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"Out. The Glenn Burke Story" is a must-see documentary

The documentary tells the tragic yet also heroic saga of Glenn Burke, a gay professional baseball player, who was a man ahead of his time. "Out. The Glenn Burke Story" uses interviews from friends and former teammates to tell Burke's story.

By Jim Buzinski
Outsports.com

There is a lot of talk in sports about who will be the “gay Jackie Robinson,” the first pro jock who is openly gay. In some ways, we’ve already had one in Glenn Burke.


“Out. The Glenn Burke Story” is a powerful documentary airing Nov. 10 on Comcast SportsNet Bay Area at 8 p.m. (see program details below). It’s an hourlong look at a special athlete who might have been way ahead of his time, a man who was traded because of his sexual orientation and later died when AIDS swept the gay community.

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What’s remarkable about Burke is how out he was in the 1970s. Not in a “Hey world, I’m gay” way, but in the sense that his teammates knew as did the management of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Burke’s first team, and eventually fans who would taunt him from the outfield bleachers in Oakland by calling him a “fag.” A memorable moment in “Out” occurs when it is recalled that the Dodgers – trying to stifle rumors that a popular player was gay -- offered Burke $75,000 to get married. His reply: “I guess you mean to a woman?”

The Burke who emerges in “Out” is a man described as incredibly funny and flamboyant (who in the late 1970s kept a red jock in his locker), yet also self-assured in his sexuality. In that way, Burke was a pioneer. His teammates knew, but avoided confronting him because they knew he could handle himself in a fight.

“Glenn was comfortable with who he was. Baseball was not comfortable with who he was,” said Burke’s childhood friend Abdul-Jalil al-Hakim. That uncomfortableness permeates “Out.”

Burke was a starter for the Dodgers in Game 1 of 1977 World Series, and by all accounts was a very popular player in the clubhouse. That’s why his sudden trade in 1978 to the Oakland A’s (the Siberia of baseball at the time) was so shocking. It becomes less shocking when seen against the backdrop of the Dodgers.

After turning down the Dodgers’ marriage bribe, Burke decided to hang out more and more with Tommy Lasorda Jr. (“Spunky’), himself a gay man and the son of the team's manager, Tommy Lasorda. Whether the two dated or not is never clear, but their relationship was a direct f-you to Lasorda and the Dodgers, who presented a wholesome “family values” image. Burke was as good as gone.

“Spunky” Lasorda later died of AIDS and his father shamefully never acknowledged that his son was gay. “Out” reprints an infamous Lasorda Sr. quote from the time:

“My son wasn’t gay. No way. I read that in a paper. I also read that a lady gave birth to a fucking monkey. That’s not the truth.”

It’s telling that Lasorda is the only major living figure in Burke’s career who was not interviewed. The producers made multiple efforts to get Lasorda to talk, but were rebuffed.

Burke’s career ended two years after his trade to Oakland. He wound up with the worst possible manager, Billy Martin. Former Burke teammate Claudell Washington tells this anecdote:

“He was introducing all the [new] players and then he got to Glenn and said, ‘Oh, by the way, this is Glenn Burke and he’s a faggot.’ ”

The knowledge of Burke being gay made for a very tense clubhouse in Oakland. Taking showers together was uncomfortable for both Burke and his teammates. “Being gay was always a cloud over his head,” one teammate said. Burke was sent to the minors and retired for good in 1980.

David Koppett, one of “Out’s” writers, told me via e-mail that the biggest unanswered question about Burke was: “What kind of career might Glenn have had if free to pursue it without the extra burden of his personal situation? Everyone seems to agree that he was an extraordinary athlete with true star potential.”

Now out of baseball, Burke moved permanently to San Francisco, where he felt liberated and embraced by the gay community. He was a mainstay in the local gay softball league and participated in the first Gay Games in 1982. He came out publicly in an interview with “Sport” magazine and on the “Today” show with Bryant Gumbel.

What is already a dark, sad story, though, turns darker as “Out” explores the rest of Burke’s life, one that was filled with sex, drugs and parties. Burke could not keep a job, became an addict and turned to petty crime (he briefly went to prison). He was hit by a car in an accident that shattered his leg and ended his athletic career. He was so destitute that he even pawned his 1977 Dodgers National League Championship ring.

Burke wound up homeless and was eventually taken in by people like his sister Lutha and Richard Purcell, an AIDS caregiver; the Athletics even stepped in to help. Diagnosed with AIDS in 1994, Burke died from complications of the virus on May 30, 1995. He was 42.

“Out” is a must-see for any sports fan, gay or straight. The show weaves in interviews with teammates and friends like Dusty Baker, Davey Lopes, Reggie Smith, Rick Monday, Manny Mota, Rickey Henderson, Claudell Washington, Mike Norris, Shooty Babitt and Tito Fuentes. There is also the cogent perspective of Billy Bean, himself a former Major Leaguer who came out in 1999 after retiring.

The interviews are powerful and show a Burke who was deeply flawed, yet also heroic in standing up for who he was. I was moved by the comments of former teammates, obviously uncomfortable with homosexuality, who nonetheless found a way to embrace Burke. We also hear the voice of Burke, recorded in his final days by a biographer. What comes across is a man tormented by his lot and by what might have been.

It’s impossible to say how Burke would have fared in pro baseball in 2010. We still have not had a publicly gay player, and while times have changed and the country has become more accepting, sports is still the final closet. Glenn Burke did his part to crack it open just a little.

Production notes:

Comcast SportsNet Bay Area will host a public screening of “Out” at the Castro Theatre (429 Castro Street, San Francisco, California) on Wednesday, Nov. 10. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Admission is $5.00, with proceeds benefiting Marty’s Place. Marty’s Place once provided a homeless Burke with shelter and care as he coped with the effects of AIDS/HIV. Tickets are available at CSNBayArea.com/pages/out.

Following the screening, the network will air a special town-hall edition of Chronicle Live from the Castro Theater at approximately 9:15 p.m. Hosted by veteran Bay Area sports announcer Greg Papa, Chronicle Live is a live one-hour program, and will feature an interactive roundtable discussion and debate about homosexuals in professional sports.

After the Nov. 10 (8 p.m. PT) debut of “Out,” it replays on Nov. 16 at 8 p.m. PT. Visit CSNBayArea.com for additional air dates and times and channel locations for Comcast SportsNet Bay Area. “Out” was produced by Doug Harris and Sean Maddison and written by Ted Griggs, David Koppett and Maddison.

I hope that “Out” can find a wider audience than simply Comcast SportsNet Bay Area (available to Dish and Directv subscribers on a sports tier). I asked Koppett about larger distribution and he said they are working on it. A big issue is getting permission to show footage from Major League Baseball and networks if it airs elsewhere. At the least, it would be good if non-profit groups would be able to show the documentary. It is a valuable historic perspective on an important figure in the history of gay people in America.

Related: See video clips from "Out."