Celebrating LGBTQ History Month: June 22, Glenn Burke

22 Jun

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.

6 Responses to “Celebrating LGBTQ History Month: June 22, Glenn Burke”

  1. Christine Noble June 22, 2012 at 9:01 am #

    Very inspiring. I had forgotten that particularly dark moment in my otherwise beloved A’s history. Here’s hoping that out gay men can play in major league sports soon. On a sadder note, this whole story reminds me of an Inside The NFL piece about the idea of being out in the NFL. It was ten years ago now (I remember b/c I saw it the night before my sister’s wedding) and Sterling Sharpe said that if a guy came out of the closet while playing he wouldn’t make it off the practice field. I lost all respect for Mr. Sharpe that day.

    • Michael Hulshof-Schmidt June 22, 2012 at 9:03 am #

      Very sad, because I’m not convinced that being openly gay is acceptable in most sports yet–we still have a long way too go.

  2. Jerry Pritikin aka The Bleacher Preacher June 23, 2012 at 6:06 am #

    There is a fine documentary about Glenn Burke, who was a friend of mine, called OUT, THE GLENN BURKE STORY. I recommend it for all jocks, gay & straight and for people who may not like sports. I had a brief cameo in it. Glenn played for 2 homophobic managers, Tommy Lasorta who actually is in the Hall of Fame, and Billy Martin, who introduced Glenn to fellow teammates at spring training… “This is Glenn Burke, by the way he is a faggot!” Thankfully, after he retired from MLB, he played and starred in the S.F. Gay Softball League and the First Gay Games. Sadly, after being addicted to pain killers, he started to hang-around with the wrong crowd. I attended his funeral in 1995.

    • Michael Hulshof-Schmidt June 23, 2012 at 7:46 am #

      Thank you for the comment and thank you for pointing out the documentary on Burke’s life. I shall have to rent it. Burke really has all of the qualities of a Hero!

  3. Michael Hulshof-Schmidt May 3, 2013 at 7:34 am #

    Thank you for reblogging this, Nancy.


  1. Hero of the Week Award: May 3, Jason Collins | Social Justice For All | Central Oregon Coast NOW - May 3, 2013

    […] out publicly after retiring. Martina Navratilova was one of the first out athletes still playing. Glenn Burke, sadly unknown to most people today, was out to his teammates and coaches while still playing, a […]

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