The Man Who Invented
Glenn Burke: A Gay "Hero" With Feet of
Glenn Burke, Softball Hero
The Diamond Angle
(Reprinted by permission of
Angle. This story was written in 1995).
It was late in the 1977 season. Dusty
Baker of the Dodgers was rounding third, heading for home, having just
hit his 30th home run. And the Dodgers were heading for a National
League pennant. The on-deck hitter was Glenn Burke, enjoying his
second season in the big leagues. As Baker crossed the plate Burke
raised his hand. Baker responded by raising his. The two hands slapped
together and a bit of history was made. The first high-five in
Fast forward to 1995. Baker is the successful manager of the San
Francisco Giants. Burke is dead, the victim of AIDS.
He spent the last
years of his life wandering the streets of San Francisco, especially
Castro Street, the heart of the gay community. Yes, the onetime Dodger
outfielder made another kind of baseball history in 1982, two years
after his premature retirement from the game, when he became the first
player to openly declare his homosexuality. So far there has not been
a second, although former umpire Dave Pallone, also openly gay, says
there are and have been more. [Editor's note: This pre-dates Billy
"He was a hero to us", said Jack McGowan, former sports editor of the
San Francisco Sentinel, a gay newspaper. "He was ... real. He was
athletic, clean cut, masculine. He was everything that we wanted to
prove to the world that we could be."
McGowan, a long-time friend of Burke's, was joined in his praise of
the product of Oakland sandlots by Tommy Lee, a Castro district
restaurateur and another old friend. "People were just honored to he
in his presence. My God, a major league player, and he's gay."
In August 1994 I read a "Where are they now?" type story in the L.A.
Times. Burke was suffering from AIDS, an 0-2 count anyway you look at
it. Usually the gay community rallies around an AIDS victim. Certainly
this would be expected for a hero.
But there were no helping hands for Glenn.
Gays come in as many varieties as straights. Artists, businessmen,
doctors, construction workers, teachers. And professional athletes.
And don't forget panhandlers, street thugs, drug users and felons. Our
"hero" had metamorphosed into the latter group. Once the toast of any
Castro Street bar he walked into, he was now welcome in none of them.
He was more apt to be seen hanging around the door, badgering patrons
for a handout. Loan? Forget it. Glenn doesn't repay, was the word in
Five minor league seasons in which Burke batted over .300 plus
exceptional defensive skills caused no less a judge of baseball talent
than the late Jim Gilliam, then a Dodger coach, to herald him with a
"Next Willie Mays" tag. We've heard that one before. Of course, he
wouldn't have needed a Maysian career to have made a difference for
the Dodgers. But in 1978, his third year with the club, he was traded
to Oakland for a washed-up Bill North. The Dodgers said it was because
he had not lived up to his minor league promise. His teammates,
feeling he had made good progress toward star if not superstar status,
were angry at management for making the trade.
Burke felt the that club knew about his sexual orientation. The
Dodgers, one of the most image-conscious organizations in an
image-conscious sport, would not have tolerated a gay ballplayer in
the '70s. They might in today--if he could hit .500 with 150 home
runs. But they would have to come up with a cover story. General
Manager Al Campanis once suggested that it would be a good idea if
Burke got married.
In his autobiography "Out At Home," written with Erik Sherman, Burke
said that he felt his close association with Spunky Lasorda was
something Spunky's dad could not tolerate. Although the rest of the
world accepts that the Dodger manager's son was gay and died of AIDS,
Tommy is in total denial on both counts.
"The Next Willie Mays" took his hat and glove and went to Oakland, but
did not enjoy his year and a half with the A's. The team was
struggling in the late '70s. Also, Burke felt his secret was not safe
in his hometown. He retired before the end of the '79 season.
The retirement was brief. He reported for spring training in 1980, but
injured a knee and spent the season with Triple-A Ogden. Right or
wrong, he thought baseball no longer wanted him because of his sexual
orientation, and he retired for good at the end of the '80 campaign.
Did baseball give up on Glenn Burke or did he give up on baseball?
Whichever, Alice Burke thinks it was the beginning of the end for her
Baseball Was His Life
"Because that was his life, baseball. And I think after he couldn't
play any more, he felt that was the end of his life. I don't think he
cared much after that," she said.
Burke tried advertising sales after baseball, worked for a while as a
doorman, but soon fell into a pattern of depending on others. He
admitted, "I was spoiled rotten, so I got lazy."
Too bad. In the years right after his retirement his considerable
athletic talent made him a superstar in Bay Area recreational softball
and basketball leagues. Bar owners paid him to play for their softball
teams. If there had been an award for "Best Gay Athlete in America,"
most of his friends feel he would have won it hands down. Nor was
athleticism the only thing going for him. "Glenn had a great sense of
humor," recalls Lee the restaurateur. "He was the life of the party
everywhere he went."
But in 1987 he was hit by a car while crossing the street, suffering
broken leg. An out-of-court settlement brought him some money, but it
was soon gone. He was never again the athlete he had been.
His drug use increased and his behavior became more erratic. The man
friends once flocked to was now avoided by them. The big guy they once
looked to for protection now became an object of their fear.
In 1991-92 he spent seven months in San Quentin for grand theft and
possession of a controlled substance. AIDS and drugs seemed to be in a
macabre contest to see which could claim this once proud man as its
Every once in a while I see something in the paper about J.R. Richard
and his life since the near-fatal stroke that ended his career in
Don't compare Richard with Burke, you say. He was an established star
who might he in Cooperstown by now had it not all ended so tragically
for him 15 years ago. Burke's candle, on the other hand, burned
briefly and not too bright. Besides, others might add, J.R. is not
But they do share the fate of being unable to manage life without
baseball. It must have been about 1983 that I read a piece by a
sportswriter who had visited the Houston flame-thrower. J.R. just sat
around the house all day eating and watching TV. He had ballooned to
about 300 pounds. More recently Kenny Hand of the Houston Post wrote
that Richard now lives under a Houston freeway and is penniless.
After high-fiving Dusty Baker way back in '77, Burke stepped up to the
plate and also hit a homer. The pitcher? J.R. Richard.
Baseball has brought me many happy moments. As I think about these two
men I remember it has also brought me a few very, very sad ones.
Glenn Burke spent the last months of his life at his sister Lutha's
Oakland apartment. The AIDS, first diagnosed in January 1994, had
taken his once magnificent physique to a lesion-scarred, wasted 150
pounds. Pain and fatigue were his constant companions.
A few old friends would stop by to say hello. But they all knew they
were really saying good-bye. When the end came in the spring of this
year, it was not a time for high fives. It was just as well. The man
who greeted Dusty Baker at home plate in 1977 could barely lift his
Visit The Diamond Angle's
Glenn Burke tribute page.
Bob Brigham is a writer
and retired Los Angeles civics teacher.