Glenn Burke had a huge impact on sports, but not for his play on the field.
On October 2, 1977, then-player Dusty Baker hit his 30th home run of the season off Astros pitcher J.R. Richard. It was the last game of the regular season, and the Dodgers became the first team in MLB history to have four 30-HR hitters in one season.
As Baker reached home plate, he was met by the energetic, young rookie Glenn Burke, who held his hand high in the air. Filled with adrenaline, Baker smacked Burke’s hand with his own. What happened next? Burke stepped up to the plate and launched his first career home run, and Dusty proceeded to reciprocate the gesture upon his return to the dugout. According to conventional wisdom and urban legend, Glenn Burke and Dusty Baker had effectively invented the “high five” (courtesy of Jon Mooallem of ESPN).
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While many baseball fans are familiar with Dusty Baker’s contributions to the game, most have probably never heard of Glenn Burke. However, his legacy extends far beyond inventing a simple gesture.
Glenn Burke entered the league as a highly-touted prospect in the Los Angeles Dodgers system. He had a unique mix of strength and speed that earned him comparisons to Willie Mays. When he reached the majors in 1976, it appeared like he could stand between his talent and greatness.
However, he had one large obstacle in his way: prejudice.
Burke was the first openly gay man to play in the major leagues. While his sexuality was not made public knowledge until after his playing career, Burke claimed everyone in his life knew. Although his teammates didn’t seem to care about his lifestyle, he still faced harsh prejudice during his short four-year career with the Dodgers and Athletics.
Despite being well-liked in the clubhouse, rumors of his homosexuality started to float around. This prompted Dodgers VP Al Campanis to offered him $75,000 to get married in order to suppress those rumors.
Burke rebelliously responded, “I guess you mean to a woman.”
His relationship with Dodgers management worsened when Burke befriended manager Tommy Lasorda‘s son, Tommy Lasorda Jr. Tommy Jr. was openly gay, but his father was in denial of his son’s sexuality. So, when Burke became involved in his son’s life, Lasorda turned his back on his once-top prospect.
Just 16 games into the 1978 season, Burke was traded to Oakland Athletics for outfielder Billy North. Campanis explained the move by claiming they wanted a more experienced outfielder, but Burke and his teammates were shocked. Burke’s talent was undeniable, and he was beloved among his teammates. Thus, his abrupt trade is thought to be more a result of homophobia than baseball.
In Oakland, the prejudice got worse. His teammates were less comfortable around him, and many refused to shower while he was in the clubhouse. In 1980, new manager Billy Martin started throwing around homophobic slurs towards Burke and didn’t play him. After a demotion to triple-A and a knee injury, Burke abruptly decided to retire.
“Prejudice drove me out of baseball sooner than it should have,” Burke said in a 1994 interview with the New York Times, “But I wasn’t changing.”
After his retirement, Burke embraced his sexuality more publically. However, he also struggled with injuries and drug addiction. He eventually died in 1995 due to AIDS complications at the age of 42.
The story of Glenn Burke is sad, but also very impactful. Players across all sports like Bill Bean, Michael Sam, and Jason Collins have embraced their sexualities despite being in a profession that has historically looked down upon homosexuality.
While he never lived up to his potential as a player, his legacy lives on. If not for the creativity of Glenn Burke, the high five might have never existed. Imagine sports without the high five? I bet you can’t.