Cloy Jenkins will never forget the afternoon in 1982 when Glenn Burke came into his life. Jenkins owned the Willows, a rustic resort catering to gay men along the Russian River sixty miles north of San Francisco.
Every other week, Jenkins drove down to the Castro to pass out coupons at the gay bars and restaurants, hoping to entice customers with $5 or $10 discounts. Burke had attempted to introduce himself a few of those times at the Pendulum, but Jenkins brushed him off: he didn’t know Burke, he was working, and he had more coupons to distribute before driving back to his guesthouse in Guerneville.
But one time, as Jenkins exited the Pendulum, Burke beat him outside, blocking his path along the sidewalk.
“Hey, man, stop, I want to meet you,” Burke said.
Jenkins was “stunned and amused” by Burke’s boldness. “Who are you?” he asked.
“I’m Glenn Burke! You don’t know who I am, huh? Who are you?”
“I’m Cloy and I own the resort up on the river.”
“I want to get to know you.”
“Okay,” he said. “I have to hand out more coupons, but I can meet you back here later on.”
True to his word, Jenkins returned to the Pendulum later that night. Burke shared his life story, and Jenkins found him charming. “I was taken by who he was as a person,” Jenkins recalled. “He just seemed very extraordinary in so many ways. It was fascinating.” Jenkins told Burke about growing up Mormon in rural Idaho, and a groundbreaking manifesto he had written refuting the church’s ultraconservative teachings on homosexuality.
“Both of us were amazed at the tremendous difference in our backgrounds and yet our strongly shared views of the gay liberation thing and the very diverse roles each of us were playing in it,” Jenkins recalled. “Our connection was very powerful.” He invited Burke to come up and see his place on the Russian River sometime. “How about now? I’ll come with you tonight!” Burke replied, much to Jenkins’s surprise.
All along the ninety-minute drive to the river and over the next several weeks, as he returned to the river to spend time with Jenkins, Burke opened up about his greatest fears and the difficulty of pulling his life together after baseball. “He had gotten used to the big bucks, and now he was back to trying to find an ordinary job paying $5 or $10 an hour,” Jenkins recalled. “He was out of money, he had no income. He hadn’t broken into anything that was lucrative at all, and he couldn’t see that on the horizon other than getting back into sports. But he couldn’t really see that happening, either. So he was floundering. On the one hand, in the Castro he was held up to be this hero, this big celebrity. But on the other hand, he was forbidden [to play Major League Baseball]. It was a real dilemma for him.”
Jenkins’s country inn sat on five wooded acres overlooking the Russian River near the town of Guerneville, a rural lumber community that had become fashionable with gay vacationers seeking an escape from the city in the late 1970s. “At The Willows you’ll find a relaxed, intimate and friendly atmosphere where you can get away from it all,” Jenkins’s advertisements promised.
Burke enjoyed relaxing in the hot tub and on the sundeck at the Willows and partying at a gay bar on Guerneville’s Main Street called Rainbow Cattle Company. The popularity of the Willows and other hotels, cabins, and bars catering to gay men from San Francisco had created tensions in the town of ten thousand. Some local business owners welcomed the influx of new customers and rising property values, while other locals violently resisted their presence—roughing up gay men on the street outside Rainbow Cattle Company and setting fire to a stretch of gay businesses on the block.
Burke’s arrival, however, had a transformative effect on the community. After a local newspaper ran a story about Burke’s presence in Guerneville, some of the regulars at Pat’s Bar, an establishment that catered to the same locals who had assaulted gay men in the past, expressed an interest in meeting him. These guys were sports fans, and the idea that a former major leaguer was partying just down the block meant more to them than the fact Glenn was gay. For the first time, the local regulars from Pat’s entered Rainbow Cattle Company.
“Glenn came back to the Willows and said he met so-and-so from Pat’s Bar,” Jenkins recalled. “He said they had invited him to come to Pat’s. I told him, ‘Don’t do that. Don’t go in there, you’re asking for trouble.’”
Glenn went anyway, but soon after he entered the bar, somebody purposely stepped on his foot. Glenn flinched, but resisted striking back. His new buddy, the guy who had invited him to Pat’s, saw what had happened. “And some guys from Pat’s took the redneck that stepped on Glenn’s foot outside the bar and beat the shit out of him,” Jenkins said. “Then they came back in the bar and said, ‘Don’t anybody mess with this guy.’ It was an interesting turn of events.”
Glenn’s new friends at Pat’s played on a softball team, and they challenged Glenn to bring his Pendulum team up to Guerneville for a game. Jenkins hosted the gay players from San Francisco at the Willows for a weekend of partying, and then came time for the game at the ballfield at Berry’s Saw Mill. “Pendulum beat the shit out of Pat’s, and Glenn knocked a number of home runs,” Jenkins recalled. “They just skunked them.”
And then the most unexpected thing happened. Players from both teams drove back into town and mingled together at both bars, bonding over a shared love of sports. Jenkins said there was no doubt that Burke’s magnetic personality had changed attitudes. “Glenn was very charismatic without knowing he was,” he said. “He had an ability to attract both straights and gays. The guys at Pat’s Bar were as taken with him as anyone in the gay world.”
Burke’s influence on the town had a lasting effect. Where previously the Pat’s Bar crew acted in “mean and underhanded” ways toward gay men in the community, the environment began to change after the summer of ’82, Jenkins said. “The fact that Glenn came to town helped move things along. It was much more acceptable to be openly gay, even in that little town. Usually when you grow up in a small town, you have to move to the big city or you’re going to get so much crap from your family, your church, your school. But all of a sudden, local gays started to come out of the closet. And straight guys opened up to the idea that maybe gays aren’t that bad after all.”
For more, watch a video conversation between the author and Vanderbilt baseball coach Tim Corbin, two-time national champion, where they talk about Glenn, the book and how he would welcome an out player in his program.