Located on Halsted Street in the heart of Boystown, Chicago’s Legacy Walk monuments honoring LGBTQ luminaries and significant historical moments have always reminded me of the plaques at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
So when it was announced that Glenn Burke was going to be added to the Legacy Walk this year, it felt especially meaningful. This was going to be his Cooperstown moment, for Burke, one of the few out gay Major League Baseball players in its long history.
I had already planned on attending his plaque unveiling when, thanks to a referral from Burke biographer Andrew Maraniss, I got asked to give a speech during Saturday’s ceremony.
Ever since I first watched Ken Burns’ “Baseball” documentary, I’d always wanted to be one of those authoritative sports history talking heads spotlighted in the film — like George Will, only tolerable at parties.
Suddenly, I was going to be that guy.
The day of the ceremony was one of those cold gray Chicago autumn afternoons where it feels like the city is saying, “Hey, here’s a completely unasked for preview of January!” The weather held the crowd down but also made it clear that those who showed up were dedicated to the Legacy Walk.
After the unveiling of a display paying homage to the fight for marriage equality, it was time to honor Burke. His plaque was sponsored by the Chicago Cubs as co-owner Laura Ricketts represented the team and spoke about what Burke meant for everyone in the LGBTQ community working in baseball.
Most powerfully, she read a message from MLB executive and former player Billy Bean, who as a gay man detailed his personal admiration for Burke’s fortitude in living his best gay life while still an active player. Knowing what Bean endured to keep his sexuality hidden during his playing career, it was impossible to miss the emotional resonance as he compared Burke’s experiences to his own.
Then the time came for my speech career and even before I started, I had a sense that I chose the right focus for it. Most people who know Burke’s story concentrate on his tragedies — running afoul of homophobic managers, getting blackballed from baseball, and his battles with addiction, homelessness, and AIDS.
But it was important that everyone also found out about the joy that Burke brought to baseball and how he found acceptance and love from his teammates for doing so.
After a brief nod to his pedestrian career numbers, I asserted that “you’ve got to go beyond the stats to see it’s the story of his life celebrated on that plaque that reveals Glenn Burke was a unique and singular figure in baseball history and a genuine hero. There has been no one like him before or since and he made baseball a better game.”
Burke’s role as a gay trailblazer was the reason why he was being honored. But his influence on his fellow players and his demonstration that a gay baseball player could be beloved by an entire locker room full of teammates was his greatest impact on MLB.
I wanted to make sure that everyone knew that Burke’s popularity was all-encompassing: from baseball’s ambassador of cool Dusty Baker to faux-squeaky clean “All-American Boy” (and current California Republican candidate for Senate) Steve Garvey. As I phrased it, “These Dodgers agreed on nothing — except they adored their gay teammate Glenn Burke because Burke was his authentic self.”
For historical context, I emphasized, “This was 1977. Less than a decade after Stonewall. The same year that overrated citrus shill Anita Bryant helped repeal an anti-discrimination law in Miami.”
(If coining the term “overrated citrus shill” for Ms. Bryant is my contribution to LGBTQ culture, I’m perfectly fine with that.)
To make sure that I wasn’t painting a falsely rosy picture, I dedicated the last few minutes to the tragedies that marked that last half of Burke’s life. But doing so underscored it was baseball’s “old guard” managers and executives that tried to silence Burke’s true self — not his teammates.
Following my speech, Burke’s Legacy Walk plaque was unveiled and upon viewing it, I went through the same emotions I’ve felt upon seeing my favorite players’ plaques in Cooperstown for the first time.
I experienced a mixture of pride and gratitude that manifested itself in the phrase “We made it!” Admittedly, using “we” in my inner monologue seems strange since Burke was the one being honored. But perhaps it also shows how special it was to be part of a moment like this as a fan and admirer.
Additionally, there was something profoundly moving about looking at Burke’s monument and reading “This plaque was made possible by the CHICAGO CUBS.”
As someone who’s been a Cubs fan since the time I learned how to breathe, seeing their name associated with Burke and the Legacy Walk filled me with an overwhelming pride normally associated with names like Ryne Sandberg or Anthony Rizzo.
There were so many elements that made this a special day: baseball, LGBTQ history, Chicago civic pride, activism, and even a couple of jokes that landed. But above all else, it was significant because as long as the Legacy Walk exists, people are going to learn about who Glenn Burke was and the significant life he led.
Following the ceremony, we adjourned to a reception and watched a video montage of Burke talking about his career, intermixed with then-President Obama giving a speech on the passage of marriage equality. That is the company that Burke keeps on the Legacy Walk and it highlights the importance of what his life meant to baseball and our community.