A High-Five for Glenn Burke, a Baseball Pioneer

by on June 9, 2020

Glenn Burke — who died 25 years ago this week — was famous for two things.

One: He invented the high-five.  On October 2, 1977, Burke ran onto the field to congratulate his Los Angeles Dodgers teammate Dusty Baker after Baker slugged his 30th home run in the last game of the regular season. As Baker jogged home from third base, Burke raised his hand over his head and Baker slapped it. It wasn’t too long afterwards that the gesture became widespread and known as the high-five.

Two: Burke was also the first major league baseball player to come out of the closet.  Since major league baseball began in 1871, over 19,500 men have played the game, but no gay player has ever publicly acknowledged his homosexuality while still in uniform. But many of Burke’s teammates and club owners knew he was gay. He didn’t try to hide it, but he didn’t come out publicly until 1982, after his playing days were over. “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.”

Burke — who played for the Dodgers and Oakland Athletics between 1976 and 1979 — came out publicly in an Inside Sports magazine profile called “The Double Life of a Gay Dodger” in 1982, two years after he left professional baseball. “It’s harder to be gay in sports than anywhere else, except maybe president,” Burke said in that article.  “Baseball is probably the hardest sport of all.” That week he also appeared on NBC’s “Today” show, interviewed by host Bryant Gumbel.  He told more about his life in his autobiography, Out at Home, which was published a few weeks after he died of AIDS on May 30, 1995.

Born in 1952, Burke was one of eight kids raised by a single mother. At Berkeley High School he was an outstanding baseball star, but his first love was basketball. In his senior year a local newspaper described Burke as “Berkeley’s most spectacular player,” a “5-10 physical phenomenon” who could “rebound with any 6-6 player.” He was named Northern California’s Basketball Player of the Year and led his team to a 32-0 record and the state championship. He earned an athletic scholarship at the University of Denver but only lasted a few months, describing the climate as “too cold,” and transferred to Merritt College in Oakland, where he starred in both sports.

The Los Angeles Dodgers drafted him and he signed a contract in June 1972. Between 1972 and 1975, Burke played for the Dodgers’ minor league franchises in Spokane, Ogden (Utah), Daytona Beach, Bakersfield, and Waterbury, consistently hitting around .300. The Dodgers called him up to the major league club in 1976.  (During the 1974 off-season, he also briefly played basketball for the University of Nevada, averaging 16 points a game, but was cut from the team for what his coach described as his lack of discipline.)

The Dodgers had high hopes for Burke. Dodgers coach Jim Gilliam, himself an all-star on the great Dodger teams of the 1950s and 1960s, said that given Burke’s combination of strength and speed, he could be the next Willie Mays.

“I never knew I was gay growing up,” Burke wrote in his autobiography. “I didn’t truly know I was a homosexual until I was twenty-three,” just before the Dodgers brought him up from the minors.

He came out to some family members and friends.  He worried that his Dodger teammates and executives, as well as opposing players and sportswriters, would discover his homosexuality, but he didn’t go to great lengths to hide it.  Having grown up in Oakland, he had gay friends who lived in the Bay Area, including gay athletes. To celebrate his Dodger debut, his friends gave him a party at the Pendulum, a gay bar in the Castro, the center of San Francisco’s gay community.

Playing in the majors, Burke lived what he described as a “double life.” “When we were on the road, I would wait until my teammates were either in their rooms for the night or out on the town before heading out to bay bars and parties,” he recalled. ”I would anxiously flag down a taxicab while practically covering my head so no one would notice me. If someone did, I never acknowledged them.”

Burke was popular among his teammates.  He kept the locker room “loose” with his loud music, dancing, and impression of comedian Richard Pryor.

“No one would say anything to me. And I got used to the ‘fag’ jokes. You heard them everywhere then,” Burke explained. “I knew who I was. I wasn’t no sissy, I was a man. It just so happened that I lived in a different world.” Burke didn’t come out to his teammates, but at least some of them  figured out that he was gay, in part because he rarely went out drinking and partying with them after games.

“I’m sure he played in fear — the fear of the fact that it’s going to get out that he’s gay and once it comes out, you’re going to take abuse,” recalled Davey Lopes, one of his Dodger teammates, in 1994. “Face it, society isn’t ready for that. If there are any gay players, even today, and you would think that there probably are, that’s why they choose not to come out, because they know their careers are going to be ruined.”

Another one of Burke’s Dodger teammates, Reggie Smith, remembered: “Homosexuality was taboo. I’m not going to sit here and say it was anything different. I’m sure it would have ruined his career. He would have not only been ostracized by his teammates, but management would have looked for ways to get him off the team, and the public would not have tolerated it.”

Burke’s relationship with Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda was strained by his friendship with Lasorda’s openly gay son, Tommy Jr., who was a fixture of Los Angeles’ gay scene, although his father denied that his son was gay.

Clearly the Dodgers’ executives knew about Burke’s homosexuality. According to Burke, Al Campanis, the team’s general manager, once called Burke into his office before the start of the 1978 season and offered him a $75,000 bonus to get married. “I guess you mean to a woman,” Burke responded, refusing the offer.

Living a double life affected his on-the-field play. With his speed, strong throwing arm, and power, he showed flashes of brilliance, but he did not play up to early expectations and was used as a utility player to relieve the starting outfield stars Dusty Baker, Rick Monday and Reggie Smith.  In 1976 he appeared in 25 games and batted .239. The following year he appeared in 83 games and batted .254 with 13 stolen bases, and played in three games in the World Series against the Yankees.   Two months into the 1978 season he had appeared in only 16 games and was batting .211, when the Dodgers announced that they were trading Burke to the Oakland Athletics for Billy North, a one-time base-stealing whiz whose career on a downhill arc and was batting .212 when the teams made the switch.

“I was talking with our trainer, Bill Buhler, “ A’s outfielder Dusty Baker recalled to Inside Sports in 1982. “I said, ‘Bill, why’d they trade Glenn? He was one of our top prospects.’  He said, ‘They don’t want any gays on the team.’ I said, ‘The organization knows?’ He said, ‘Everybody knows.’”

Burke’s teammates were upset by the trade and suspected that it had more to do with his homosexuality than his hitting and fielding.

“He was the life of the team, on the buses, in the clubhouse, everywhere,” teammate Davey Lopes said the next day.

Returning to his hometown to play for the Oakland A’s was a double-edged sword. He had many friends and family in the area, but it would become harder to hide his homosexuality.  Herb Caen, a popular columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote a story that a local ballplayer was a frequent visitor to San Francisco’s gay Castro district. He didn’t mention Burke by name, but suspicions increased. When some fans in the bleachers began calling him “fag” when he was playing in the outfield, he knew his secret was out.

“He was absolutely a hero,” said Jack McGowan, one-time sports editor of the San Francisco Sentinel, a gay newspaper. “It was not so much that he was masculine, but that he was superbly athletic, and we were proud because he showed the world that we could be gay and be gifted athletes.”

The Athletics made Burke their regular outfielder. In 78 games he hit .235 with 15 stolen bases.  A pinched nerve in his neck kept him sidelined for most of the 1979 season. He refused to take cortisone shots to ease the pain so he could play. Instead, he left the team in mid-season.  At 26, it appeared his major league career was over.

“I probably wouldn’t have left if there hadn’t been the other problem, the gay thing,” Burke said in the Inside Sports article in 1982 where he came out of the closet. “But put it all together, and it was too much.”

Nevertheless, he returned to the Athletics the next spring training. The A’s had hired Billy Martin as their new manager.  A’s outfielder Claudell Washington recalled a team meeting at which Martin introduced the new players to the veterans:  “Then he got to Glenn and said, ‘Oh, by the way, this is Glenn Burke and he’s a faggot.’”

The atmosphere on the A’s was worse than with the Dodgers.  Some teammates were uncomfortable around him and even  avoided taking a shower while Burke was in the clubhouse.

Early in the 1979 season, Burke was sitting in the clubhouse talking with his friend Mitchell Page, an A’s outfielder. Page told him that a Pittsburgh Pirates scout was interested in him but asked if he was gay or bisexual.

“At that moment, when Mitchell told me, everything stopped,” Burke recalled “If some joker in Pittsburgh knew, so did a few others. I realized it had all come to an end. They’d stripped me of my inner-most thoughts.”

“I felt I should let Glenn know instead of talking behind his back like the other players were,” Page remembered. “The guys on the A’s never bothered him about it because of the way he handled it. Besides, they were afraid to say anything to his face.”

“I liked Glenn, but if I’d seen him walking around making it obvious, I wouldn’t have had anything to do with him. I don’t want to be labeled and have my career damaged. You make sure you point out that I’m not gay, okay?”

“I roomed with him,”  A’s pitcher Mike Norris told Inside Sports. “Sure, I was worried at first. You came back to your hotel room at midnight, sat around and listened to music, and you wondered if he’d make a move. After awhile you realized he wouldn’t, and it wasn’t a big problem. Guys would watch out for him but it wasn’t a completely uncomfortable feeling. If it had been out in the open, though, there would have been all kinds of problems. We’re all macho, we’re all men. Just make sure you put in there that I ain’t gay, man.”

Burke suffered a knee injury during spring training and was assigned to the A’s Triple-A team in Ogden, Utah.  He got into only 25 games and batted .226.  He retired for good at the end of the season.

“I had finally gotten to the point,” Burke told Inside Sports, “where it was more important to be myself than a baseball player.” Burke told The New York Times that “Prejudice drove me out of baseball sooner than I should have. But I wasn’t changing.”

“Glenn was comfortable with who he was,” said Burke’s childhood friend Abdul-Jalili al-Hakim. “Baseball was not comfortable with who he was.”

In his four seasons and 225 games in the majors,  Burke had 523 at-bats, batted .237, hit two home runs, and stole 35 bases.

Burke left pro baseball, but he remained an active athlete. Many considered him the greatest openly gay athlete in the country. He won medals in the 100- and 200-meter sprints in the first Gay Games in 1982. He was the star third baseman on a team in the San Francisco Gay Softball League and in  1982 led his team to winning the North American Amateur Athletic Gay Association World Series. He played basketball in the Gay Games in 1986.  Berkeley High School retired his uniform number in his honor.  He was a celebrity in San Francisco’s gay community.

But he was often broke and depended on friends and hangers-on for money and emotional support. His life became consumed by sex, drugs, and parties. He became addicted to cocaine, which destroyed him physically and depleted what little money he had. His situation worsened after he was hit by a car in San Francisco in 1987, crushing his leg and foot, which destroyed his athletic ability, his major source of pride. In 1991, he pleaded guilty to grand theft and possession of a controlled substance. He served six months of a 16-month sentence in San Quentin prison. He was briefly jailed two more times for violating parole. He became so desperate that he resorted to panhandling to survive. He even pawned his 1977 National League Championship ring for cash.

Burke lost many of his friends to AIDS and in 1994 he was diagnosed with the disease himself. He shrunk to 145 pounds, 75 pounds less than his playing weight in the majors. After the local media reported that he was broke, living on the streets, and had AIDS, friends pressured the A’s organization to help him with food and medical care. He spent his final months living with his sister Lutha in Oakland. He died on May 30, 1995 at  age 42. His autobiography Out at Home was published a few weeks later.

In 2013, Burke was one of the first class of inductees in the National Gay and Lesbian Sports Hall of Fame. In 2014, Major League Baseball honored Burke at the annual All-Star game. At a press conference before the game, Commissioner Bud Selig told Burke’s sister Lutha: “We remember him to this day, and we want to tell his story.” The following year, the Oakland Athletics honored Burke as part of Pride Night, inviting his brother Sydney to throw out the ceremonial first pitch.

At the same 2014 All-Star game that honored Burke, Selig appointed former outfielder Billy Bean as MLB’s first vice president for “inclusion.”  Bean, who played for the Detroit Tigers, Los Angeles Dodgers, and San Diego Padres for parts of six seasons (1987-89 and 1993-95), and who hid his homosexuality from his friends, fans, and teammates, became the second former major leaguer to come out of the closet.  In 1999, he told his story through interviews with the Miami Herald, the New York Times, and CBS TV’s 60 Minutes, then wrote a book, Going the Other Way: Lessons from a Life In and Out of Major League Baseball, published in 2003, describing the joys and anguish of being a closeted ball player.

In his new role,  Bean was tasked with being baseball’s link with the LGBT community, to encourage baseball teams to hire LGBT employees at all levels, and to provide education and training for ballplayers and team executives against sexism, homophobia, and other forms of prejudice.

In the past decade, professional baseball has made some progress on the LGBT front. In 2001, the Chicago Cubs sponsored “Gay Days,” which later became “Out at Wrigley,” the first official LGBT celebration in the majors. Today, most MLB teams have an annual pride night of some kind. Baseball officials have punished players and coaches who make homophobic remarks in public with fines and suspensions.

In recent decades, America has made significant strides in advancing LGBT rights. One sign of progress is that young Americans — those born since the 1990s — are much less homophobic than older generations. In 2019, for example, 83% of Americans age 18-29, compared with 47% of Americans over 65 years of age, supported same-sex marriage.

Polls show that fans consistently support openly gay athletes playing professional sports.  In 2015, a national poll found that almost three quarters (73%) of Americans said they would support a pro sports team signing an openly gay or lesbian athlete, while fewer than one-fifth (19%) said they would oppose it.

A growing number of sportswriters and team executives have come out of the closet.  In 2009, when the Ricketts family purchased the Cubs, Laura Ricketts became the first out LGBT person to own a professional sports team.

In his 1990 autobiography, Behind the Mask: My Double Life in Baseball, Dave Pallone — a gay major league umpire who was quietly fired in 1988 after rumors about his sexual orientation circulated in the baseball world — contended that there were enough gay major league players to create an All Star team.

In 2015,  Sean Conroy pitched his first game for the Sonoma Stompers, a pro team in the independent Pacific Association, making him the first openly gay player to appear in a professional baseball game. Since then,  a number of other out-of-the-closet gay athletes have played in the minor leagues. No doubt most of them dream of becoming the gay Jackie Robinson. It will happen sooner or later, thanks in part to Glenn Burke.

Peter Dreier is professor of politics at Occidental College and the author of several books, including The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame. His next book, Baseball Rebels: The Reformers and Radicals Who Shook Up the Game and Changed America, will be published next year.

Filed under: Bay Area / California