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Before Jason Collins, before Michael Sam, there was Glenn Burke. By becoming the first—and only—openly gay player in Major League Baseball, Glenn would become a pioneer in his own way, nearly thirty years after another black Dodger rookie, Jackie Robinson, broke the league’s color barrier. This is Glenn’s story, in his own words . . .
Touted by scouts and coaches alike as “the next Willie Mays,” Burke, a charismatic outfielder, kept his sexuality off the radar for a good two seasons, which included a World Series appearance. He was even credited with inventing the high five with teammate Dusty Baker.
But when the Dodgers’ front office got wind of Burke’s sexuality, the damage control started, including efforts by upper management to talk him into a sham marriage. When Burke refused, he was eventually traded to Oakland, where he received a less-than-warm welcome from incoming manager Billy Martin. The prejudice, coupled with an injured knee, forced Burke into retirement at only twenty-seven years old.
Now, two decades after his death from AIDS-related complications, the man who started the conversation is finally being included in it. Major League Baseball recognized him as a gay pioneer at the 2014 All-Star game. And Burke has become a source of inspiration for athletes who refuse to be defined by who they love, while doing what they love.
Includes a new afterword by coauthor Erik Sherman reflecting on the two decades that have passed since Burke’s death.
Foreword by Billy Bean
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Glenn Burke, a former center fielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Oakland Athletics over a span of five seasons, appeared in the 1977 World Series. Burke made history by becoming the first Major League Baseball player to announce his homosexuality. He died of AIDS in 1995.
Erik Sherman has been a freelance sportswriter in the New York area since 1980. Out at Home was his first book. He is also the author of Mookie: Life, Baseball, and the ’86 Mets and Steve Blass: A Pirate for Life. He currently resides in New Rochelle, New York.
FOREWORD BY BILLY BEAN, MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL AMBASSADOR FOR INCLUSION
As a player, I remember hearing Glenn Burke’s name from time to time. There were brief stories about a gay ballplayer who played for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the seventies, but I always left that subject alone as I was navigating a life of my own deep inside the closet. I certainly had wondered about him, especially after hearing rumors of him living on the street, ill, and struggling with drug addiction, but I chose to ignore them. I knew that was only one side of the story, and the familiar stereotypical tone made me angry. Ironically, while playing Winter Baseball in Venezuela in the late eighties, a few of the guys were listening to some stories from one of my teammates, a lefty pitcher named Steve Shirley. He came up through the Dodgers organization, and on this long bus trip, he was describing some of the great players that he’d played with in the minor leagues. He said the two best minor league players he ever saw were Pedro Guerrero and “a guy” named Glenn Burke. There was no talk of Glenn being gay, just that he was a stud who could have played any sport and been a star. Glenn was getting some serious respect from a veteran who had played a long time and knew the game well.
I hadn’t thought about Glenn much until I saw an incredibly well-produced story done by Keith Olbermann on ESPN in 1995. Glenn was dying of AIDS, and Keith captured the sadness of a career and life that were derailed by homophobia, discrimination, betrayal, addiction, and ultimately AIDS. The story was like a knife to my heart. I had just experienced the death of my own partner, Sam, weeks before, and seeing images of Glenn on TV, emaciated and fighting death with each breath, was too much. A wave of grief and sadness came over me and the tears wouldn’t stop.
In 2003, when the circumstances of my own life led me to writing my book, Going the Other Way: Lessons from a Life In and Out of Major League Baseball, I remembered that moment, and even though I didn’t know his entire story, I dedicated my book to Glenn. It was my own way of honoring his courage as a major league baseball player, who just happened to be gay. We never met, but we were brothers, and we always will be. We all know that in the entire 145-year history of major league baseball, he and I could not be the only two gay men who have played in the big leagues, yet we are the only ones recognized to have done so.
Glenn was much braver than I. He refused to let homophobia change him. He didn’t hide from his truth. (I struggled heavily with my sexuality, and I never came out until I had left baseball for good, and it’s a choice I’ll always regret). Glenn had his loving family, and a hometown group of friends around him for support. He was so far ahead of his time, brimming with self-confidence, yet naive enough to believe the rest of the world would be accepting, just like his family. He learned quickly that a few powerful people in baseball decided his fate. They sent their message loud and clear, which led to his decision to stop playing.
This book was not easy for me, yet I read it in one sitting, spellbound. It brought back memories of my darkest times. Erik Sherman writes a gut-wrenching, and incredibly honest account of the world through Glenn’s own words. At times Glenn seemed to be his own worst enemy, and his loyalty to some, especially the most personal, led to his downfall. I remember all too well the desire to trust others with my secret, but I was never able to share it. It’s lonely in the closet, and the isolation tore me apart.
Our stories are different, but we both made a similar mistake. We didn’t realize how much we loved our sport until we quit. Walking away from the game without reaching out for help was not the answer to our struggles. Adjusting to life after baseball is hard for every player, and Glenn’s slide into darkness after his career ended breaks my heart. His life could have easily gone the other way. When I met Glenn’s wonderful sister, Lutha Davis, at this year’s 2014 MLB All-Star Game in Minnesota, I could still see the pain of Glenn’s memory in her eyes. I’m certain that every image of baseball reminds her of her little brother, when he was young, healthy, strong, and a star in the making. His being recognized by MLB must have been bittersweet, but Lutha, and her daughter, Alice, were there, proudly representing their family. They shared some wonderful stories about Glenn with me, and I hate that I never got to meet him. His story will help change the sports world . . . for the better.
I was away from baseball for a very long time, but in my heart, I never left. As MLB’s first Ambassador for Inclusion there is so much work to do. It is also my responsibility to represent the people in our sport who still play this game or work in secret, fearful of judgment as they work so hard to realize their dreams. I will champion Glenn’s story, his highs and lows, and everything in between. He is back in baseball too, and I will help make sure that his memory is never forgotten.
Baseball and Society
Nearly fifty years ago, a black athlete out of Cairo, Georgia, named Jackie Roosevelt Robinson broke the color barrier by becoming the first Negro to play major-league baseball. That was in April of 1947. Robinson’s team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, instantly became synonymous with all that was right and fair with the world: three strikes you’re out, three outs per inning, and if you’re a human being with the tools to play in the big leagues, you can play baseball.
Many historians today consider Jackie Robinson to have been perhaps the greatest soldier in the struggle for black equality in this country. Not only did Robinson survive the death threats, racial slurs, and varying degrees of isolation, he also thrived on the ball field. During ten glorious seasons with a Dodger team that he led to six pennants and a memorable World Series championship over the hated Yankees, Robinson hit .311 en route to his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.
Nearly thirty years after Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier, another black Dodger rookie, this one out of Oakland, California, came to understand another prejudice. This prejudice had nothing to do with the color of his skin. It was, instead, about his sexual preference. However, unlike Robinson’s tumultuous first season, in his first Glenn Lawrence Burke, at six-two, 210 pounds, with movie star looks, was billed by scouts and coaches alike as “the next Willie Mays.” Burke, however, was keeping his homosexuality a secret. Baseball was not ready to acknowledge gay people.
Glenn Burke and Baseball
Burke remained in the closet primarily because of his love of baseball. Ever since he put on his first baseball jersey in Little League, the game had been his whole life. Through the years he came to realize, like us all, that baseball is a macho sport and homophobia runs rampant through every locker room from coast to coast. With the exception of family and some close friends from a predominately gay section of San Francisco called the Castro, no one suspected Burke was a homosexual. His secret was safe from the baseball world. Safe, that is, for perhaps all of two seasons.
Two seasons, including a World Series appearance, had come and gone when it became obvious his secret was out. Dodger general manager Al Campanis, who years later would be fired from the ball club for racial remarks made on ABC’s Nightline, pressured Burke to get married. Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda, who had an openly gay son who has since died of AIDS-related symptoms, resented Burke’s friendship with Tom Jr., better known as Spunky. Lasorda, incidentally, is still said to be in denial about his son’s death, claiming the cause of death to be ordinary pneumonia. So when Burke refused to get married or cool down his friendship with Spunky, he was soon traded to the Oakland A’s for an aging Billy North. What everyone had begun to suspect about Burke was confirmed. Something was desperately wrong in Dodgertown when this business-savvy organization traded away a potential superstar for a player past his prime.
During an uninspired 1979 campaign with an A’s team that had gone from being baseball’s darlings in the early seventies to losing 108 games that season, Burke retired from baseball. However, he reconsidered the next spring and reported back to the A’s. With new manager Billy Martin at the helm, there was a sense of excitement back in Oakland. However, when Martin began referring to Burke as a “faggot” on several occasions with some of the other players, the outfielder never had a chance. The prejudice, coupled with an injured knee, pushed Burke’s hand to retire for good. Burke had been blackballed from baseball.
This isn’t a story about judging how another chooses to live his life. It’s rather a story of hypocrisy and how baseball went from being ahead of its time in changing America’s social conscience to being a game that is clearly behind the times and has a set of standards that discourages participation by those who aren’t heterosexual. From Babe Ruth to Steve Garvey, legend is made of their conquests. For the Glenn Burkes of the world, though, the coming out of their own sexual orientation is baseball suicide.
Burke has perhaps never completely gotten over being blackballed from the game he loves or the potential of what could have been a marvelous career cut short by prejudice. After falling victim to a car accident, heightened drug use, six months in a California penitentiary, and time on the streets, Burke now lives with his older sister in Oakland. He can barely walk and weighs a mere 135 pounds.
Glenn Burke is dying of AIDS.
WHY THE BASEBALL ESTABLISHMENT AND I NEVER SAW EYE TO EYE
The pain is overwhelming. It hurts so much. The AIDS virus has given me incredible pain in my legs, which now have black lesions from my shins down to my toes. I am both warm and cold, hence the portable heater and air conditioner on a table next to my bed. Not long ago, I was 220 pounds of muscle. Now, I am a 130-pound man incapable of getting out of bed. I wear a diaper because I can no longer control my bodily functions. I need my loving sister Lutha and a full-time nurse to help me with things I used to take for granted. I can only speak in a whisper most of the time, so I can conserve my energy. On occasion, I cry uncontrollably from the mental and physical pain that is full-blown AIDS.
Little did anyone know on the evening of May 16, 1978, why I was really traded by the Los Angeles Dodgers to the Oakland A’s. After all, the man the Dodgers would receive in exchange was Billy North, a player who had watched his batting average drop sixty-four points in the previous two years. North was, of course, a switch-hitter, and that was a valuable asset to have in the big leagues. I, on the other hand, was only twenty-five years old, had started in two World Series’ games for the Dodgers in ’77, and had proven to the team and fans alike that I was a speed demon on the base paths and one of the better defensive outfielders in baseball. And if given the chance to play on a regular basis, I would have been a great hitter too. Many of the Dodger players were very upset by the trade. Steve Garvey and I cried. Don Sutton too. Dusty Baker and Davey Lopes were just pissed off. In fact, the two of them marched up to Dodger vice president Al Campanis’s office and screamed, “You fuckin’ assholes! You traded our best prospect. Not to mention the life of this team.”
My secret of being homosexual was out. The Dodgers now knew I was gay. In the seventies, the Dodgers were drawing three million fans a year. They had a pristine, clean image. Management was afraid of my sexual orientation, even though I never flaunted it. To this day, the Dodgers deny trading me because I was gay. But it was painfully obvious.
Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda called me into his office after we had defeated the Pirates that night at Dodger Stadium. He told me, “We’re tired of you walking back and forth in the dugout like a mad tiger in a cage. We’re sending you to Oakland, where you can play more.”
I could tell he was very uneasy about the trade. He knew he was trading away a top prospect for reasons having nothing to do with my abilities.
I probably should have seen the trade coming. Lasorda knew I was tight with his gay son Spunky. More on that later. And Campanis had offered me a bonus to find a woman and get married! Can you imagine that? Al said, “Everybody on this team is married but you, Glenn. When players get married on the Dodgers, we help them out financially. We can help you so you can go out and have a real nice honeymoon.”
I said, “Al, I have no plans of marrying anyone anytime soon.”
Of course, Al’s saying it was a Dodger tradition to help out players getting married was pure bullshit. Pedro Guerrero was the next Dodger to get married and he received no Dodger compensation because of it. Al said that was because Pedro had an agent. Well, I had one too, so that argument gets tossed out the window.
Al really disappointed me. I had always liked him a lot. In fairness to Al, however, he was probably just obeying orders from above him in the organization. Ownership put pressure on him to do their dirty work. Walter O’Malley was, without question, engineering Al’s plea that I get married. To a girl, of course!
The point I’m trying to make here is that the Dodgers are arguably the sharpest organization in all of sports. They knew I was gay, and were worried about how the average father would feel about taking his son to a baseball game to see some fag shagging fly balls in centerfield. But the fact is, baseball has the same percentage of homosexuals as there is in mainstream society. It’s pretty well known in the gay community that within that percentage are two former Most Valuable Players from the seventies. But baseball, perhaps more than any other sport, promotes machismo and virility.
This may come as a shock, but there are more gays in football than any other big-time sport. In the trenches, those guys are like family. They can really get off on the body chemistry. But gay football players, like other gay athletes, fake heterosexuality. They date women, get married. They protect their careers. They protect their ability to be promotable. Someone like tennis legend Martina Navratilova probably lost $10 or $20 million in sponsorships due to her never hiding the fact she is a lesbian. It’s just not right.
And I knew all this going in. That’s why I tried to live a double life.
When we were on the road, I would wait until my teammates were either in their rooms for the night or out on the town before heading out to gay bars and parties. I would anxiously flag down a taxicab while practically covering my head so no one would notice me. If someone did, I never acknowledged them.
I was even fearful that the cabdrivers would notice I was a ballplayer, so I would always tell them to pull over a block or two from where I was going. No straight dude will ever know how difficult this charade is to play.
One time, back in ’77, I ...
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