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‘Singled Out’ shines in depicting Glenn Burke’s heroism without sugarcoating his tragic end

Andrew Maraniss’s new biography places Glenn Burke in his proper trailblazing context and shows how 1970s-era baseball conspired against him.

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The cover of Singled Out by Andrew Maraniss.
Philomel Books

From the perspective of today, we justifiably celebrate Glenn Burke for his role as an athlete who did not hide that he was gay while he was an active baseball player in the 1970s. In the eyes of history, Burke is looked upon as a trailblazer and an example of courage in the face of a hostile sport and culture.

During his era, though, Burke paid a steep price for that bravery. In fact, Andrew Maraniss’s compelling and well-researched new biography, “Singled Out: The True Story of Glenn Burke,” chooses to open its narrative in the 1990s with Burke being discovered in a seedy San Francisco hotel in the midst of a battle with crack addiction, as if to underscore how important it is to remember the tragic aspects of Burke’s life.

As Maraniss makes clear throughout the book, he didn’t have to end up that way.

Among the most fascinating aspects about “Singled Out” are the similar details in Burke’s early life and many of the athlete coming out stores Outsports publishes from today’s era. Like several Courage Is Contagious narratives, Maraniss portrays the young Burke as a supremely talented athlete who realizes he’s different and is unsure of how he will be received by his teammates and his sport.

The difference is that in the context of the 1970s, baseball and mainstream society viewed his sexuality as a defect. So instead of moments of acceptance, Burke’s rise through the minor leagues was marked by occasional rebellion and even violence such as an infamous 1974 melee in Ottawa that started with Burke standing on the pitchers mound challenging an entire team by himself.

Without hitting the reader over the head, Maraniss makes it clear that such outbursts had origins in the tensions Burke experienced living a double life — out and free when he was at home in San Francisco’s Castro District but unable to be completely himself in baseball.

The reasons for Burke’s struggles are made clear by the book’s biggest strength: the depth of Maraniss’s historical research. While many books straddle the line between sports and history, “Singled Out” is the first baseball biography I’ve read that deftly tells the story of a player’s life set against the narrative of the struggle for LGBTQ rights.

It’s also the first time I’d seen my favorite sport examined in a full-length biography alongside touchstones like Stonewall, the Anita Bryant backlash, and Harvey Milk. As a gay baseball fan, seeing the intersection of those historic through lines was exhilarating.

Thanks to the depth of Maraniss’s research, “Singled Out” sometimes startles with revelations of how deep and repellant organized baseball’s homophobia was during Burke’s era. For example, Maraniss relates a story of how The Advocate contacted MLB teams in the mid-70s to find out if any players were gay and quotes an openly hateful response from the Twins that makes it clear they should’ve changed their name to the Minnesota Alliance Defending Freedoms.

Once Burke reaches the big leagues with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Maraniss’s narrative makes it feel like Burke came tantalizingly close to establishing a place for himself in the game in his first full season. He delineates the difference between Burke’s teammates and Dodgers power brokers while showing how several of Burke’s peers observed that he was gay and appeared to be perfectly fine with it. As several stories of Burke’s exploits indicate, while he never officially came out to teammates, they didn’t need to be finale-of-Clue-level Tim Curry to figure it out.

Furthermore, Maraniss’s interviews with 70s Dodger stars Dusty Baker and Davey Lopes establish that Burke was a fun and popular figure, frequently breaking up the clubhouse with impressions of Richard Pryor (another trailblazer who that era pushed toward self-destruction). All of this evidence opens up a possibility that Burke could have become more fully accepted by his peers before authority figures like the late Tommy Lasorda got in the way.

During this part of his story, one area I would have liked to have seen Maraniss explore more fully is the relationship between Burke’s off-field tensions and in-game performance. While his minor league trajectory indicated that he was a genuine prospect, Burke’s numbers with the Dodgers and Oakland A’s ranged from meh to 1962 Mets. Given his obvious athletic talents, I’d have been curious to hear if teammates or scouts expected him to improve if given more of a chance.

Nonetheless, the book’s sense of detail is still its biggest strength and Maraniss doesn’t sugarcoat the drug addiction, homelessness, and AIDS diagnosis that made up Burke’s sad ending. In that way, he forces us to honestly reckon with the era that turned a heroic and magnetic persona like Burke into a tragic figure. And to realize that it wasn’t that long ago when such homophobia was considered normal.

Burke’s refusal to back down and change who he was in response to the pressures of his time are what made him an important figure for our community. “Singled Out” is a fitting and honest recounting of his legacy. In the process of writing it, Maraniss shows how much Burke sacrificed for daring to be an LGBTQ hero in an era that demonized them.