The Dodgers professional-baseball franchise, that famously broke what was then known as “the color line” by signing and playing Jackie Robinson, had a similar opportunity to break “the sexual orientation line” . . . but muffed it.
That seems to be the conclusion of a new documentary film, Out: The Glenn Burke Story, premiering tonight at the Castro Theater in San Francisco, and on Bay Area Comcast stations.
First the Dodgers brass offered Burke $75,000 if he would get married. Burke’s response is recalled in Out by former Dodger teammate Reggie Smith: “Glenn, being his comic self, said, ‘I guess you mean to a woman?'”
Having rejected Potemkin marriage, Burke then began dating the estranged gay son of Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda. According to one reviewer of Out, this resulted in “a Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner moment.”
Lasorda to this day denies that his son, who died of AIDS, was gay. “My son wasn’t gay,” the denialist dad is quoted in Out. “No way. I read that in a paper. I also read that a lady gave birth to a fucking monkey. That’s not the truth.”
The Dodgers’ office-level discomfort with Burke’s out homosexuality moved them to trade him to the Oakland Athletics . . . which was more or less a death sentence for his career. For the A’s were then managed by Billy Martin, who was—how should I put this?—a nasty, vicious drunkard. Out recounts how Martin introduced Burke to his new teammates: “Oh, this is Glenn Burke, and he’s a faggot.”
Burke’s A’s teammates were nowhere near as accepting as the men on the Dodgers: Out offers former A’s pitcher Mike Norris drearily invoking the old “showers” nonsense: “It became pretty obvious to a lot of people that Glenn was gay, and he started to make a lot of people uncomfortable in the locker room and the showers.” As can be glimpsed in the Out trailer embedded at the end of this piece, his former teammates on the A’s do not come out of the film at all well.
Burke left the A’s in 1980. At age 26, when most players are just entering their prime, he was out of professional baseball. For good.