Passed Ball

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.

Burke’s Dodger teammates were ready: Out reveals that they had come to accept this young black man who did not make a secret of the fact that he was gay. But team management most decidedly was not.

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.

One of my few concessions to Normal American Maleness is that I am a follower of the male soap opera known as professional baseball. I think I have been a Dodger fan since I achieved sentience—except during that period when the team was owned by the racist retrovert Rupert Murdoch, when I studiously ignored them.

In any event, I knew of Burke when he played for the Dodgers from 1976-1978, and at some point during that time I became aware that he was gay. How I learned this I don’t really remember. I do remember that I knew he was gay, that his teammates knew he was gay, that many Dodger fans seemed to know that he was gay, but that nobody made much of it, one way or the other. The bile didn’t pour forth until Burke moved north, to Oakland. Which was doubly cruel, because there Burke had come “home”—he had been a star high-school athlete in multiple sports in neighboring Berkeley.

Burke is described by one reviewer of Out thusly:

What’s remarkable about Burke is how out he was in the 1970s. Not in a “Hey world, I’m gay” way, but in the sense that his teammates knew as did the management of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Burke’s first team, and eventually fans who would taunt him from the outfield bleachers in Oakland by calling him a “fag.”

The Burke who emerges in Out is a man described as incredibly funny and flamboyant (who in the late 1970s kept a red jock in his locker), yet also self-assured in his sexuality.

According to Out:

[Burke] was given the highest ratings by scouts in throwing arm, raw power and speed, yet had trouble translating those skills into major-league success. He had a Richard Pryor sense of humor and exuded joy—punctuated by surliness and combativeness.

Most poignantly, after being called up to the majors in 1976, Burke was said to have immediately won the Dodger clubhouse over. Two years later, he was traded, and a year after that, at age 26, he was out of the majors for good.

Out argues that while Burke’s Dodgers teammates and friends were at first shocked and discomfited upon learning of Burke’s sexual orientation, most ultimately rallied to protect him, because they genuinely liked him. “He was the guy who kept the chemistry going in the clubhouse,” former Dodger Davey Lopes says in the program. Onetime Dodger beat writer Lyle Spencer recalls that “guys were visibly distraught” over Burke’s trade to Oakland, “and that told me that my sense of how important he was to them internally was accurate. I even remember a few players crying when they found out about it at their lockers, which is stunning.”

From another writer:

The Dodgers said [the trade] 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’s time on the Dodgers is recalled in Out by former teammates Manny Mota, Reggie Smith, Dusty Baker, Davey Lopes, and Rick Monday. Please note that with the exception of Monday, these are all black men—so much for the lie that blacks are less accepting of homosexuality than whites. All of these men are also still employed in baseball. Lasorda, who is white, resolutely refused to appear in Out, as did Don Sutton, another whitey, though other teammates recall he was “real tight” with Burke.

Baker in Out bluntly states that in his opinion management traded Burke because he was gay. The trade obviously still rankles Lopes:

“You don’t break up, disrupt a team going as well as it was going to make changes. I didn’t feel it was going to make us a better ball club. Billy North was not going to make us, at that time, any better of a ballclub. Probably not the real reason why things happened.”

“No one cared about his lifestyle,” Lopes recalls.

It was while playing on the Dodgers’ pennant-winning club of 1977, that Burke introduced the now-ubiquitous “high-five” to baseball. Here is how it happened:

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 baseball.

Burke then stepped up to the plate, and promptly hit a home run himself.

Two years after Burke left baseball, he candidly described his homosexuality to Inside Sports, becoming the first former professional-baseball player to publicly out himself as gay. To my knowledge, only one other former baseball player, Billy Bean, has since done the same.

Out details how, after he left the game, Burke for a time was the toast of the gay community, a man with dazzling baseball (and basketball) skills who had succeeded on the professional level.

“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.”

But that changed when Burke was seriously injured in a car accident. Out co-producer and long-time Burke friend Doug Harris describes what happened then:

To me, the heaviest part of the film didn’t even deal with baseball. It was probably the part where Glenn is here in San Francisco, and he’s in a car accident. He was an icon in the gay community, and once he has this car accident—and he can’t run, jump and dunk a basketball anymore—then he’s not an icon anymore . . . Once he got hit by that car and he couldn’t perform, they kind of shoved him to the side. To me, that spiraled into his heavy drug use and his crash and burn. So that’s the part that really grabbed my heart. People have to realize the gay community turned on him just as much as baseball did, if you really look at it.

Burke drifted into drug use. Eventually, it consumed him. He spent some time homeless, some time in San Quentin. Then his health failed him. He died, of AIDS, in 1995. He was 42.


2 Responses to “Passed Ball”

  1. 1 Elva November 11, 2010 at 11:42 am

    Oh, what a sad story. Today, I know there are gay ballplayers, but
    no one mentions it. I do not care if they are gay. All I want in a ballplayer is that they play fair. I also am a Dodger fan and I was not aware of this shameful type of outing someone because they are gay. I guess there will always be people that do not understand we are all created equal.

    • 2 bluenred November 12, 2010 at 7:32 am

      I was heartened to read that Burke was accepted and supported by his Dodger teammates. If only management had stood by him, too, the nonsense would have been dissipated. A missed opportunity.

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