Thursday, November 16, 2017

Born Today in 1952: Gay Baseball Player Glenn Burke

Glenn Burke was born today, November 16, in 1952. He was a gay Major League Baseball (MLB) player for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Oakland Athletics from 1976 to 1979.

Burke was the first and only MLB player to come out as gay to teammates and team owners during his professional career and the first to publicly acknowledge it. He died from AIDS-related causes in 1995.

Burke was proud of his accomplishment, stating, "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."

As a gay man, Burke's association with the Dodgers was a difficult one. According to his 1995 autobiography, Out at Home, Dodgers General Manager Al Campanis offered to pay for a lavish honeymoon if Burke agreed to marry. Burke refused to do so, and is said to have responded "to a woman?" 

He also angered Dodgers' manager Tommy Lasorda by befriending the manager's gay son, Tommy Lasorda, Jr. Lasorda has disputed that but says he does not understand Burke's behavior at the time: "Why wouldn't he come out? Why keep that inside? Glenn had a lot of talent. He could have been an outstanding basketball or baseball player. He sure was good in the clubhouse. What happened? I don't know what happened. He just wasn't happy here?"

The Dodgers eventually traded Burke to the Oakland Athletics, claiming that they needed an experienced player who could contribute right away. That player did have more experience and better statistics, but some would argue he was less talented, and there have been suggestions that homophobia was behind the trade. 

The trade was unpopular with Dodger players. The day after the trade was announced, teammate Davey Lopes said: "He was the life of the team, on the buses, in the clubhouse, everywhere." 

In Oakland, Burke received little playing time in the 1978 and 1979 seasons. Billy Martin used the word "faggot" in the clubhouse when he became the Athletics' manager in 1980, and some teammates avoided showering with Burke. Burke suffered a knee injury before the 1980 season began, and the Athletics sent him to the minors in Utah and then released him from his contract before the season ended.

In his four seasons and 225 games in the majors playing for the Dodgers and Athletics, Burke had 523 at-bats, batted .237 with two home runs, 38 RBIs and 35 stolen bases.

Burke said "By 1978 I think everybody knew" and he was "sure his teammates didn't care." Former Dodgers team captain Davey Lopes said "No one cared about his lifestyle." He told The New York Times that "Prejudice drove me out of baseball sooner than I should have. But I wasn't changing". He wrote in his autobiography that "prejudice just won out." Burke left professional sports at the age of 27. He told People magazine in 1994 that his "mission as a gay ballplayer was to break a stereotype" and that he thought "it worked".

On October 2, 1977, Burke ran onto the field to congratulate his 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. That incident has been credited at the first "high five." After retiring from baseball, Burke used the high five with other homosexual residents of the Castro district of San Francisco, where it became a symbol of gay pride and identification.

Burke continued his athletic endeavors after retiring from baseball. He won medals in the 100 and 200 meter sprints in the first Gay Games in 1982 and competed in the 1986 Gay Games in basketball. His jersey number at Berkeley High School was retired in his honor. Burke played for many years in the SFGSL (San Francisco Gay Softball League), playing third base for Uncle Bert's Bombers.

An article published in Inside Sports magazine in 1982 made Burke's homosexuality public knowledge. Although he remained active in amateur competitions, Burke turned to drugs to fill the void in his life when his career ended. An addiction to cocaine destroyed him both physically and financially. In 1987, his leg and foot were crushed when he was hit by a car in San Francisco. After the accident, his life went into physical and financial decline. He was arrested and jailed for drugs and lived on the streets of San Francisco for a number of years, often in the same neighborhood that once embraced him. He spent his final months with his sister in Oakland. He died May 30, 1995, of AIDS complications at Fairmont Hospital in San Leandro, California, at age 42.

When news of his battle with AIDS became public knowledge in 1994, the Oakland Athletics organization helped to support him financially. In interviews given while he was fighting AIDS, he expressed little in the way of grudges.

On August 2, 2013, Burke was among the first class of inductees into the National Gay and Lesbian Sports Hall of Fame.

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