brought some chilling perspective that belied her 17 years and simultaneously demonstrated what the scholarship administrators obviously saw in her.
It’s too easy, she said, to look at the years between 1969 and 2019 and see only the progress, to view the Stonewall riots as some unimaginable moment that changed everything. “I would love to say that it was crazy, that it was unthinkable,” Farrell said. “But it’s not. I understand what happened here, and I understand why it happened. Because things like that are still happening everywhere. There are countries that carry the death penalty for being able to do what I do every day. Just openly existing.”
It’s also why the educational portion of the Yankees’ partnership with Stonewall is so meaningful. Richard Carranza, the chancellor of New York City’s Department of Education, spoke at the ceremony about his own identical twin, his best friend who nonetheless waited until they were in their 20s to let on that he was gay. As an educator, Carranza is determined to make sure that the curriculum recognizes the LGBTQ struggle, that young kids in the community can see themselves in the history they’re taught.
That’s the view from the top, but the Yankees-Stonewall Scholars program was intended to -- and seems to have succeeded in -- empowering the grassroots. Hugh Goldstein, the Queens winner, said that during the interview process, he was disappointed in himself for not knowing enough about what had actually happened at Stonewall in 1969. “I had to look and say, ‘Why do I not know more about this?’” Goldstein said. “It has pushed me to really research on my own, but I also want to start talking to my principals -- who are really, really great and inclusive -- about how we bring more queer history into schools. We’re all really inclusive and open, but it’s a different thing when you’re talking about it in the classroom, so I really want to implement that in my school, and also in every other school.”
It’s a message that one distinguished guest at the ceremony echoed. And it wasn’t lost on anyone in attendance that one of the five winners chose to wear a mask rather than show their face and risk their parents finding out.
“These young people could become the leaders who guide us forward,” New York City first lady Chirlane McCray said during the ceremony. “The artists and activists who challenge and connect us. The thinkers who achieved impossible solutions. But there are very real obstacles in their way. Even now, 50 years after the events that took place right here, there are LGBTQ young people who must hide who they are from their families and their friends. There are young people who are not safe in their own communities. They are bullied and harassed and feel hopeless. And when they do share their truth, some of these young people are rejected outright by the people they love and forced out on their own.
“Today is about those young people, too. Because in truth, these scholarships are worth far more than any dollar amount. They send the message to every LGBTQ young person in the five boroughs that we see you. We hear you. We believe you. Your city has your back.”
The first class of five Yankees-Stonewall Scholars in front of the landmark bar where the LGBTQ rights movement exploded into being on June 28, 1969.
Relief pitcher Adam Ottavino was a regular visitor to Yankee Stadium when he was growing up in Park Slope, Brooklyn. He’s as New York as you’re going to find in the team’s clubhouse, and as such, he feels a need to stand up for the fans he knew and saw when he was a kid. The idea, he says, that the Yankees have always been some staid, conservative monolith doesn’t jibe with his memories of afternoons in the bleachers.
“I feel like Yankee fans come in every shape,” Ottavino says. “There’s definitely a little bit of that prestigious feel to it, upper-class. But there’s a ton of Latino Yankee fans. There’s the Bleacher Creature embodiment of a counter-cultural-type of fan. There’s every type of Yankee fan.”
Perception can be reality, though. And if sports could have, at one time, been an impediment in the struggle for equality and inclusivity, the Yankees -- and Major League Baseball as a whole -- are determined to see that reputation change. “Visibility saves lives,” Lentz repeats more than once, a mantra that reflects the Stonewall Gives Back Initiative that she maintains. And for Fox, the memory of the on-field announcement of the scholarship program endures, the idea that fans waiting in line for hot dogs or beers heard the words “gay” and “lesbian” coming over the public-address system. The team wants to make sure it helps spread the message as wide as possible. “I think a lot of people in the Yankees community will be more aware of this history, and what’s going on in this community, than they ever were before,” Cashman says. “The Yankees have such an amazing brand. And a huge following. So, whenever we take the time to connect our brand to any community or initiative or efforts -- in this case, the LGBTQ community, partnering with the Department of Education -- it shines a light on some special things that are taking place, and a community that obviously needs to be reinforced and propped up. … You hear the words ‘inclusion’ and ‘acceptance’ constantly, but not enough.”
Billy Bean is an MLB vice president and special assistant to commissioner Rob Manfred. He played parts of six seasons in the Majors before the combination of his tormented life in the closet and a personal tragedy caused him to quit the game. In the years since he came out, and then when he started working with MLB, Bean has focused on LGBTQ issues, but also on general bullying, particularly the “Shred Hate” initiative with which Yankees star Aaron Judge has assisted. He’s not concerned that most players, no matter how much opportunity their large platform offers, barely know the history of the movement. “Our job is to educate them,” Bean says. “I hope the takeaway is that they all learn what Stonewall is, what that word means, and what it means to the LGBTQ community. And why, for the first time, my community stopped taking it, and said, ‘You know what? We matter, too.’”
Nearly a quarter-century since he walked away from the game -- which came about five years before the Cubs became the first team to host an LGBTQ-themed night -- Bean knows the difference that such initiatives could have made in his life. “I’m certain I would not have quit playing,” he says. Contrast it to the present, when teams sell rainbow hats, when players speak out for inclusivity and equality, and he beams with pride at the sight of a sport that is meeting the future where it lives. “The players are probably not going to hear a thank-you from some of the people that benefit the most, or that the message impacts the most. But they’re saving lives, man,” Bean says. He knows what it would have meant to him to see any sort of support when he was playing, when instead he was inundated with images that expressed the opposite idea, the stadiums that placed opposing players on a “Kiss Cam,” “to make the worst scenario possible being two men on a baseball team encircled in a heart shape,” Bean continues. “To say, ‘Of course that’s humiliating and disgusting!’ Inherent homophobic attempts at humor, which are devastating to a large portion of our fans. It just tells you, ‘I don’t belong here.’”
Which is why Bean is so excited about the Yankees’ partnership with Stonewall, and with the ceremony that will take place at Yankee Stadium on June 25 to mark Pride Month. He can’t wait to see what the five scholarship winners will do, and he hopes that he’ll see some of them eventually work in baseball -- perhaps even for the Yankees. “I think it jumps right to the front of our most profound statements of not only loving the community, but owning the history and empowering,” Bean says. “The Yankees are going to change five lives forever. Those five individuals are going to look at the Yankees in a way that is unforgettable. Not images of Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio and Derek Jeter or whatever, however old you are. But as someone that invested in them. And I think that it’s going to have such a profound effect. And that’s why how each of our clubs choose to convey an inclusive message, they shouldn’t have to be defined in exactly the same way. This was so organic to the Yankees. To them, it just feels so natural, and I think that there’s going to be people that read about this, even in this city, that are going to be blown away, and think, ‘Wow. Baseball has come a long way.’”
The scholarship winners -- Farrell, Goldstein, Alex Rosado, Francheska Colon and the Brooklyn winner who was not ready to make their identity public -- cut a strong figure in front of Stonewall, smiling in their Yankees jerseys. They were a physical manifestation of pride, of a struggle that boiled over in that same spot 50 years earlier. Now they carry the legacy of the culture-shaking uprising, while also wearing the symbol of a once-unthinkable partnership. Fox, who was involved in the program from its conception, marvels at Rosado’s goal of publishing a novel before he graduates college. “You realize that you might actually be able to buy that novel in the next four years because of somebody who had an idea one day to give some scholarships to some kids,” Fox said. “I think what that is is the realization of somebody’s dreams. Nobody ever imagined that Stonewall would be a thing, that there would be a riot. So, it’s sort of like taking that first bold step.”
Fans at Yankee Stadium can pick up a pint of Brooklyn Brewery’s The Stonewall Inn IPA. Guests at Stonewall can marvel at the newest addition, a framed Yankees jersey with a rainbow-colored No. 50 on the back. Each owns a piece of the other, a shared commitment to make a space -- welcome, safe and uniquely entertaining -- to anyone who walks in. To Goldstein, Stonewall is a place of refuge for the LGBTQ community. Uptown, Judge says of Yankee Stadium, “This is people’s homes. You can ask so many people, they grew up here. This is where they were coming to games every single day, every other day, spending time with their families here.”
That’s the idea, the sense of comfort that both places want to build. But even more, both, in 2019, are able to be what they never could have been in 1969; the elusive second home, a place built for everyone to celebrate together. For Segal, the inability to find a community pre-Stonewall was the very thing that drove him to the bar that night. “The only way you could find out anything about yourself was to go to a library, and there you might find a scientific book that talked about homosexuals in clinical terms. The churches told us we were immoral. The criminal justice system said we were illegal. The medical institutions said we were insane. That’s what I knew at 18 years old.” In 2019, though, the world is more open. And Yankee Stadium, which never sought to keep anyone out but was part of a world that worked in a certain way, is announcing to the world what it insists upon being.
It’s a remarkable year, this momentous anniversary that celebrates all that made New York so special 50 years ago, and continues to this day. For Lentz, who along with her co-owners Kurt Kelly and Bill Morgan maintain Stonewall as both a museum and a popular bar, the partnership is a crucial piece of culminating what the rioters were able to begin half a century ago. “I cannot imagine that they ever would have dreamed 50 years later that we would be standing here partnering with the most storied and famous sports franchise of all time, the New York Yankees,” Lentz said. “I also think that they would be shocked and super grateful to think about how the Yankees are not only advocating to make sure that our future leaders and our best and brightest in our community have access to higher education, but they’re also bringing visibility to our community. And we know that visibility saves lives. So after this announcement, I am positive that LGBTQ folks -- not just in the five boroughs, but because of this historic partnership, all over the country -- are going to feel less isolated and more accepted.”