In commemoration of Pride Month and the 50th year since the Stonewall Inn riots in New York, Outsports is profiling one out athlete daily who embodies the “Stonewall Spirit,” reflecting the courage of those who launched the modern LGBTQ rights movement.
Glenn Burke didn’t much hide the fact that he was gay from the Los Angeles Dodgers in the late 1970s and the team was determined to do something about it.
Burke was called into the office of team management one day as rumors about his sexuality grew rampant. He was offered $75,000 to get married. His reply: “I guess you mean to a woman?”
Glenn Burke’s story is one of a man way ahead of his time, when baseball was far from ready to embrace a gay player. “Glenn was comfortable with who he was. Baseball was not comfortable with who he was,” said Burke’s childhood friend Abdul-Jalil al-Hakim.
The charismatic Burke is credited with inventing the high five. He was close with Tommy Lasorda Jr., known as Spunky, the son of then-Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda. Spurky was gay and he and Burke hung out all the time.
Lasorda Sr. never acknowledged his son’s sexual orientation nor that he died of AIDS. “My son wasn’t gay,” he once said. “No way. No way. I read that in a paper. I also read in that paper that a lady gave birth to a fuckin’ monkey, too. That’s not the fuckin’ truth. That’s not the truth.”
Burke was never out publicly, but people in the sport knew, as the marriage anecdote shows. Incredibly popular with his teammates, Burke started for the Dodgers in the 1977 World Series. These same teammates were stunned when Burke was traded to the Oakland A’s in 1978, and the clear inference is that he was dumped because he was gay.
He had the misfortune in Oakland to play for 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.’ ”
Burke’s MLB career ended shortly after, but he found a new life as an openly gay man in San Francisco. He was the star of the local gay softball league — imagine a major league hitter playing softball — and very popular in the community.
Sadly, his life became one fueled by sex, drugs and parties and he turned to petty crime and did a stint in prison. His leg was shattered in an auto accident and he became so poor that he pawned his 1977 National League Championship ring for cash. He was diagnosed with AIDS in 1994 and died a year later on May 30, 1995. He was 42.
Since Burke was never out publicly while playing, we can’t call him MLB’s first openly gay player. We’re still waiting for that person.
But Burke was always a man true to himself, even at a time and in a profession that would not accept him. I often thought that had he been born 30 years later he would have been out and proud in baseball and high-fiving everyone in sight.
Our “Stonewall Spirit” series continues tomorrow and every day during Pride.