clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

MLB All-Star Game: Former Athletic Glenn Burke recognized as LGBT sports pioneer by Commissioner Selig

New, comments

Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig invited Glenn Burke's family to attend the All-Star festivities.

MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, pictured here at the 2014 MLB Draft, spoke at a press conference honoring Burke's contributions and announcing Billy Bean's appointment as ambassador for inclusion.
MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, pictured here at the 2014 MLB Draft, spoke at a press conference honoring Burke's contributions and announcing Billy Bean's appointment as ambassador for inclusion.
Rich Schultz

Glenn Burke came out as gay in an article written by Michael J. Smith in the October 1982 edition of Inside Sports, two years after Burke's last professional season of baseball. Burke spent his final few seasons with the Athletics organization. In 1995, Burke passed away due to complications from AIDS. Today, some 32 years after coming out, Major League Baseball recognized Burke's legacy as part of a press event announcing former major league outfielder Billy Bean as MLB's first ambassador for inclusion throughout the game:

Burke's sister, Lutha, was introduced by mlb.com's Jeremy Briesel at 3:33 in the embedded video. In her remarks, she spoke of how her brother would probably wonder what all the fuss was about:

Because when you're just busy trying to live a life and be a decent human being and play the sport as best you can with all the respect you can, it should be a done deal or an easy deal for anyone.

Burke grew up in the East Bay, attending Berkeley High School before he was drafted by the Dodgers in the 17th Round of the 1972 draft. Burke's story is intertwined throughout baseball's history with gays in the sport.

While with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Burke befriended Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda's son, according to Monday's story in the New York Times. Lasorda's history with his own son, who died of AIDS complications in 1991, is similarly complex, as documented in the October 1992 edition of GQ Magazine:

Back in his suite, in the residence area of Dodgertown, I ask him if it was difficult having a gay son.

"My son wasn't gay," he says evenly, no anger. "No way. No way. I read that in a paper. I also read in that paper that a lady gave birth to a fuckin' monkey, too. That's not the fuckin' truth. That's not the truth."

I ask him if he read in the same paper that his son had died of AIDS.

"That's not true," he says.

The '82 Inside Sports article offers an amazing relatively contemporary look at what Burke's thoughts and feelings were playing as a closeted player on the Dodgers:

He'd have to plan everything. He'd think, "If they see me leaving the hotel, I'll say I was going to take a walk or to get something to eat." He was always telling white lies.

Some days he'd sit in a mall and try to meet people, sometimes he would call a friend and ask him to check his directory on where the gay bars were in town. His mind was never clear. Some nights he'd come back to his room sad and smoke a little grass.

Inside Sports portrays his trade to the 1978 Athletics as one completely inappropriate for a man needing to deal with his problems:

Finley was cutting expenses and players, lopping off fans with them. A man with peace of mind could play on. Glenn Burke could not. In the hush of a baseball stadium with 3,000 people, he could hear a voice urging him to leave and stop living a lie.

Burke's baseball statistics with the Athletics was forgettable, as were the Athletics teams of 1978 and 1979. After briefly retiring during the 1979 season after refusing a cortisone shot for a pinched nerve in his neck, Burke opted to try once more to get back on the field in 1980 only to be sidelined after injuring his knee:

The A's requested he return to the minor leagues, in Ogden, Utah, and Burke reluctantly agreed. To avoid the small-town stares, he drove 56 miles round-trip so he could live in Salt Lake City. He stopped now, and mulled the absurdity of his life. He was 27, getting no closer to the superstar role he knew he must have to declare his homosexuality and knowing that even if he did achieve it, he would likely be afraid to. He was still dodging management, lying to teammates, and now even ducking Mormons, too. Quietly, with the sports world focused on more important things, Glenn Burke quit baseball for good.

"I had finally gotten to the point," he said, "where it was more important to be myself than a baseball player."

Hopefully, with today's efforts announced by Major League Baseball and the efforts of others to promote inclusion in sports, other athletes whether superstars or journeymen can avoid the fate that befell Burke.