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The Largely Forgotten Story of Glenn Burke

[ 32 ] May 12, 2013 |

I did not know this:

What Ayanbadejo didn’t know was that one baseball player already had. This week’s coming out by NBA player Jason Collins is momentous, but the Jackie Robinson of gay rights was Glenn Burke, who played for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Oakland A’s from 1976 to 1979. He tried to change sports culture three decades ago—but back then, unlike now, sports culture wasn’t ready for a change.

Burke made no secret of his sexual orientation to the Dodgers front office, his teammates, or friends in either league. He also talked freely with sportswriters, though all of them ended up shaking their heads and telling him they couldn’t write that in their papers. Burke was so open about his sexuality that the Dodgers tried to talk him into participating in a sham marriage. (He wrote in his autobiography that the team offered him $75,000 to go along with the ruse.) He refused. In a bit of irony that would seem farcical if it wasn’t so tragic, one of the Dodgers who tried to talk Burke into getting “married,” was his manager, Tommy Lasorda, whose son Tom Jr. died from AIDS complications in 1991. To this day, Lasorda Sr. refuses to acknowledge his son’s homosexuality.

I certainly knew that Burke had come out after he retired, but had no idea that he was out to his teammates and the press during his career. This doesn’t in any way diminish the significance of Collins coming out — that Burke wasn’t out to the public is a crucial distinction! — but it’s an interesting piece of history all the same.

…agree with commenters that the original Inside Sports piece is also terrific.

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  1. A Different John says:

    I don’t really see the distinction between being out to the press and out to the public – after all, if the press had decided not to talk about Collins, the “public” wouldn’t know any more than they did during Burke’s time.

    • Craigo says:

      The media environment might have changed in the last thirty years, in one or two ways.

    • cpinva says:

      agreed. mr. burke was out to the public. short of hiring a stadium, or buying air time, and announcing it to a crowd, there isn’t much else he could have done to be public about it. that the sports reporters of the time refused to report it isn’t his problem, it’s theirs.

    • elm says:

      The difference isn’t in what Burke did vs. Collins, but in the response they might get. The fans did not know Burke was gay; they do know Collins is. Everything Collins does will be in the public eye as “the gay athlete.” Burke was never that in the public eye, because he wasn’t allowed to be.

      This isn’t meant to detract from Burke’s own courage in outing himself to his team and the press in what was a less tolerant setting, but a simple statement of fact: Collins is the first American team-sports athlete to be out to the general public while an active player.

      • Ian says:

        The difference isn’t in what Burke did vs. Collins, but in the response they might get.

        Indeed. Being out in 1976 was a heck of a lot riskier than it is today, and it’s not risk-free in today’s pro leagues.

        No one has tried to pay Collins a wife bribe.

        • elm says:

          I agree completely: Burke took a bigger risk than Collins is taking and it seems he wanted to take an even bigger risk (telling the press.) But it’s more than just about Burke and Collins. Through no fault of his own, Burke did not get the reaction that Collins will, could not change broader sports (and mass) culture the way Collins might be able to, did not have to face homophobic fans and commentators the way Collins will.

          Again, none of this is to take anything away from Burke. I’m simply agreeing with Scott that what Burke did (unbeknownst to the general public) in no way diminishes what Collins is currently doing.

        • aimai says:

          That we know of. And he took one himself with his 8 year engagement.

  2. “He also talked freely with sportswriters, though all of them ended up shaking their heads and telling him they couldn’t write that in their papers.”

    Even accounting for decades of change, that surprises me. Harvey Milk was national news during those same years and Anita Bryant was barnstorming the country talking about the evil homosexuals recruiting your children. The wall between sports and news must’ve been pretty high.

    • DocAmazing says:

      Yeah, but even as Anita Bryant was barnstorming, the Village People were selling shitloads of records. The population at large was pretty clueless.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Deadspin reran this piece a few days ago – originally published on Burke in 1982. It’s fantastic.

    http://thestacks.deadspin.com/the-double-life-of-a-gay-dodger-493697377

    Barra probably should have at least mentioned it.

    • SatanicPanic says:

      I got the impression from reading that article on Deadspin that Burke wasn’t out to that many people and that his big dilemma was if and when he should out himself. He was hoping to become a superstar and then force MLB to deal with it. But he never became a superstar and knew he wouldn’t have that kind of clout. He was then hoping to not be out. When he thought word actually was getting out, he wasn’t ready for it and retired. This Atlantic article gives a pretty different impression. I’m not sure which is right.

      • Kurzleg says:

        But he never became a superstar

        To say the least. I remember having Burke’s baseball card back in the day but didn’t remember much about him. I checked Baseballreference.com, and I don’t think you could even call Burke a mediocre player. Based on the stats it’s hard to see how he stayed in MLB as long as he did.

        • Anonymous says:

          Burke was big and athletic (a HS basketball star), and put up decent stats in the minors (.877 OPS in AAA), but couldn’t translate his skills at the major league level. Baseball to this day is littered with similar players who tantalize managers but can’t deliver.

  4. Thlayli says:

    Burke is generally credited as the inventor of the “high five”.

    • Johnny Sack says:

      Is that an HIV pun?

      Roman numerals…Hi…V

      • Fighting Words says:

        Nope.

        From Wikipedia:

        “In 1977, Burke ran onto the field to congratulate his Los Angeles Dodgers teammate Dusty Baker after Baker 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 slapped it, thus the two together were credited with inventing the high five. After retiring from baseball, Burke used the high five with other homosexual residents of the Castro district of San Francisco, where for many it became a symbol of gay pride and identification.”

  5. Julian says:

    He also INVENTED THE HIGH FIVE.

  6. Fighting Words says:

    No love for Dave Kopay?

    I don’t know if he was out publicly when he was playing football, but I thought I read that all his teammates knew he was gay during his playing days.

  7. Dilan Esper says:

    Lost in this entire discussion is that Jackie Robinson was really good, one of the greatest all-around athletes in American history. (Look up his track and field and football accomplishments if you don’t believe me.)

    The Jackie Robinson of LGBT is Martina Navratilova, and it’s not even close. She’s the only one who combined the pioneering role and being really great at the sport, which is what Jackie Robinson was.

    • MAJeff says:

      I would agree with this. While there were other individual athletes, no one did it so openly as Martina. It was always fun watching television announcers try to figure out how to describe her “friend” in the Royal Box at Wimbledon and how that changed over time.

      Of course, the major team sports hold a special place in terms of following, fandom and the like, but Martina was a true pioneer.

      • anthrofred says:

        Without in any way diminishing Navratilova’s courage, which was tremendous, I do think there’s an appreciable difference in expectations between men’s and women’s sports regarding sexuality. I should be clear that I’m not talking about “ease” of coming out, because I think in both men’s and women’s sport there’s a tremendous amount of normative pressure. But there’s something particular about the hypermasculinity of men’s sports and their historical relationship to ideas of men’s health, virility, and expressed heterosexuality that makes a male player’s coming out of the closet a different kind of challenge to the system.

  8. I knew Glenn when he played for the Dodgers,during the off season Glenn was playing basketball for an all gay team vs. the S.F. Firemen in a Charity Game. I was a sports reporter/photographer for a gay S.F. newspaper and he asked me not to take his picture. I honored his request and we became friends. There is a great documentary called “OUT-The Glenn Burke Story” I recommend it for all JOCKS,gay or straight and even to people who may not like sports. And for the record… There has always been gay athletes in all sports… however because it was taboo… you will not read about it while they are in sports. That is changing and it is the 21st Century.

  9. Henry Holland says:

    I’ve always loathed Tom Lasorda, never bought his “funny Italian uncle” bullshit for a second. I was part of Queer Nation when his son died, we all knew it was because of AIDS. We went to the Dodgers team day, where they used to let you on the field to mingle with the players and coaches. We zapped Lasorda, started asking him why he was ashamed of his gay son etc. He snarled at us “Say that again and I’ll smash your fucking teeth in”.

    Charming.

  10. Steve Sailer says:

    I remember Glenn Burke from following the Dodgers in 1977. He was a Rally Killer. He was a classic “looks good in the uniform” prospect who got overpromoted because management didn’t pay attention to on-base percentage and the like back then. With more the more sophisticated statistics in use today he would have never been allowed to waste space on a major league roster.

    It’s absurd to say he was a victim of discrimination when hundreds of ballplayers who did more to help their teams win never got out of the minors.

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