It was 1976. Walter Alston, one of those guys who turned a pretty terrible playing career into an historically brilliant managing career, won 2063 games in Dodger Blue, then promptly quit halfway through 1976. He handed the team over to a portly loud-talker named Tommy Lasorda, who would do little more than kick ass his way through a truckload of records, including an Olympic gold medal, before driving himself to the hospital while having a heart attack.
On the bench when Lasorda took over was a 220-lbs, NoCal High School 1970 Basketball Player of the Year named “King Kong.”
The Dodgers would win 92 games that year, on their way to watching the Reds finish 10 games ahead. But Glenn “King Kong” Burke would only play in 25 of them; 225 in his four season career. His average would never hit .260 and he’d never be an All-Star; though he would play in the World Series.
The next year, Glenn was part of the NL-champion Dodgers squad, alongside coaches from three different 2010 playoff teams (Davey Lopes, Ron Washington, Dusty Baker), with one of whom (Baker) he would start baseball’s first ever high-five.
But through history’s gaze, the final definitive aspect of Burke’s career was that he was gay. He may not have been the first gay ballplayer, and former umpire Dave Pallone claims he wasn’t the last. But he is, for now, the only player to ever talk about it in public.
And today is his birthday.
After an athlete dies, fans will habitually draw on the memories they have of their hero; running the bases, pumping their fists, uttering a catch phrase; to aid in the healing process. We lean on what we remember most, and through this process, an athlete’s legacy is formed, evolved, and solidified, deep within the religious echelons of the game.
Glenn Burke’s grave site is in Mountain View Cemetery; Alameda County, California; plot #76, grave #3171. This was where his story ended. There is no infamous game footage of him commonly featured on sports programming. He is Glenn Burke, the first (and last, for now) openly gay professional baseball player.
From the beginning, Burke wasn’t really able to stifle his personality or his talents; starting in high school as a Berkeley High School Yellow Jacket, Glenn’s hang time was the equivalent of pausing a live game from the bleachers. This, accompanied by his 9.7 second 100 yard dash and slew of MVP awards, convinced the world he was headed for the NBA, as supernatural talent and unbridled confidence usually do.
But Glenn wound up in baseball by 1976, and by ’78, it is widely accepted that his sexual preference was known. His numbers never blew anybody’s socks off, but this is normally accredited to the notion that his development was somewhat stunted due to the attention paid to his personal life rather than his abilities.
He had athletic talent, this was never the issue. The contrast between his younger days and his MLB career are undoubtedly noticeable. He had a confident, outward personality (At one point, the Dodgers offered him a cash bonus if he married a woman and his response was to start dating Tommy Lasorda’s son), but by the end, he had to admit:
“Prejudice drove me out of baseball sooner than I should have. But I wasn’t changing.”
Burke made a habit of not changing, which made him an admirable beacon for gay athletes everywhere. Whoever was going to come forward regarding their sexuality first would have to be able to withstand the pressures, distractions, and ignorance from the world surrounding them. It was important to fracture stereotypes, but in doing so, unwanted attention was inevitable–as it is with all professional athletes, but with Burke taking on the role that he did, “unwanted attention” took on a whole new meaning (e.g., Billy Martin deciding to call him a “faggot” in front of the entire team after he was traded to Oakland in 1978).
As usual, somebody took my next idea for a Call to the Pen column and turned it into an incredibly poignant, painful documentary film chronicling the strength and burdens of the human spirit in the face unmeasurable tragedy. Also there is a book.
Out: The Glenn Burke Story recently premiered at the Castro Theater in San Francisco. After the film, a discussion panel broke out regarding the topics at hand.
Which I will break down now.
- Drew Remenda (San Jose Sharks color commentator): Outspoken, takes the offensive, ardent
- Monte Poole (Bay Area journalist): Speaks mostly of barriers
- Larry Baer (Owner of SF Giants): Complimentary, but clearly out of his element, reminds everyone right off the bat that he didn’t know Glenn “very well” (i.e., at all)
There’s a goofy showiness to this whole thing that didn’t seem to jive with the tone of the film; at one point host Greg Papa wonders aloud if Baer has ever been aware of gay players within his organization, and Baer assures him he has not. One of the interviewees in the film refers to Burke’s having “chosen that lifestyle” (Italics mine).
Small, rehearsed, “make-sure-you-word-this-right-or-the-lawyers-will-have-a-field-day” moments like those paint the picture as to why being open brings a set of challenges and irritations to the surface that would not have been there. This isn’t to say Burke shouldn’t have been himself, it just goes to show how ironclad his will had to be to go first; and offers a possible reason as to why no one has openly admitted to being gay in baseball since. Maybe a gay ballplayer wants to build his own legacy from his raw talent–he is a baseball player–rather than be known as “the second gay ball player,” with his baseball career playing second fiddle to his orientation.
Its a fine line, because we say we want people to be accepted, but then shine a big spotlight on ourselves while accepting them. Some day, hopefully gay ball players won’t have to think twice about how their sexual preference will affect their jobs. But social change is based on erosion, as ignorance needs to be worn down over time. Glenn Burke was the ignition, putting us in the midst of a process.
Burke eventually succumbed to a cocaine addiction and AIDs. He died in 1995.
The year before as he was dying, Burke had said, “My mission as a gay ballplayer was to break a stereotype,” he said. “I think it worked.”