In November Comcast Sports aired a documentary, Out: The Glenn Burke Story, about a gay pro baseball player. It did not air in my area and I had a difficult time getting a copy of the video so I could see it. However, thanks to my friend, Jim Buzinski at Outsports.com, I finally was able to watch it this weekend. Here is a review of the documentary that Jim wrote in November.
It seems fitting that I watched this video during Black History Month since Glenn Burke was a Black gay man. He was a stand out basketball and baseball star at Berkeley High School in the late 1960s and 1970. He played professional baseball for the LA Dodgers, starting in the World Series in 1977 where the Dodgers lost to the NY Yankees.
Despite his excellence on the field and being a popular teammate in the clubhouse, Burke was traded to the Oakland A’s (more about that later). He retired from baseball in 1980 at 27 years old with many potential years of baseball still ahead of him. He came out publicly in a Sport magazine article and on the Today show in 1982.
Glenn Burke was later diagnosed with AIDS and died of complications related to AIDS in 1995. The documentary includes interviews with several of his former Dodger and Athletics teammates as well as family members, friends and Billy Bean, the only other gay ex-professional baseball player to ever come out publicly.
Glenn Burke’s story is both tragic and triumphant. The tragedy is that, despite his considerable baseball talent and his engaging, larger than life personality and popularity with the men who played on teams with him, Glenn Burke’s career was cut short by anti-gay prejudice among the baseball management for both the Dodgers and the A’s. His Dodger teammates knew Burke was gay, but most of them loved his sense of humor and appreciated his production on the field.
The Dodgers’ management even offered Burke $75,000 to marry a woman. They couldn’t have a gay man sullying the macho heterosexual image of baseball after all.
Tommy Lasorda, the manager of the Dodgers, had a gay son called Spunky, whom he never acknowledged as gay. Burke became friends with Spunky and possibly dated him while he was playing for Lasorda. That must have been the final straw for Lasorda leading to Burke’s trade to the A’s. In the interviews in the documentary his former teammates expressed shock and disbelief that Burke had been traded as well as an understanding that the trade had little to do with making the Dodgers a better team and everything to do with getting rid of Glenn Burke because he was gay.
Burke struggled on the Oakland team. He went from the Dodgers, a national league championship team, to a cellar dweller. His teammates there were less comfortable with a gay man in the locker room. The worst part of the move, however, was Billy Martin, the A’s manager. Martin was extremely homophobic and his cruelty and open hostility toward Burke made playing baseball a miserable experience leading to Glenn’s retirement well before is playing days should have been over.
Glenn Burke loved living in San Francisco, however, and found a home in the gay community there. He enjoyed the freewheeling sexual life of the pre-AIDS era and was an icon on Castro Street. Sadly though, baseball was Glenn Burke’s passion and he did not leave the sport he loved on his own terms. He was forced to make a choice between playing baseball or being true to himself as a gay man. I am sure that loss haunted him the rest of his life. He eventually became enmeshed in drug and alcohol abuse. He served some time in prison. At the end of his life, he was homeless and dying of AIDS: A senseless and tragic end to a life that held so much promise.
You might ask where is the triumph in this story. I saw it in the eyes of his former teammates as they recalled the Glenn Burke they knew and loved – the laughter, the dancing in the locker room, the red jock that hung in his locker, the timely hit, the stolen base, the impossible catch in the outfield. Glenn Burke is credited with inventing the High Five, a testament to his love for baseball and being part of a team: Standing on the dugout steps, high fiving a teammate who had hit a home run, scored a run, made a great defensive play.
Glenn Burke never felt shame about being gay. He never pretended he wasn’t gay. He did not come out publicly during his playing days, but he was just who he was: A Black gay ball player who loved the game and enjoyed the company of men on and off the field. I find that triumphant, especially in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, especially for a professional baseball player of that era.
I found it interesting that the documentary did not address race at all. The fact that Glenn Burke was a Black man must have affected his experience as a gay baseball player. I wanted to hear more about this from the mostly Black and Latino former teammates who participated in the documentary. Both Lasorda and Martin were white. Did that have any effect on their treatment of Burke? Or was it just that neither man could reconcile the contradiction of a gay man who was also a heck of an athlete. Was it that Lasorda and Martin just couldn’t overcome their deeply held stereotypes about gay men, no matter what their race, to really see Glenn Burke, the man and the ball player.
Telling Glenn Burke’s story is an important part of reclaiming the mostly invisible history of LGBT people in sport. How many Glenn Burkes have played professional sports, suffered similar discrimination and we will never know their stories? We will never know what they could have accomplished on the field. We lost them as leaders in the fight for LGBT rights in and out of sports.
Out: The Glenn Burke Story is a great Black History Month teaching tool. It is a great teaching tool at any time for looking at fear and prejudice and at the tragedy of discrimination and oppression. It also made me wish I could have known Glenn Burke. It’s true this documentary enables him and his story to teach younger generations of athletes about homophobia in sports, but wouldn’t it be even more powerful if Glenn was able to be here to tell us his story himself.