As a man who had a widely known impacts on sports, Glenn Burke was a true pioneer in Major League Baseball.
Born in Oakland, California on November 16, 1952, Burke went on to become an accomplished high school athlete — dominating in basketball. Burke could dunk a basketball with both hands, a rare feat for anyone under 6″0 tall. He was voted onto the all-tournament team at the Tournament of Champions (TOC) and received a Northern California MVP award.
He went on to be named Northern California’s High School Basketball Player of the Year in 1970. And despite being considered as a professional basketball player, his first offer to play professionally came from Major League Baseball.
Often described as the next Willie Mays by scouts, Burke was a highly scouted star in the Los Angeles Dodgers minor league system. But being associated with the Dodgers was extremely difficult for Burke. His MLB debut came on April 9, 1976 with the Dodgers.
According to his 1995 autobiography Out at Home, Al Campanis, the Dodgers General Manager offered to pay for a lavish honeymoon if Burke agreed to marry a woman. Burke refused and responded with, “to a woman?”
Tensions continued to boil over with the Dodgers organization when Burke befriended Tommy Lasorda’s son Tommy Lasorda Jr., who was also gay. As time went on, Lasorda Sr., has disputed these claims and said he did not understand Burke’s behavior at the time. “Why wouldn’t he come out? Why keep that inside? Glenn had a lot of talent. He could have been an outstanding basketball or baseball player. He just wasn’t happy here.”
Remember, Burke was a gay black man playing Major League Baseball in the 1970s. No matter where he played, he faced discrimination and homophobia.
On October 2, 1977, Burke ran to congratulate his Dodgers teammate Dusty Baker after Baker had hit his 30th home run in the last game of the regular season. Burke raised his hand over his head as Baker jogged home. Baker did not know what to do next, so he slapped Burke’s hand. The two have been credited with inventing the high five. After retiring, Burke used the high five with other LGBTQ residents of the Castro district of San Francisco, where it would become a symbol of gay pride and identification.
The Dodgers went on to trade Burke to the Oakland Athletics in 1978 for Billy North. The trade claimed North had more experience and statistics, but many still argue that he was less talented than Burke. Many Dodger players were unhappy with the trade. Burke’s former Dodger teammate Davy Lopes stated: “He was the life of the team, on the buses, in the clubhouse, everywhere.”
Burke often said that he believed everyone knew by 1978 of his sexuality and was sure his teammates didn’t care. Lopes even said: “No one cared about his lifestyle.”
He told The New York Times: “Prejudice drove me out of baseball sooner than I should have. But I wasn’t changing.”
While in Oakland, Burke received very little playing time in the 1978 and 1979 seasons. He was treated horribly – teammates even avoided showering with him. Before the 1980 season, he suffered a knee injury and the A’s sent him to the minors in Utah. He was released by from his contract before the season ended in 1980.
He played four seasons and 225 games for the Dodgers and A’s. He went on to have 523 at-bats, a .237 average with two home runs, 38 RBI and 35 stolen bases.
Burke continued athletic endeavors after retiring from baseball. He went on to win medals in the 100 and 200 meter sprints in the first Gay Games in 1982 and went on to compete in the 1986 Gay Games in basketball. Berkeley High School retired his jersey number in his honor.
He played multiple seasons in the SFGSL (San Francisco Gay Softball League) in which he played third base for Uncle Bert’s Bombers.
While he remained active in athletic events, he eventually turned to using drugs to fill the void when his career ended. An addiction to cocaine destroyed him both physically and financially.
In 1987, his leg and foot were both crushed when he was hit by a car in San Francisco. After the accident, his life went into decline. He went on to be arrested and jailed for drugs – living on the streets of San Francisco for a number of years.
He would spend his final months with his sister in Oakland. He passed away on May 30, 1995, of AIDS complications, at the age of 42. When the news of his battle with AIDS became public, the A’s organization helped support him financially.
Before his death, he expressed little in the way of grudges and had one big regret – he never had the opportunity to pursue a second professional sports career in basketball.
In 1999, Major League Baseball player Bill Bean revealed his homosexuality, only the second MLB player to do such. Unlike Burke, who came out to his teammates while still active, Bean revealed it four years after retirement in 1995, the year Burke died.
Burke was among the first class of inductees into the National Gay and Lesbian Sports Hall of Fame on August 2, 2013. He went on to be inducted into the Baseball Reliquary’s Shrine of the Eternals in 2015 as well.
The Oakland A’s honored Burke as part of the A’s Pride Night on June 17, 22015. Burke’s brother, Sydney, threw the ceremonial first pitch at the game.
Glenn Burke will forever have an impact on the game of Major League Baseball as a true pioneer.
(Photo Credit: Getty Images)