Every day this month, we’re looking back at our pioneers, the mark they left on our community and on the sports world, plus landmark events and stories that show Courage Is Contagious.
Today, as the Los Angeles Dodgers prepare to play in the World Series against the Tampa Bay Rays, co-founder Jim Buzinski reminds us that the Dodgers franchise is a part of LGBTQ sports history as having the only two MLB players who ever were public about being gay.
Glenn Burke and Billy Bean both wore Dodger Blue.
By Jim Buzinski
In the history of Major League Baseball, there have been only two players who have come out as gay: Glenn Burke and Billy Bean. Both played for the Los Angeles Dodgers and one played in a World Series.
Glenn Burke was a rising star with the Dodgers from 1976-78, before finishing his career with Oakland. Burke, while never publicly out with the media while playing, did nothing to hide the fact to his teammates that he was gay.
In a review of an excellent 2010 documentary on Burke (“Out: The Glenn Burke Story”), I wrote:
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.
Eventually fans 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?”
Burke was a starter on the 1977 Dodgers team that lost the World Series to the Yankees and was very popular in the clubhouse. In the Series that year, Burke batted ,200. His trade to Oakland stunned his Dodgers teammates; his openness about his sexual orientation was a factor in him being traded.
The Dodgers and their manager, Tom Lasorda, presented a version of themselves as a clean-cut, All-American team and a flamboyantly gay player could not be tolerated, especially one who hung out with Lasorda’s gay son.
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.”
Burke’s stint in Oakland was rife with tension. His being gay was known and players were reluctant to shower with him. A former Burke teammate Claudell Washington recalls that A’s Manager Billy Martin was openly homophobic:
“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,’ ” Washington says in the documentary.
“What kind of career might Glenn have had if free to pursue it without the extra burden of his personal situation?” one of the documentary’s writers told me. “Everyone seems to agree that he was an extraordinary athlete with true star potential.”
“Prejudice drove me out of baseball sooner than I should have,” Burke said in an interview with The New York Times in 1994. “But I wasn’t changing.”
Burke went on to settle in San Francisco and was a fixture on the gay scene there, even playing in the Gay Games in softball. But drug addiction led him to a life of petty crime and living on the streets. He did of complications of AIDS in 1995 at age 42.
(One cool fact about Burke is that he is credited with inventing the high-five.)
Bean’s story is more hopeful than Burke’s. He played in the majors with the Tigers, Dodgers and Padres from 1987-95. His only season with the Dodgers came in 1989, a year after their last World Series appearance prior to this year.
Unlike Burke, Bean was deeply closeted as a player, and came out in 1999, four years after retiring.
In his book ”Going the Other Way: Lesson From a Life In and Out of Major-League Baseball,” Bean tells of the excitement of hitting his first major league home run and sharing it with his then-partner Sam, and then the shame it caused him.
During a July 15, 1993, home game against the Philadelphia Phillies, I hit my first major-league home run, a towering shot against Larry Andersen, a tough right-hander. Sometimes sluggers stand at the plate for a few seconds longer than necessary to admire the ball as it disappears over the fence. My sprint around the bases, however, was the shortest trip I’d ever taken. I made sure to touch all the bases, but it felt like my spikes never hit the ground. After the game, all I could think about was sharing it with Sam. I sped home, eschewing the usual clubhouse celebration.
Sam gave me a big hug when I walked in the front door. I had to leave soon after on a long road trip, so we planned a private celebratory dinner for when I got home a few weeks later. Sam pulled out all the stops in preparing a gourmet dinner to honor this milestone in my life. As we sat down to enjoy the candlelight meal, he asked me to relive the moment over and over so he could know how it felt. I was embarrassed because this homer was only the first of what I hoped would be many, but I took him through the at-bat anyway. Andersen, who may have lacked a good scouting report on me because I was new to the team, had tried to sneak a fastball by me low and inside. I got all of it.
As Billy was celebrating with Sam, two Padres teammates showed up unannounced to celebrate the event. In a panic, Billy made Sam leave the house and wait until the players had left. His wait took three hours.
When they finally drove away, I found Sam sitting quietly in the front seat of the car reading a book. As usual, he took my panic stoically, but I could see the hurt on his face when I “allowed” him back into his own home.
I hugged Sam tight, apologized profusely, and tried to reassure him of my devotion. But my proudest individual accomplishment on a baseball diamond had turned into an occasion of sadness and shame. That night was one of the few times I ever cried myself to sleep. I’d left [his wife] Anna in part because I felt my emotional distance was causing her pain. Now my shame and secrecy had found a way to hurt Sam, too.
Since coming out, Bean has been a staunch advocate of LGBT rights, especially of people in sports. He was named MLB’s ambassador for inclusion in 2014 and this year got a new role as vice president and special assistant to commissioner Rob Manfred.
Bean spends part of every season talking to current players about LGBT issues and his background as a player makes him someone they can relate to.
While baseball is still waiting for its first openly gay active MLB player, Bean’s elevation to a position of authority in the commissioner’s office is a sign that things have changed since the days when Glenn Burke was called a faggot by his manager.
We’ll have another story celebrating LGBTQ sports history tomorrow and every day through Oct. 31.