November 16, 1952– Glenn Burke
“They can’t ever say now that a gay man can’t play in the majors, because I’m a gay man and I made it.”
In 1970, Burke helped lead his Oakland high school basketball team to an undefeated season, a state championship and all-tournament honors. He was already a great all-around jock who could run the 100 yard dash in 9.7 seconds and he was also an especially outstanding baseball player.
It was his high school baseball skills that caught the eye of the Los Angeles Dodgers. One coach dubbed Burke “the next Willie Mays”. Burke was a great professional baseball prospect, except that Burke was also gay. There was no such thing as a gay man in professional sports in the USA in the 1970s.
Burke played his first game for the Dodgers in 1976. He felt he had to hide his gayness from his teammates. When he began to reveal little bits of his private life, it drew the disapproval of the baseball establishment, of course.
Ironically, the very team that courageously challenged baseball’s status quo on racism in 1947, standing behind the great Jackie Robinson, did not take the same position when it came to Burke’s gayness.
In an attempt to cover up his being gay, the Dodgers’ management offered Burke $75,000 if he would agree to get married. Burke’s sly response:
“You mean to a woman?”
Not only did Burke refuse to participate in any closet charade, he also began an affair with homophobic Dodgers Manager Tommy Lasorda’s estranged gay son, Tommy Jr. Tommy Jr. died of HIV/AIDS in 1991. Lasorda always denied that his son was gay, insisting his son died of cancer.
Coach Billy Martin would introduce the other players to Burke as: “The Faggot”.
The Dodgers traded Burke to the Oakland Athletics just before the 1979 season. Even though it was his hometown, things in Oakland didn’t improve for Burke. He still refused to live the lie. By the end of the 1979 season, Burke was no longer a professional baseball player.
Many of Burke’s teammates and management were fully aware that he was gay during his short playing career. They also realized that the public’s reaction to Burke’s sexuality, and the problems that it would provoke, led to the early end of his baseball career.
Burke’s honesty and courage ran way ahead of the rest of society. In 1979, there was no possibility that Burke’s story would end any way other than it did: a promising career thwarted before it even truly began.
For Burke, to be a Major League Baseball player wasn’t compromising who he truly was. He believed he could have it all. With the Dodgers, he possessed a rather nontraditional attitude while playing for one of the biggest corporate sports franchises. Homophobia continues to be the norm in Major League Baseball. But during his era, the attitudes were consistent, and in most cases intensified, in the locker room. Burke wanted to be both a pro player and an openly gay man, but the conflicting emotions were just too much, despite Burke’s big heart, outsize personality, and athletic prowess.
After being pushed out of the game that he loved, Burke found some solace and acceptance in San Francisco’s Castro District gay community. It was there that Burke became a big celebrity acknowledged for both his athleticism and his gay identity. For a while it seemed to be just what Burke needed.
He continued in sports after retiring from professional baseball. He turned to track and won medals in the 100 and 220 meter sprints in the very first Gay Games in 1982. He played ball in the 1986 Gay Games. His jersey number at Berkeley High School was retired in his honor.
Burke formally came out of the closet in Inside Sports Magazine in 1982.
Burke turned to drugs to fill the hole in his life when professional sports gave up on him. His cocaine habit destroyed him physically and financially. His leg was crushed when he was hit by a car in San Francisco in 1987. After the accident, his life went into a deep decline. He was arrested and jailed for using drugs. For a time he was homeless, living on the streets in the same Castro neighborhood that had once celebrated him.
Burke left this world in spring 1995, taken by the plague. He was just 42-years-old.
The tale of Burke is a troubling tragedy that was faced by so many gay people in most professions in his era, a time of unfulfilled dreams. It seems even more so for poor Burke; his dreams were within his grasp. Burke was not the first gay athlete to play professional sports. He was just the first who was unwilling to compromise.
I wonder if Burke gave much consideration to the high price that his courage demanded of his life. 30 years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier, Burke broke the gay barrier, doing something no one tried to do before, live as an out gay man in the major leagues. But in the decades since, no one else has followed in his cleated shoes. My smart, sweet, handsome friend Billy Bean went next, coming out of the closet in 1999. But, Burke came out to his teammates while he was still in the league. Bean did it, eloquently, four years after he retired in 1995, the same year Burke died.
Burke was one of the first inductees into new National Gay And Lesbian Sports Hall Of Fame in 2013. 2014’s Major League All-Star Game was dedicated to Burke in a ceremony during the pregame press conference. The Fox Network broadcast of the game failed to mention Burke, of course. Last summer, the Oakland Athletics sponsored a Gay Pride Night in honor of Burke, with Burke’s brother throwing out the ceremonial first pitch.
For more about Burke, try his honest memoir, written with humor and no pity, Out At Home: The Glenn Burke Story (1995). Out: The Glenn Burke Story (2010) is an excellent documentary of his story. It is available on Netflix.
A delicious little side note: in 1977, Burke ran onto the field to congratulate his Dodgers teammate Dusty Baker after Baker had hit his 30th home run in the last game of the regular season. Burke raised his hand over his head as Baker jogged home from third base. Not knowing what to do about the upraised hand, Baker reached up and slapped it. This incident may have been the unintentional invention of the high-five. Later, Burke used that high-five when greeting other gay guys in the Castro, where it became a symbol of gay identification.