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    Fifty Years of Softball in San Francisco

    By Dr. Bill Lipsky–

    Although for many gay men cruising, not baseball, is the “National Pastime,” baseball has been part of an enjoyable spring or summer afternoon for as long as anyone can remember. Both sports are rich in tradition, but only baseball has the competitive teams, organized divisions, championship finals, and cheering spectators that create community. For those not fearful of breaking a nail, playing the game provides its own pleasures and passions.

    Lesbian and gay San Franciscans had been playing “pickup” games of baseball at picnics and parks for decades when the Gay Softball League, the oldest in the country, began informally in 1973, the year Harvey Milk ran his first campaign for the city’s Board of Supervisors. Eight local bars—three still exist—each sponsored a team: Sutter’s Mill, Twin Peaks, The Mint, Toad Hall (on Castro Street), the Midnight Sun, the Roundup, the Mistake, and Missouri Mule.

    At the end of the season, some thought it might be a good idea to have a special exhibition game: a gay all-star softball team from the newly formed league would play an all-star police softball team from Central Station. In an era when same-sex intimacy between consenting adults was still illegal, relations between the police and members of San Francisco’s gay community were not good. Perhaps a friendly game of ball would improve understanding and camaraderie.

    The teams faced off at Funston Playground on December 8, 1973, in front of a crowd that included members of the LGBT community—who brought their own cheerleaders, fashionably attired—the wives and children of the policemen, and curious passersby. San Francisco’s Chief of Police Donald M. Scott threw out the first ball. Even with Jack “Irene” McGowan, manager of the Twin Peaks and one of the League’s founders, coaching of the gays, they lost to the police 11 to 3.

    Originally seen as a one-time event, a second annual game was held on June 29, 1974. Once again Chief of Police Scott, whose son Walter also was there, playing for the police, threw out the first ball. This time-honored tradition now sported a new look, however: befitting the occasion, the ball was lavender and covered with glitter. Some 2000 spectators, including State Senator and future San Francisco mayor George Moscone, watched the gay team, sponsored by the Twin Peaks, win 9 to 4.

    By the time the third annual game took place on August 10, 1975, it had become a tradition—and a major event. 5,000 people—more than attended some Giants games that year—saw the Pendulum Pirates play the Police All Star team, now with players chosen from the entire department. Moscone was there again, as well as two cheerleaders: future mayors Dianne Feinstein and Willie Brown, who led the crowd chanting, “Peaches, peaches, fuzz, fuzz, fuzz. If you don’t win, you’re the team that wuz.”

    Sadly, the Pirates lost in the last inning, 19–15, but the game was a success in all other ways. When “the final batter flied out,” reported the San Francisco Chronicle, “the two teams rushed toward each other and shook hands in the center of the diamond.” It seemed that relations between the community and the police would only keep improving, especially after the Consenting Adult Sex Bill, which legalized same-sex intimacy in California, had been signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown the previous May.

    Two years later, San Francisco hosted the first Gay Softball World Series. The Badlands, playing a composite team that represented New York City’s Big Apple League, won the best of three series. In a win off the field, Irene became a member of the Parks and Recreation Department’s Softball Commission, but the community’s forward movement did not stop there. In a victory for us all, Milk was elected to the Board of Supervisors.

    The Gay Softball World Series has been held every year since, but the San Francisco softballers met police on a baseball diamond only one more time, in 1978, before taking a hiatus of 44 years. After the murders of Milk and Moscone, the travesty of their assassin’s trial and the White Night Riots that followed—when gay protesters burned police cars parked at City Hall and police retaliated with a violent raid on the Elephant Walk at 18th and Castro streets—no one was interested.

    “’No way I’d play against those guys after what happened’ was the consensus yesterday among cops who were asked if they’d appear this year,” Herb Caen reported in his June 6, 1979, column. The gay community felt the same way. Newly appointed Chief of Police Con Murphy tried to revive the game in 1980, but nothing happened. Players from the Gay Softball League and the Police Department did not face each other on the diamond again until the “Cops versus Queers” game in 2012.   

    Meanwhile, gay softball in San Francisco thrived. Now with 60 teams and more than a thousand players in four divisions, the city’s softball league is the largest in the country, providing our community’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender residents with the opportunity to participate in the other “National Pastime” at whatever level of ability and experience they have. Their next opportunity to play in the Gay Softball World Series will be August 28–September 2, 2023, in Minneapolis.

    Bill Lipsky, Ph.D., author of “Gay and Lesbian San Francisco” (2006), is a member of the Rainbow Honor Walk board of directors.

    Faces from Our LGBT Past
    Published on February 23, 2023