Retroactive Review: The Dreyfus Affair

Main character Randy is juggling a lot of balls in The Dreyfus Affair.

A few months ago, I was at the local used bookstore, perusing the selection of sports biographies, when I came across a copy of Billy Bean’s memoir, Going the Other Way. Bean has served as MLB’s ambassador for inclusion since 2014 and is one of very few professional athletes—current or retired—to have come out of the closet. Bean detailed his experiences as a closeted gay man in his touching memoir, and offered fans peek behind the curtain, if you will.

Bean’s book reminded me of another book that I’ve read a couple of times — Peter Lefcourt’s The Dreyfus Affair.

The Dreyfus Affair, which came out in 1992, centered on a talented shortstop named Randy Dreyfus. Randy is an all-American guy, a superstar ticketed for the Hall of Fame if all goes right. Unfortunately for Randy, he’s fallen in love with his double play partner, D.J. Pickett, and it’s affecting his game.

Having read Lefcourt’s novel before, I’d initially thought it might be interesting to read and compare the fictional Randy’s experience as a closeted gay player to the real life experience of Billy Bean. After re-reading it, there’s not much to compare between the two stories, but The Dreyfus Affair is still a very compelling work.

At the onset Randy is—if not happily, then comfortably—married to Susie, is the father of rambunctious twin girls, and owner of a neurotic Dalmatian. He’s also trying to navigate his way through contract talks, manage ownership and an agent, and deal with the opening of a shopping center in his name. To say Randy’s home life is a bit chaotic might be an understatement. On top of all that, there’s still baseball to be played and, oh yeah, there’s also Randy’s inconvenient attraction to his second baseman.

Randy struggles with his attraction to D.J., even seeking out a therapist to help him deal with it. D.J. eventually reveals to Randy that he’s a closeted gay man and the two later embark on a secret affair that explodes in a very public, very bad way a few weeks later.

As you may have guessed, the novel is inspired by the notorious trial and conviction of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish French army officer, for treason. Dreyfus was later pardoned due to intense public scrutiny and support. Georges Picquart, a French Army officer and minister of war, discovered that the memorandum used to convict Dreyfus was actually written by Major Ferdinand Esterhazy. Picquart was ordered to conceal the truth, but he persisted and continued his investigation before being relieved of duty. Writer Émile Zola’s famous letter—“J’accuse…!”—which appeared in the French paper L’Aurore —was written in support of Dreyfus’ innocence.

The events of this real-life story have been transposed to major league baseball—albeit very loosely—and Randy’s story unfolds in similar ways to Alfred Dreyfus’. Randy and D.J. are subjected to intense public scrutiny and—spoiler alert!—are even “blackballed” out of the sport as having committed “conduct detrimental” to baseball when their relationship is outed. They’re reinstated by commissioner Fritz Esterhazy only after Randy and D.J.’s teammates threaten to boycott the World Series if their lifetime bans aren’t lifted.

Upon re-reading, it seems rather apparent that not all of The Dreyfus Affair works or holds up with the passage of time, but it’s still a fairly enjoyable read. Some of the many references to name brands—Lefcourt name drops several companies that were well-known at the time of publication—might fly over the head of a 21st century reader. Some of the zany subplots involving private investigators, dog therapists, and attempted murder (of the dog) make the book seem just a bit too cluttered or busy.

The climax also doesn’t quite hold up in a post-9/11 world, when—again, spoiler alert!—a disgruntled homophobic fan brings a gun to a game and tries to assassinate Randy… during the World Series. (Randy survives the attempt on his life with an amusing injury.) However, it’s still an interesting look at sports’ macho culture, masculinity, and the lengths to which some—especially those in a position of power—will go to uphold those values. Some of us would like to think we’ve progressed as a society, but have we really changed that much in the 25 years since the book came out?

The fictional Randy Dreyfus existed in a world before It Gets Better Project, The Trevor Project, You Can Play Project — all efforts to encourage LGBT youth — and MLB’s own recent attempts at inclusion, to name some examples. Randy struggles to fight his sexuality because, as he notes many times throughout the book, “lefties” like Randy don’t get into the Hall of Fame.

I would like to believe that’s changed, and yet there’s never been an active, openly gay or bisexual major league player. David Denson, the Milwaukee Brewers minor leaguer who recently came out—and was the first and so far only openly gay player in affiliated baseball—recently retired. Major leaguers still routinely sling anti-homosexual slurs as epithets toward their opponents, and then issue rote apologies and all is forgotten. (Kevin Pillar’s recent apology for an incident in which he used a slur actually stands out as seeming sincere.) It might not seem like the sport, its players’, or fans’ attitudes have changed much.

The sport of baseball reflects the society it inhabits, though, and attitudes and prejudices toward the LGBT community have slowly been shifting since the years in which The Dreyfus Affair were penned. As society goes, so goes baseball. Maybe someday, in the very near future, we can re-read The Dreyfus Affair and marvel at the fact gay players being banned from the sport—and being attacked by their fans—was once thought plausible.

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Alexandra Simon is a pragmatic but somewhat rabid Detroit Tigers fan who enjoys candlelit dinners and long walks on the beach. Follow her on Twitter @catswithbats, and also @glasshalffulmer, where she also tweets about baseball.
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Good read, Alexandra.

Marc Schneider
Marc Schneider
If you don’t think things have changed significantly since 1992, you seemingly have your head in some utopian fantasy. Homophobia exists and probably always will, but it’s ridiculous to say that attitudes toward gay players (and people in general) have not dramatically changed. It’s hard to see a gay player being blackballed today. If the standard is zero prejudice, you will always be disappointed. The author obviously thought that analogizing to the original Dreyfus affair was clever, but there is one significant difference. Dreyfus was convicted for something he didn’t do primarily because he was Jewish. And Dreyfus was sent… Read more »
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