Happy Birthday Glenn Burke, Baseball's First Openly Gay Player
On this day in 1952, Glenn Burke was born in Oakland, California. He would attend Berkeley High School as a teenager, which is where his athletic prowess emerged... in basketball. As a player for Berkeley's basketball team, he would contribute to an undefeated 1970 season and the Northern California championship, being named MVP and Northern California's High School Basketball Player of the Year.
Despite his skills, Burke would pursue baseball as a career after his efforts to pursue college basketball at the University of Denver collapsed, struggling to transition out of the spotlight his high school years provided. He would become a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers farm system in 1971, the team seeing his potential, with comparisons to Willie Mays being made.
Burke spent the next six years in the LA farm system, working his way up through the minors, his best year the 1976 season with the Albuquerque Dukes, LA's AAA team, where he batted .300 with a .745 OPS (on-base + slugging percentage), 53 RBI, and 63 stolen bases in 116 games. He would make his MLB debut that season on April 9 but would be sent back down to the Dukes due to the stacked state of the Dodgers. It was during this time in the minors that he began to realize his sexuality, and ultimately the need to hide it in a sport that was not subtle in its homophobia.
In 1977, Burke made the Dodgers roster, his talent too much to ignore. As a rookie in '77, he struggled to gain traction, but his potential in the outfield was clearly visible. He would put up a respectable .254 batting average, .600 OPS, 13 stolen bases, and 13 RBI. Teammates with Dusty Baker, now the Houston Astros manager, and Davey Lopes, Burke would emerge as a locker room glue, his personality standing out among his teammates despite the growing knowledge of his sexuality. On October 2, it is widely believed and accepted that he and Baker invented the high five after Baker hit his 30th home run of the season, making him the fourth Dodger to do it that year, making MLB history.
In the postseason, Burke would only bat 12 times, getting a single hit as ultimately the Dodgers lost to the New York Yankees in the World Series. Burke, however, started in center field game 1, standing in for a partially injured Rick Monday. After that, however, Burke's career would unravel.
In 1978, Dodgers GM Al Campanis approached Burke to offer to pay for his wedding to a woman, the rumors of Burke being gay growing and the potential damage to the Dodgers brand with it. Burke would refuse and his blackballing from baseball would begin. In that season, he would be labeled a locker room distraction and be traded to the Oakland A's, a move that proved unpopular to teammates. After a dreadful year and a half on the A's, he would make his last MLB appearance on June 4, 1979. He would attempt a comeback the next year, but the homophobic attitudes of new A's manager Billy Martin led to him ending such an effort as a member of the Ogden A's in the minors.
After baseball, Burke got increasingly involved in the life of San Francisco's Castro District. He came out publically in the magazine Inside Sports in 1982 while competing in the Gay Games and the San Francisco Gay Softball League. His jersey number would be retired at Berkeley High School.
Despite this, he would turn to cocaine, an addiction that would contribute to a heavy decline. In 1987, he was bit by a car, his legs injured to a degree he would no longer be able to play the sports he had done before. In 1994, it became known he had AIDS publically, a fight the Oakland A's would help financially, only after pressure was applied. On May 30, 1995, he would pass away of AIDS complications.
In 1999, Billy Bean, already retired, became only the second openly gay player in MLB history.
It wouldn't be until 2013 that Glenn Burke would begin to be honored for his impact. He was inducted into the inaugural class of the National Gay and Lesbian Sports Hall of Fame on August 2 that year. On July 15, 2014, as part of the All-Star Game, Burke was honored, though not live on television, by Billy Bean, then the MLB Ambassador for Inclusion (now the Vice President and Special Assistant to the Commissioner). The next year, he was inducted into the Baseball Reliquary's Shrine of the Eternals and honored by the Oakland A's on Pride Night, June 15, where his family attended and his brother threw the ceremonial first pitch. This year, on June 4, A's Pride Night was renamed Glenn Burke Pride Night in his honor, held June 11.
Today Glenn Burke would have turned 69. To this day, he and Billy Bean remain the only two MLB players to come out as gay. Glenn Burke was a player of immense talent, talent that never had its chance to shine fully in a sport that was, and in some ways still, remains rooted in its past. One can hope that in the future, this may change. Until then, thank you, Glenn Burke, for showing anyone can make it to the top, no matter the stereotypes.
Rest in Peace, Glenn Burke (11/16/1952 - 5/30/1995)
For those curious to learn more, check out Andrew Maraniss' book Singled Out: The True Story of Glenn Burke, Glenn Burke's autobiography Out at Home, or the documentary OUT: The Glenn Burke Story.