Once in danger of becoming a footnote in baseball history, Glenn Burke has undergone a renaissance over the past few years thanks in part to a couple of excellent books focused on keeping his legacy alive.
Early next year, Burke’s story will once again be adapted into “Glenn Burke, Game Changer,” a new children’s picture book by Phil Bildner, author of the middle grade novel “A High Five For Glenn Burke.” The books honor Burke, baseball’s first openly gay player.
In anticipation of the book’s forthcoming release in February 2024, Bildner recently unveiled the cover to Outsports. Illustrated by Daniel J. O’Brien, it features Burke in a Dodgers uniform with his hand in the air awaiting the high five that he is credited with inventing.
Reflecting on the cover’s design, Bildner said, “[O’Brien] took my words and he takes them to a level I didn’t even know existed!”
When he and O’Brien were brainstorming the book’s imagery, Bildner had a sense that he wanted a picture of Burke and his high five on the cover. But Bildner also emphasized that he wanted to give O’Brien free rein to create the illustrations and was immensely pleased with the results.
“The fact that an artist can take my words and create something that looks like that, for me, I’m never not going to be in awe of that,” Bildner said. “I just wanted it to be joyous and celebratory. And without a doubt, he captures that on the cover.”
To further convey that uplifting mood, O’Brien and his design team came up with the idea of surrounding Burke with depictions of several prominent figures celebrating with high fives including football and hockey players, politicians, and even pro wrestlers Hulk Hogan and “Macho Man” Randy Savage.
“There’s an element of that in the story,” Bildner explained, “It’s how the high five started in baseball but it punctured the zeitgeist and crossed over. I wanted the global nature and the universality of the story to somehow be captured on the cover and he most certainly did that with that montage. It’s really cool.”
Interestingly, Bildner conceived of doing a picture book on Burke’s life in 2017 but was unable to find a publisher willing to green light it. His editor, Wes Adams, then suggested rewriting his narrative and using Burke’s life as a framing device for a middle grade novel. That concept eventually became “A High Five For Glenn Burke.”
When the novel was released in 2020 to much acclaim, Bildner and Adams revisited the picture book and this time, they were able to find a publisher.
“I can’t wait until next baseball season and next Pride and next year when so many more young people are going to be able to have the opportunity to learn about Glenn Burke. For me, knowing that I get to play a small role in that, it’s not lost on me and I’m really forever grateful for that,” Bildner said.
In the current environment where LGBTQ books are being banned in schools and libraries in states like Florida, Bildner sees his work as a fight against erasure and an effort to help young readers develop a sense of empathy. By amplifying Burke’s story, he ensures that one of the most important LGBTQ figures in sports history also does not get erased.
“That’s not unintentional,” he declared, “[Burke] doesn’t fit into the ‘acceptable’ narrative. We all don’t fit into that box. And that’s an important thing for kids to understand.”
When “Glenn Burke, Game Changer” gets released next year, it will provide a sense of hope for all kids who see a bit of themselves in baseball’s gay trailblazer.