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Dusty Baker’s support of gay baseball players goes back to Glenn Burke

While both the Astros and Braves have sometimes had problematic histories, Baker’s embrace and mentorship of Glenn Burke makes him worthy of our admiration.

Championship Series - Boston Red Sox v Houston Astros - Game Six
Dusty Baker is a hero in Houston and among LGBTQ baseball fans.
Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

This year’s World Series features a matchup between the Houston Astros and Atlanta Braves — two organizations with checkered histories regarding the LGBTQ community. Despite that, one name from this year’s Fall Classic stands out for the positive contributions he’s made: Dusty Baker

Baker is the best LGBTQ ally ever to wear an Astros uniform. And Baker’s allyship goes back to his playing career with the late-1970s Dodgers. When Glenn Burke was called up to the majors, Baker took it as his responsibility to become a mentor for the rookie and ease his transition to big league life.

Although Baker didn’t know Burke was gay at first, he gradually began to put together the pieces throughout the season. But unlike Tommy Lasorda and Dodgers management, Baker continued to support Burke even after discovering his secret.

In his excellent Burke biography “Singled Out,” author Andrew Maraniss described the relationship:

“Baker saw a lot of his younger self in Burke; they were both from California, both loved basketball, music, nice clothes, and laughter. Baker considered it his responsibility to look after the team’s young Black players, just as legendary slugger Henry Aaron had done for him as a rookie in Atlanta. He took the young guys out for drinks, taught some of them how to fish, cooked them dinner.

“In Baker’s mind, there were two kinds of rookies: the obnoxious punk the veterans hated, and the fun kid who gave everyone a good laugh. That was Glenn.”

Baker’s bond with Burke was so strong that he became the other half of the first high-five in history after hitting his 30th home run of the year that season. When Burke followed that blast with his first major league homer, Baker immediately returned the favor with the second-ever high five.

Without Baker, Burke’s attempt at a high-five would’ve looked so awkward, he could’ve run for governor of New Jersey.

MLB: ALCS-Houston Astros at Tampa Bay Rays
Astros manager Dusty Baker has kept Glenn Burke’s high-five tradition going for nearly five decades.
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

And Baker’s allyship has continued to present day. In a 2018 interview with The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, he expressed empathy for closeted gay players following the revelation of homophobic tweets from Josh Hader and Trea Turner:

“Like I said, it’s a microcosm of society. Guess what? There are some gay guys in baseball. They must be tortured inside (not revealing their sexual orientation) but they’re blessed with ability to play baseball.”

Later in the interview, Baker mentioned “gays and lesbians kissing on the Jumboton” as an aspect of sports culture that “gives me hope.”

Throughout the 2021 World Series, Baker’s quest for his first championship as a manager will be one of the major storylines. But when it comes to his relationship with LGBTQ teammates and the community, Baker is already one of the biggest winners in baseball history.

In contrast to Baker, one Astros team legend is a name synonymous with transphobia. As part of the opposition to Houston’s proposed 2015 Equal Rights Ordinance, former Astros All-Star and 2005 pennant winner Lance Berkman recorded a radio ad where he gravely intoned:

“No men in women’s bathrooms, no boys in girls’ showers or locker rooms...Proposition One, the bathroom ordinance, would allow troubled men to enter women’s public bathrooms, showers, and locker rooms.”

As was clear in retrospect, the only troubled man here was the one spewing all the hateful invective. Or, for that matter, any manager who trusted Berkman to catch a routine pop up. Unfortunately, Berkman’s open mic-level Dave Chappelle impression didn’t stop the Astros from inducting him into their Hall of Fame in September.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v Houston Astros
Lance Berkman providing an apt metaphor for how he views 21st century societal changes.
Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

On the plus side, the Astros brought back Pride Night this season for the first time since 2010 and judging by the numerous smiling faces, the event was a success.

Houston got bonus schadenfreude points for scheduling the promotion against the Pride Night-holdout Rangers. After trouncing them 8-4, the Astros proved once and for all that you can host a Pride Night in Texas without The Alamo or Whataburger spontaneously combusting.

The Braves also employed one notorious player who stood out for his anti-LGBTQ bigotry during one of the most infamous sports rants of all time — courtesy of former closer and tomahawk chop in human form John Rocker.

In a 1999 Sports Illustrated profile, Rocker unloaded a hate-filled anti-New York City diatribe that would follow him around for the rest of his career:

“It’s the most hectic nerve-wracking city. Imagine having to take the [Number] 7 train to the ballpark, looking like you’re [riding through] Beirut next to some kid with purple hair next to some queer with AIDS right next to some dude who just got out of jail for the fourth time right next to some 20-year-old mom with four kids. It’s depressing.”

As if to underscore how different the sports world was two decades ago, it took a year and half after spewing this homophobic and hateful bile for the Braves to unload Rocker. In fact, the Braves took longer to disassociate themselves from Rocker’s bigotry than Twisted Sister.

New York Mets vs Atlanta Braves, 1999 National League Championship Series
New York City issue its rebuttal to John Rocker.
Photo by Chuck Solomon / Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

In recent years, reflecting Atlanta’s sizable LGBTQ population, the Braves have hosted a Pride Night for the past 11 seasons — an evening where Truist Park looks every bit as diverse as the 7 train.

Despite each pennant winner embracing Pride Nights in 2021, the Braves and Astros erred on Spirit Day by omitting any mention of LGBTQ youth in their official tweets. While the Astros listened to the outcry and attempted to make things right with a subsequent message emphasizing their commitment to LGBTQ kids, the Braves just plowed ahead as if they did nothing wrong.

As the World Series gets underway, both organizations still have a ways to go to with the LGBTQ community. They’d be wise to heed the example of the manager in Houston dugout.