In more than 140 years of professional baseball, over 17,000 players have passed through the major leagues. Only two have been openly gay.
Glenn Burke was the first.
Looking at his stats, there is nothing remarkable about the 225 Major League Baseball (MLB) games played by Glenn Burke. In parts of four seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Oakland Athletics from 1976 to 1979, the outfielder batted a pedestrian .237, stole 35 bases and slugged two homeruns. Despite the numbers, though, Burke has a lasting legacy within the game’s long history.
At an event Wednesday night, the late Burke was honored for his contributions to his sport and community.
“It’s an amazing story,” said organizer Jorge Leon. “I wanted to make sure people knew about it.”
The event—held at the downtown Oaklandish store—included a screening of Out: The Glenn Burke Story, a one-hour 2010 documentary produced by Comcast SportsNet Bay Area. The documentary follows Burke from his days as a star athlete at Berkeley High School, where his number is retired, to his early death in 1995 at the age of 42.
Burke is the only player to have been openly out—to his teammates and coaches, at least— during his playing career. Outfielder Billy Bean (not to be confused with A’s general manager Billy Beane), spent parts of six MLB seasons with the Detroit Tigers, Los Angeles Dodgers, and San Diego Padres, came out publicly in 1999, four years after retiring.
Although Burke didn’t publicly acknowledge his sexual orientation until 1982, the documentary includes interviews with former friends and teammates explaining that Burke’s homosexuality was not a secret. During his time with the LA Dodgers, general manager Al Campanis offered to pay for a lavish honeymoon if Burke agreed to marry a woman. He refused. The documentary also points to Burke’s relationship with Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda’s son as the reason he was traded to the Oakland A’s after the 1977 season. With his new team, Burke was openly called “faggot” by manager Billy Martin.
According to the documentary, the tension created by Burke’s openness directly contributed to his abrupt retirement from the game at 27.
After leaving baseball, Burke settled into San Francisco’s Castro District, where he was hailed as a hero of the gay community after making several media appearances to tell his story. But without the stability of the game, Burke got caught up in the area’s party lifestyle and the remainder of his life unfolded in a series of tragic events. In 1987, his foot and leg were shattered when he was hit by a car. After the accident, Burke developed a severe cocaine addiction and was briefly imprisoned for drug possession and grand theft. Following his release from prison, Burke spent several years living on the streets before succumbing to AIDS-related complications in 1995.
Jorge Leon, president of The Green Stampede, a non-profit tutoring group that works with the Oakland A’s and who organized the event Wednesday night, originally read about Burke several years ago and then saw the documentary on TV last year. While brainstorming possible event ideas with a Green Stampede board member, Leon thought of Burke and wanted to help share his story. Even though Burke’s life ended in such grim disarray, Leon still believes the story deserves wider appreciation. “As an Oaklander, I feel like we need a lot of positives in this city, and this is one of them,” said Leon. “We have a strong lesbian and gay population in Oakland, so why not do something for that community and have Oakland be proud of that too?”
Leon presented a plaque commemorating Burke to the Oakland Coliseum’s Joint Powers Authority, which will display it in a yet-to-be-determined location in the Coliseum complex.
Sean Sullivan, a local LGBT advocate who spoke at the event, said that Burke’s story “displayed integrity, courage, and great pride.”
“I’m thankful for them putting the plaque in the Coliseum,” said Sullivan, “because so many people don’t know about Glenn Burke, and even in a welcoming climate like Oakland, we need to raise awareness for the LGBT community.”
Despite praising Burke’s story and the importance of the event, Sullivan criticized the A’s organization for not doing more to tell Burke’s story. “I don’t believe that the A’s themselves have shown that they are really proud of their history and they certainly have not done anything to lift up Glenn Burke,” said Sullivan.
Detra Paige, Director of Community Relations for the Oakland A’s, was in attendance Wednesday night, said she was “not aware of any efforts by the A’s to keep Glenn Burke’s legacy alive.” (The organization did cooperate with the documentary production by contacting former players.)
In addition to telling Burke’s story, Sullivan thinks the A’s should join their Bay Area counterparts, the San Francisco Giants, in shooting a video for the “It Gets Better” campaign. The Giants became the first professional sports team to join the campaign, which is directed at LGBT teens who suffer from bullying because of their sexual orientation, when they responded in May to an online petition that contained more than 6,000 signatures asking the Giants to make a video telling local LGBT youth that their lives will improve.
A similar petition, started in June and urging the A’s to make an “It Gets Better” video, currently has over 1,900 signatures. In late August, the Tampa Bay Rays and Philadelphia Phillies became the sixth and seventh MLB organizations to produce “It Gets Better” videos.
“The plaque is a first step,” Sullivan said. “But we’re asking that [the A’s] take on leadership for our young people and send a positive message that all people are welcome, and there is a support network out there for LGBT teens.”
The San Francisco Giants have held an annual “LGBT Night Out” home game to raise money and awareness for the LGBT community since 2002. They have also hosted an annual AIDS awareness day, titled “Until There’s a Cure,” since 1994. The A’s hold no such events.
“[The Oakland A’s] want to raise awareness about anyone who’s bullied,” said Paige. “At this juncture no decision has been made, but that’s not to say we won’t look at every request that comes through.”
The subject of alternative lifestyles in baseball, and professional American sports as a whole, comes at a time when other aspects of society—government, entertainment, military, business— are increasingly accepting. Sean Sullivan sees the lack of gay figures in professional baseball as a problem. “Over 6,500 baseball players have played since Glenn Burke retired, and none of them have come out,” Sullivan said. “No one feels comfortable.”
In May, Rick Welts, then President and CEO of the Phoenix Suns basketball team, came out publicly in an interview with the New York Times, becoming the first active, openly acknowledged gay executive with any pro sports team.
“This is one of the last industries where the subject is off limits,” Welts told the Times. “Nobody’s comfortable in engaging in a conversation.” Earlier this week, Welts resigned from the Suns after nine years, citing personal reasons. He said his decision to leave had nothing to do with his sexual orientation or the response to his coming out.
Earlier this year, several instances of anti-gay slurs shouted by athletes and coaches raised awareness about the acceptance, or lack thereof, of gays in sports. In April, LA Lakers star Kobe Bryant was fined $100,000 for yelling a gay slur at a referee. Later that month, Atlanta Braves pitching coach and former player Roger McDowell was suspended without pay for two weeks following an altercation with fans in San Francisco who accused him of using gay slurs.
Despite playing over thirty years ago, Burke’s story is especially relevant in light of these recent events. “We can’t have these unsung heroes,” said Sullivan. “We need to be proud of them and rally behind them. This is a positive first step, like getting to first base. But we want to get all the way home.”