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The OutField: Pitching in for Jack McGowan

by Dan Woog

For many gay men, softball is a ritual as familiar as the bars or the Oscars. Over 15,000 players compete in 56 North American Gay Amateur Athletic Association-sanctioned leagues in 35 cities; thousands more play on other teams. "Play ball!" means just that – no innuendo at all – and it seems gay men have wielded bats and swatted flies since the days of Adam and Steve.
Yet not too long ago – the early 1970s – "gay softball" was as oxymoronic as "straight figure skating." Softball was a game for beer-drinking, All-American heterosexual guys, a weekend respite from wives and kids and mowing the lawn.
But one day, in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, a group of mostly gay friends met for their regular volleyball game and found the net gone. Someone suggested "punch ball," a bat-less version of softball. They had fun, then afterwards talked about their youthful experiences with baseball. The next step was an actual softball game. The rest is history.
By 1973 there were enough teams to form an all-star squad to face a San Francisco police team. (The cops won.) The following spring, a gay league – the first of its kind in the world – was created. Jack "Irene" McGowan was a co-founder.
He was over 40 years old, and still playing baseball. In fact, he'd always considered softball a "sissy" sport. But McGowan saw the ease with which gay men took to softball, and the joy they felt competing – some of them for the first time. He was hooked.
McGowan donned a sandwich board, and traveled from bar to bar throughout the city seeking sponsors. It was not easy – owners said their customers were not interested, or couldn't throw a ball – but he persevered. He battled civic officials and field managers for the right of gay groups to use San Francisco parks. Before long, gay softball was an entrenched part of city life. State Senator Willie Brown and Mayor George Moscone threw out the first balls on opening days. And gay teams beat the police.
McGowan was a tireless promoter of gay softball. In 1977, he helped organize the first Gay World Series, against a team from New York. Soon, teams from Milwaukee and Toronto joined in. Today, the Gay World Series is among the largest softball tournaments in the world.
Jerry Pritikin played his first softball game at 38. "It's one of the best things that ever happened to me," Pritikin, now 70, said recently. "I had dropped out of high school because I was gay, and never played sports. I was looking for something to do besides [going to] bars. Softball got me involved with the community.
"The majority of people in the league were like me – in exile because we were gay," Pritikin continued. "They were characters right out of Damon Runyon. Our team had Vietnam veterans, doctors, and lawyers. Tom Waddell [who later founded the Gay Games] played. We all jelled."
Not every player in the league was gay. Straight players were fine; they wanted a place to play, and gay teams welcomed them. In fact, said McGowan – now 76, and recovering from quintuple bypass surgery – that was one important, unintended, yet enduring side effect of gay softball.
"It broke down the stereotype that gay men are unathletic," McGowan noted. "If a straight man sees a gay guy doing something the straight man is good at, he ends up respecting the gay community. He relates to gay guys on terms he can understand, and sees them as more equal."
Pablo Berroteran met McGowan in 1999. Berroteran's partner was playing for the Pendulum Pirates, the team McGowan managed at the time. Berroteran – who had no idea gay sports existed – became scorekeeper.
"I've learned so much from Jack about how gay men can come together through sports," he said. "He opened my eyes to the idea that gay men are as athletic as straight men. These guys have so much fun. Jack inspires everyone."
Gay culture is often thought of as youth-obsessed. McGowan and Berroteran's current team, the Renegades, includes players from 18 to 56 years old. Then there's the manager, three-quarters of a century young.
"Everyone in our league knows and loves Jack," Berroteran said. "They realize that without him, we'd never have so much fun on Sundays. So many friendships – and romances – have blossomed because of him. Whenever I go to a tournament, I tell Jack everyone is there because of him."
Now, the softball community is there for McGowan. Following his major surgery, McGowan is undergoing therapy. His expenses are enormous. McGowan's players and friends are raising funds to help. Checks can be sent to: Renegades Softball, 2472 Bush St. #B, San Francisco, CA 94115. For more information, e-mail [email protected].

{TAGLINE Dan Woog is a journalist, educator, soccer coach, gay activist, and author of the "Jocks" series of books on gay male athletes. Visit his Web site at www.danwoog.com. He can be reached care of this publication or at [email protected].}

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