Jul 15 2:26 PM

High five, Baseball: All Star Game to honor gay pioneer Glenn Burke

Glenn Burke baseball card
Burke played with the Dodgers before being forced out of the game in 1980.
Topps

It’s not like there’s a blizzard now. Jason Collins, Michael Sam, Robbie Rogers — one out player for each of three professional sports is not even a flurry. But there is, at least in the places big enough to house a pro franchise, a “yeah, of course,” a “it’s about time.”

“It’s about time” is probably what Glenn Burke would say, according to his sister Lutha (as quoted in the New York Times). Lutha, along with other members of Glenn Burke’s family, will be in attendance at tonight’s Major League Baseball All Star Game in Minneapolis, when the MLB honors her late brother for his pioneering contribution to the sport.

Glenn Burke was a talented multi-sport athlete growing up in Oakland, Calif., in the early 1970’s. Major colleges recruited him to play basketball, but Burke took the $5,000 signing bonus and joined the farm system of the Los Angeles Dodgers. He was a strong, fast, skilled right-handed-hitting outfielder. Coaches at the time compared him to Willie Mays. In retrospect, he more resembled Ricky Henderson, who came up a few years after Burke.

In 1976, Burke joined to big club for a cup of coffee; by the 1977 season, Burke made the major league roster and stuck, appearing in about half the Dodgers games that year. He was often a late-inning sub on a successful team loaded with talent, but he started two games in the National League Championship Series, and game one of the ’77 World Series against the Yankees. He was a loud, active presence on the bench and in the clubhouse; by all accounts, a favorite with his teammates.

Glenn Burke was also gay. He wasn’t “out” by any definition — certainly not a contemporary one — but he didn’t do some of the things other closeted players at the time would do. He didn’t go out “girl hunting” with teammates on road trips. He didn’t marry a woman for appearances (even though the Dodgers offered to help him financially if he did). He didn’t avoid the spotlight, though he once said, looking back, he thought it would be easier to be a mediocre player that few people recognized.

Burke, instead, wanted to excel. Beyond his natural competitive spirit, he reportedly hoped his success and fame would be big enough to allow him to live openly as a gay athlete.

Glenn Burke
Burke played for the National League champion Dodgers in 1977.
AP

But Burke never became a star. By the middle of 1978, Burke was traded to Oakland. The Dodgers said they needed a left-handed bat on the bench; players on that team would tell you otherwise.

The Oakland Athletics of 1978 were not the high-flying A’s of just a few seasons before. The 1974 World Champs had been turned into also-rans by an imperious owner looking to cash in and cash out. With gates of 3,000 fans in a 60,000-seat stadium, the Oakland Coliseum was dubbed the “Oakland Mausoleum.” Burke started most every day, but this was not a winning atmosphere, and his play suffered.

During the 1979 season, Burke developed a pinched nerve in his neck. The team wanted him to get cortisone injections; Burke wanted to let it heal on its own. A’s owner Charlie Finley pressured Burke to get the shots, but Burke resisted. As a result, he was benched for two weeks. At that point, Burke decided to seek voluntary retirement.

“The whole operation was minor league, with Finley calling the dugout making lineup changes,” Burke recounted a few years later. “I probably wouldn't have left if there hadn't been the other problem, the gay thing, but put it all together and it was too much.”

Burke tried to rejoin the A’s in 1980, but a knee injury, an assignment to the A’s minor league team in Ogden, Utah, and a homophobic tirade from the A’s new manager, Billy Martin, sealed the deal.

“The browbeating got to him,” said sister Lutha in an interview with the Times. “I’m more than sure that being gay cost him his baseball career.”

The reason we have this story, and have it with so much detail, is because two years after he left professional baseball for good, in 1982, Glenn Burke told his story to Michael J. Smith for the magazine Inside Sports. “The Double Life of a Gay Dodger” is a nice bit of sports writing, and also a fascinating document.

True, Burke was not an active player, but he was only just so. He was not yet 30 — a man who could still play if the sport would have him. Here is a story about anti-gay bias in sports and society, and about the broader perceptions of gay men, told at a time before anyone had even used the term Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.

It was AIDS that eventually cost Burke his life in 1995, but his life after baseball was filled with a string of hardships, including drug abuse, homelessness, and jail time. It was his sister Lutha and her daughter, Alice Rose, who took care of him at the end, and they will be joined tonight in Minneapolis by other family and plenty of baseball royalty as the league tries to make sure a story like Glenn’s won’t unfold the same way in the future.

“He was a pioneer, and should be recognized,” said Major League Baseball spokesman Pat Courtney, speaking to the New York Times.

How exactly baseball will finally recognize Burke, some 34 years after he was forced out of the game, is not yet clear. It is reported they will push policy that makes it easier for players, coaches and office personnel to combat homophobia in the workplace. MLB is expected to tap Billy Bean, a former player who himself came out after his career ended in the 1990s, to head the initiative.

Baseball already has LGBT protections in its code of conduct, and added sexual orientation to its nondiscrimination policy as part of the 2011 labor deal with the Major League Baseball Players association. Without a single openly gay active player, however, it appears clear there is much yet to be done.

But there is something more to the legacy of Glenn Burke — something perhaps less groundbreaking, but as pervasive as just about any cultural contribution from the world of sports.

During that 1977 campaign, the Los Angeles Dodgers accomplished a feat no team had previously. In an era before pervasive steroid use jacked baseball’s power numbers, the Dodgers had four players hit at least 30 home runs in a single season. The last of those players to reach that milestone — on the last day of the regular season — was Dusty Baker.

Glenn Burke was hitting behind Baker in the order that day, and after Baker rounded the bases, Burke was waiting for him near home plate with his hand thrust high in the air. In the excitement, Baker didn’t know what to do, so he slapped it.

Legend would call this the first high five.

"Most people think I started it," Baker told Inside Sports in 1982. "But it wasn't me. I saw Glenn doing it first, and then I started."

It is, of course, a ritual repeated an uncountable number of times since, on and off the field — any field — world ‘round. It has not been widely recognized as a tribute to Burke, but now, as baseball and a national audience pay notice to Burke’s other contributions, some outstretched hands across the game and across the country might meet in this dual acknowledgement.

High time, Baseball. High five.

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