Major league owners are, as a rule, a hard group to root for. They’re the Yankees of people: obscenely rich, and annoyingly good at staying that way.
Even when held to that low standard, the Cubs have had an astounding run of mediocrities and jagbags. Charles Murphy once fired Frank Chance while he was in the hospital for brain surgery, presumably because he refused to follow his trainer’s prescription to “rub some dirt on it and get back out there.” Phil Wrigley was the only owner in baseball history who was more likely to hire an “evil eye” than a manager. The Tribune Company thought the baseball standings were published in Forbes.
But just as the modern day Cubs have turned around our perception of the team on the field, there’s one member of their Board of Directors who’s much different than the stereotype of ownership to which we’re accustomed. One whose story as a modern day baseball trailblazer is genuinely worth celebrating. And it’s not the one you see every on TV every day.
As the first openly gay owner in Major League Baseball, Laura Ricketts gives Cub fans reason to feel pride in every sense of the word.
From the moment it became public that the Ricketts family were suitors for the Cubs in 2009, Laura Ricketts didn’t once try to hide that she was a lesbian. And to get an idea of how brave that was in the world of organized baseball, consider the experience of Kevin McClatchy. The former owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates ran the team from 1996 to 2007. And it wasn’t until a New York Times feature in 2012 that he felt comfortable enough to announce that he was gay.
In other words, less than a decade ago, the only way a gay man could feel accepted among baseball ownership was by selling his team and then waiting five years to come out. The only way it could have taken McClatchy any longer to be honest about his identity is if he put the decision in the hands of the BBWAA.
His dream had been to own a professional sports franchise. But McClatchy felt that in order to make that dream come true, he would have to publicly deny who he was for as long as he had the team. As he stated, “In the back of my mind was ‘What are you doing? You’re going into the most public arena possible with a secret.’ I made a choice to follow what my passion was.”
That’s tragic. In order to follow his passion in life, Kevin McClatchy had to pretend that a vital part of himself didn’t exist. And if he felt this way upon entering the game, his time as an owner did nothing to convince him otherwise. As the Times noted, McClatchy “frequently heard homophobic language during his days in baseball. It convinced him that keeping his sexual orientation hidden was best.”
That was the environment that was waiting for Laura Ricketts. Which is why one of the most important steps she could take upon her family’s purchase of the Cubs was to make herself visible. This small but important step was crucial to her acceptance and ensured that she wouldn’t have to live a double life similar to McClatchy’s in order to function in organized baseball.
As Ricketts told the Windy City Times shortly after the transfer, being the first openly gay owner of a major league team “was one of the things I didn’t think too much about before we closed [the sale] last fall… it was only after we closed that that aspect of it became much more present for me.”
By her own recollection, Ricketts was so caught up in the sale process and the responsibility of taking over the Cubs that her own history-making achievement didn’t hit her until after it was completed. But what’s most telling about that statement is that not for one moment did she consider hiding in the closet or denying who she was during the sale process.
That act of bravery enabled her to break through a cultural barrier in the game while almost instantaneously normalizing her achievement. While her sexuality was a tremendously vital part of her identity, the responsibilities of her role as owner were just as important in how she defined herself in the public eye.
Laura Ricketts’ background and the fears she had already faced down in her life are a big part of the reason why she was able to be so open about her sexuality. In her early 30s, she went through the process of coming out to her conservative family. Who are practicing Catholics. In Nebraska.
This is literally the beginning of 87 percent of all Lifetime Original Movies.
Thankfully, her father’s response was just about perfect: “You’re a leader. And you can help other young women to come out… You always be proud of who you are. Because I am.” That’s not to say that the Ricketts family (notably: Pete, the Governor of Arkansas) doesn’t have its members who have done harm to the progress of LGBT rights—it does. But this response was spot on.
Laura Ricketts was already a strong woman by the time she joined Cubs ownership. If she could summon the bravery to come out to her religious, conservative billionaire father (and her conservative millionare brothers), she could certainly handle a pun from Steve Rosenbloom.
Once her family purchased the team, Ricketts assumed control of the Cubs’ efforts regarding government relations, community relations, and philanthropy. Through Cubs Care, she turned her history-making position into good works by contributing to gay philanthropic organizations such as Center on Halsted, the Howard Brown Health Center, and AIDS Foundation of Chicago.
Under the Ricketts’ ownership, the Cubs also stepped up the team’s visibility in the gay community. In 2010, they sponsored a float in Chicago’s Pride Parade for the first time ever, featuring no less than Ernie Banks. Suffice it to say that until that point, you were about as likely to see a 1950s-era Hall of Famer at a Pride Parade as you were to see an assless chaps aisle in Hobby Lobby.
Then, in 2014, the team agreed to move a Sunday game to a Saturday doubleheader in order to ease their neighborhood’s congestion on the day of the Pride Parade. The importance of this cannot be understated: the Ricketts’ as baseball owners—if not in their other endeavors—were so committed to showing support for the gay community that they were willing to endure two 2014 Cubs games in one day.
If that’s not a sign of progress, I don’t know what is.
And like a certain other famous baseball pioneer, now that Laura Ricketts has established herself as a public figure because of the game, she’s become more outspoken as a civil rights activist. She currently chairs LPAC, a political action group dedicated “to organiz[ing] lesbian donors into a power bloc.”
As she told New York Magazine, “I don’t really like politics, to be honest… But it’s other people making decisions about my life, my country, and my child’s education… If we don’t play here, we forfeit. And I’m not willing to forfeit my rights.”
You can practically hear Ken Burns cuing a minor key “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and cutting to the most awkward George Will soundbyte of all time. Laura Ricketts is dedicated to making sure the status of LGBT people in baseball is the polar opposite of Jean Segura’s baserunning: always moving ahead, never backward. And members of Cub fandom can and should take a lot of pride in that.
Lead photo courtesy Dennis Wierzbicki—USA Today Sports.