In 2010, 15 years after Jim Burke died of complications from AIDS, Outsports co-founder Jim Buzinski had this to say about the only Major League Baseball player in history who had no desire to hide that he was gay — but did so tacitly at the urging of his club’s owners:
“What’s remarkable about Burke is how out he was in the 1970s. Not in a ‘Hey world, I’m gay’ way, but in the sense that his teammates knew as did the management of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Burke’s first team, and eventually fans who would taunt him from the outfield bleachers in Oakland by calling him a ‘fag.’ A memorable moment in ‘Out’” — a 2010 documentary about Burke’s life — “occurs when it is recalled that the Dodgers — trying to stifle rumors that a popular player was gay — offered Burke $75,000 to get married. His reply: ‘I guess you mean to a woman?’”
A year later, Jim and his co-founder Cyd chose Burke as one of their heroes, in a series titled 100 Most Important Moments in Gay Sports History.
And earlier this year, it fell to Jim to retell his tale, as Outsports honored Burke as a sports legend with Stonewall Spirit. Here’s his story:
Glenn Burke’s story is one of a man way ahead of his time, when baseball was far from ready to embrace a gay player. “Glenn was comfortable with who he was. Baseball was not comfortable with who he was,” said Burke’s childhood friend Abdul-Jalil al-Hakim.
The charismatic Burke is credited with inventing the high five. He was close with Tommy Lasorda Jr., known as Spunky, the son of then-Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda. Spurky was gay and he and Burke hung out all the time.
Lasorda Sr. never acknowledged his son’s sexual orientation nor that he died of AIDS. “My son wasn’t gay,” he once said. “No way. No way. I read that in a paper. I also read in that paper that a lady gave birth to a fuckin’ monkey, too. That’s not the fuckin’ truth. That’s not the truth.”
Burke was never out publicly, but people in the sport knew, as the marriage anecdote shows. Incredibly popular with his teammates, Burke started for the Dodgers in the 1977 World Series. These same teammates were stunned when Burke was traded to the Oakland A’s in 1978, and the clear inference is that he was dumped because he was gay.
He had the misfortune in Oakland to play for manager Billy Martin. Former Burke teammate Claudell Washington tells this anecdote:
“He was introducing all the [new] players and then he got to Glenn and said, ‘Oh, by the way, this is Glenn Burke and he’s a faggot.’ ”
Burke’s MLB career ended shortly after, but he found a new life as an openly gay man in San Francisco. He was the star of the local gay softball league — imagine a major league hitter playing softball — and very popular in the community.
Sadly, his life became one fueled by sex, drugs and parties and he turned to petty crime and did a stint in prison. His leg was shattered in an auto accident and he became so poor that he pawned his 1977 National League Championship ring for cash. He was diagnosed with AIDS in 1994 and died a year later on May 30, 1995. He was 42.
Since Burke was never out publicly while playing, we can’t call him MLB’s first openly gay player. We’re still waiting for that person.
But Burke was always a man true to himself, even at a time and in a profession that would not accept him. I often thought that had he been born 30 years later he would have been out and proud in baseball and high-fiving everyone in sight.
We’ll bring you the story of another LGBTQ sports historymaker tomorrow and every day in October.