Glenn Burke is one of the trailblazing pioneers whose name you probably have never heard. Burke started in the 1977 World Series as a rookie and arguably created the high five as a celebratory gesture. But most importantly, he was the first (and only) Major League Baseball player known to be openly out about his homosexuality to his teammates during his career.
He was born on November 16, 1952 in Oakland, California. Burke was a very talented multi-sport athlete during his high school career. Having been scouted by both basketball and baseball teams, Glenn Burke was drafted by Major League Baseball’s Los Angeles Dodgers in the 17th round of the 1972 draft.
Jim Gilliam, a Dodger coach, called Burke the “next Willie Mays,” and Burke excelled in the minor leagues, especially with his .300-plus batting average. While Burke was producing fantastically on the field, it was his off-the-field life that was beginning to affect his life. Some of his teammates were starting to figure things out about his relationships, despite Burke’s efforts to remain in the closet.
Burke was brought up to the Dodgers from the minor leagues in 1975. The Dodgers were growing stronger and by 1977, the team was going to the World Series and would be playing against the New York Yankees. Burke was the only rookie to start in the Series and had one hit in five at bats. While the Yankees won the 1977 Series four games to two, it was clear that Burke was going to be a very positive piece to the Dodgers’ success.
However, it was, again, off-the-field troubles that inhibited Burke’s on-field production and prowess. Rumors abounded about his homosexuality. Burke wrote in his autobiography “. . . by 1978 I think everybody knew.” Then-team captain Davey Lopes said about the team, “No one cared about his lifestyle.” While that may have been true among Burke’s fellow teammates, it was not true in the Dodgers front office.
Burke openly had a friendship and possible relationship with Tommy Lasorda Jr., the estranged gay son of Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda. The Dodgers’ front office even attempted an elaborate ruse to try to quell rumors about Burke’s homosexuality. Team Vice President Al Campanis offered Burke $75,000 to get married to a woman in a sham marriage. He declined Campanis’ offer, saying that he would not live a lie, and stated that the team did not pay for the weddings of his heterosexual teammates.
Two months into the 1978 season, Burke was traded to the Oakland A’s for Bill North. Burke’s Dodger teammates were incredibly upset with team management for making the trade, as they realized how talented Burke was on the field. His teammates also believed they knew the reason for the trade. Dusty Baker, one of Burke’s teammates, said that he believed the Dodgers made the trade because they knew about Burke’s sexuality. Other teammates and Burke himself believed that he was traded because of his sexuality, his relationship with Lasorda Jr., and having turned down Campanis’ sham wedding proposal.
Burke’s new team, the Oakland A’s, were absolutely terrible in 1978. The team averaged 7,000 fans in attendance, lost most of its games and had significant difficulties in the clubhouse. This environment led to slurs and harassment directed towards Burke as his new teammates found out about his sexuality. Due to the harassment, Burke quit the team in 1979. However, the team offered him a new contract to return for the 1980 season.
In 1980, the A’s were under a new team manager, the former Yankee manager Billy Martin. Burke was excited about the team’s potential for success, about playing and the possibility of being accepted for who he was. This excitement was short lived.
When Martin was introducing players to each other during Spring Training, he introduced Glenn by saying, “This is Glenn Burke . . . and he’s a faggot.” In the ensuing weeks, Burke was sent down to the minor leagues. Some of his contemporaries felt that Glenn never had a legitimate opportunity to succeed with Martin at the helm, and that other players were afraid of having a gay ballplayer in the clubhouse. His difficult situation compounded by a knee injury, Burke retired at the end of the season.
In the aftermath of Burke’s career, he conducted a number of interviews. Sports Illustrated magazine ran an article about Burke’s coming out in 1982. He even did a television interview with Bryant Gumbel, discussing him being the first out professional ball player.
But, by the late 1980s, Burke’s life began to take a turn for the worse. He became more involved in using drugs and developed an addiction to crack cocaine. By the early 1990s, he had become homeless, run out of money and spent seven months in San Quentin for grand theft and possession of a controlled substance.
Upon hearing about Glenn’s state of affairs, the Oakland A’s offered to pay for his meals and help him in other ways. Other teammates joined together to help Burke in his last months. Burke was diagnosed with AIDS in January, 1994. He died on May 30, 1995.
Billy Bean, a MLB player who came out in 1999, four years after his retirement, spoke about the life and impact of Glenn Burke, saying “The closet hurts people forever. Everyone’s career ends but to do it because you don’t feel like you belong there when you’ve proven that you do is damaging and it affects everything. I’m sure that’s why Glenn swam in the waters of drugs and alcohol to take away his frustration.”
While the end of Glenn’s life is certainly sad, he had some very significant impacts on the game. As Glenn Burke said about himself, “My mission as a gay ballplayer was to break a stereotype . . . I think it worked. . . 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.”