Remembering Glenn Burke

Glenn Burke, Christmas Eve 1994. He died in May 1995. - Getty Images

Long before Jason Collins, there was a former Oakland Athletic ahead of the times.

“If you have the man right, you’ll get the world right.”

- Matthew Kelly

One thing I enjoy when a player is chasing a long-standing record is that it re-opens the story of the player being chased; it thrusts that player back into the limelight.

Jason Collins was not chasing Glenn Burke’s record. For one, they didn’t even play the same sport. Chances are Collins never heard of Burke. He’s hardly alone in that regard.

But when Collins came out a couple of weeks ago as “the first openly gay active pro athlete in a major men's sport”, the interwebs were filled with stories about Burke, who 36 years earlier had openly expressed his sexual orientation to teammates, managers, and media alike.

They just refused to talk about it, and some went to great lengths to stifle him:

Burke was so out that the Dodgers' front office finally called him in, laid a $75,000 check on the desk, and offered to pay for his wedding if he'd just get married -- soon.

Burke started laughing.

"I guess you mean to a woman, right?"

Then he walked out, without the check.

"Glenn told me he wasn't the first Dodger called in and presented a check," says childhood friend Vince Trahan. "They'd done it with gay players before. The difference was Glenn didn't take it."

Burke played for Los Angeles from 1976-78, and he was the only rookie on either team to start in the World Series in 1977 between the Dodgers and Yankees. But when it became clear that they were unable to keep Burke’s dirty little secret under wraps, Los Angeles shipped Burke up the coast to the A’s.

Things didn’t get any easier in Oakland. My brother John recalls a particularly ugly incident from his seat in the center field bleachers:

“There was a fan taunting him through the whole game. At the end of the game, Burke told the fan to meet him in the parking lot. I don’t think the fan thought he’d show. Burke was going to kill him until a bunch of us fans intervened and told him it wasn’t worth it. Soon after that, he kind of disappeared from baseball.”

Glenn Burke should have been just another ball player in a long line of “local boy makes good” of which the city of Oakland likes to boast. To name a few, Rickey Henderson, Joe Morgan, Willie Stargell, Dennis Eckersley, Vada Pinson, Frank Robinson, and Dave Stewart were born and/or schooled in Oakland.

Instead baseball remembers him as the guy who is credited with starting the “high-five” and as a homosexual that the game did everything it could to silence, and in many ways succeeded in doing so.

The media in general and the sports media in particular found Burke's homosexuality an inconvenient truth. He told People, "I think everyone just pretended not to hear me. It just wasn't a story they were ready to hear."

The full story of Glenn Burke – whose post-baseball life included cocaine addiction and homelessness before losing his bout with AIDS in 1995 – was finally told in 2010 in the documentary “Out”. The announcement by Collins briefly put Burke back into the spotlight three years later, a spotlight that rejected him more than three decades ago but now speaks of him as a pioneer.

It took a while, but they finally got the man right.

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