Thank you to my dear friend Ahmed for inspiring me to write this tribute. Today we honor and celebrate a courageous athlete who sacrificed his career for his honesty. Glenn Burke was born in 1952 in Oakland, CA. Before we go any farther, I have to say this man is an absolute HERO! He was a star basketball player in high school, leading his team to an undefeated season and a regional championship. Named high school basketball player of the year in California, he seriously considered an NBA career, but received a baseball offer first. Given his height (barely six feet), he opted to take the offer.
He debuted with the LA Dodgers in 1976 and was called “the next Willie Mays” due to his success in the minors. Rumors about his sexual orientation started early and Burke refused to deny them. When Dodgers general manager Al Campanis offered to pay for a lavish wedding and honeymoon to defuse the gossip, Burke’s reply was “To a woman?” He also angered manager Tommy Lasorda by striking up a friendship with his estranged son, the gay Tommy Lasorda, Jr. Unwilling to compromise, he irritated the power brokers on the team even though his fellow players seemed unphased.
Despite his talent, the Dodgers traded him to the Oakland A’s (for a much less promising player) in 1978. A’s manager Billy Martin introduced him to the team as “this faggot.” He was given little playing time; after he suffered a knee injury, the A’s sent him back down to the minors. He retired from baseball in 1979 at the age of 27. Burke played in the majors for four and a half seasons, batting .237 and stealing 35 bases. “Prejudice drove me out of baseball sooner than I should have,” Burke said in an interview with The New York Times last year. “But I wasn’t changing.”
Glenn Burke was one of the first athletes to come out publicly, definitely the first major league baseball player. He is one of the rare players to come out while he was still active. Most, like activist and retired baseballer Billy Bean, wait until they are out of the locker rooms to live their lives honestly. As an African American man in the late 70s, he faced opposition for his honesty on almost every front. Nevertheless, he stuck by his principles. As he observed in an interview with People in 1994, “My mission as a gay ballplayer was to break a stereotype . . . I think it worked.”
Sadly, Burke was badly injured in a car accident in 1987. His leg was permanently damaged and the pain led to increased drug use and dependency. He suffered financial loss and homelessness, only slowly beginning to rebuild his life in the early 90s. By then he was dealing with significant complications from HIV. Glenn Burke died at 42 in 1995. His best epitaph is this quote:
They can’t ever say now that a gay man can’t play in the majors, because I’m a gay man and I made it.