The Dodgers knew that Glenn Burke was good. The young outfielder, star of their minor league system, had the strength and speed of Willie Mays and an irrepressible energy all his own.
But they also knew that Burke was gay, and they were uncomfortable with it. At one point, according to Burke, the team’s vice president offered to pay for his honeymoon if he would only get married (“to a woman,” it went without saying). Eventually, the bright young ballplayer was traded to another team. The Dodgers management, many of Burke’s teammates later claimed, didn’t want a gay man in the clubhouse.
That was in 1978.
Nearly four decades later, another young man has let it be known to his teammates that he is gay. And he’s told the rest of the world as well. In a feature published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel this weekend, 20-year-old David Denson described his decision to come out first to his fellow Helena Brewers players (the team is a minor league affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers).
“I wasn’t doing it to be brave. I just couldn’t hide it anymore,” he told the Journal Sentinel. But the Brewers said they would support him.
“For them to be so accepting and want the best for me, it showed they are looking at me for my ability, not my sexuality,” Denson added. “… It was a huge relief.”
Denson’s announcement has been lauded by the news media, his teammates and Major League Baseball’s ambassador for inclusion, Billy Bean. It’s heralded as the first of its kind from a player with an MLB affiliate.
Still, Denson is not the first person to be openly gay while playing professional baseball. Glenn Burke may never have sat down for a talk with his fellow players, and his magazine profile announcement (in a 1982 issue of Inside Sports) didn’t come until after he had left the sport.
But for a period of about two years, between 1978 and 1980, Burke lashed out line drives on the field, then left after the game for the gay bars in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood. And, according to his teammates, everyone knew.
The difference was that in the late ’70s, the press, the Dodgers and the MLB weren’t willing to recognize it.
“They knew the way parents know their 16-year-old is drinking beer but don’t say anything until the bottles are rolling across the floor of the family car,” explained the 1982 Inside Sports profile. “As long as Burke’s homosexuality was not official, no one felt compelled to react.”
Burke, a native of Oakland, Calif., signed with the Dodgers in 1972. By the end of his five-year stint in the minors, he knew that he was gay. But he had also resolved to keep quiet about it, to get so good at the game that they couldn’t do anything but accept him. “I kept saying, ‘As long as I bat .300, and do what I have to do, they can’t say nothing,'” he told The Washington Post in 1994.
He was called up to Los Angeles at the end of the 1977 season, joining what the New York Times called “the big, blue wrecking crew” as it hurtled toward the World Series (which they later lost to the New York Yankees). Though Burke was just a rookie, he quickly became the soul of the Dodgers dugout, always cracking jokes and breaking into dances from the bench.
On the last day of the regular season, with 46,000 fans roaring their approval, Burke’s teammate Dusty Baker slammed a home run high over the left field fence — his 30th of the year. The Dodgers had just become the first team in baseball history to have four players hit 30 home runs apiece.
As Baker rounded the bases, Burke dashed out of the on-deck circle in his warm up jacket, right arm raised high. In photos, Baker leans backward, his own right arm crooked awkwardly up, as if he isn’t sure what’s coming. Then the two slapped their hands together.
It was the first (documented) high five in history, according to ESPN. When Burke stepped into the batter’s box and launched his own home run — his first in the major leagues — minutes later, Baker was waiting at home plate to greet him with a high five of his own.
“All I did was respond to Glenn. That’s all I did,” Baker recalled to ESPN in 2014.
Burke was well-liked in the Dodgers clubhouse, which was what made it unusual that he so rarely went out with his teammates after games. By the following year, many on the team had figured it out: Burke was going out to gay bars instead.
Before the start of the 1978 season, Burke often said, Dodgers Vice President Al Campanis offered Burke $75,000 to get married.
“I guess you mean to a woman,” Burke responded rebelliously, according to ESPN. (Campanis later explained that the offer was intended as a “helpful gesture” for Burke’s honeymoon.)
Burke’s relationship with management was further strained by his friendship with the son of the Dodger’s manager Tommy Lasorda, according to the New York Times. Tommy Lasorda Jr. was reportedly a fixture of L.A.’s gay social scene, but his father had always denied his sexuality. When the younger man died at age 33 from complications due to AIDS, his obituary said that the cause was pneumonia and severe dehydration.
In May 1978, just two months into the season, it was announced that Burke was being traded to the Oakland Athletics for the much older Billy North.
Burke and his teammates were shocked.
“I was talking with our trainer, Bill Buhler. I said, ‘Bill, why’d they trade Glenn? He was one of our top prospects,'” Baker recalled to Inside Sports. “He said, ‘They don’t want any gays on the team.’ I said, ‘The organization knows?’ He said, ‘Everybody knows.'”
Burke started regularly for the Athletics in 1978, but the following season a pinched nerve in his neck kept him off the field. In 1980 he returned to Oakland, where a man named Billy Martin was now manager.
the 2010 documentary “Out: The Glenn Burke story,” Athletics teammate Claudell Washington recalled how Martin introduce the new teammates that year: “Then he got to Glenn and said, ‘Oh, by the way, this is Glenn Burke and he’s a f—-t.'”
Martin wasn’t the only person throwing slurs around. Burke told Inside Sports that, while playing center field at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, a fan yelled out the same word.
He thought, “Damn, if they know, everybody else must know,” he told the magazine.
His teammates were uncomfortable around him. Some of them avoided the showers while he was in the clubhouse.
“I liked Glenn, but if I’d seen him walking around making it obvious, I wouldn’t have had anything to do with him. I don’t want to be labeled and have my career damaged,” A’s outfielder Mitchell Page told Inside Sports in 1982. Then, he warned the magazine, “You make sure you point out that I’m not gay, okay?”
Eventually his sense of isolation, compounded by a knee injury and demotion to the minors, drove Burke to leave baseball altogether. He came out publicly two years later, the first former player to do so in baseball history. (Until this week, only one other person had done so since — Billy Bean, who now serves as the MLB’s ambassador for inclusion.)
“I had finally gotten to the point,” he told Inside Sports, “where it was more important to be myself than a baseball player.”
Burke went on to star in gay baseball and softball leagues and won medals in the Gay Olympics, according to the New York Times. But his life was derailed by injury, addiction and the still-painful loss of his beloved sport.
In 1995, just before his death from AIDS complications, Burke published a memoir on his experiences as an openly gay baseball player. During the press tour, he lamented that his coming out never made the waves he had hoped for. The sports world seemed unwilling to acknowledge what he had tried to make so obvious.
“I think everyone just pretended not to hear me. It just wasn’t a story they were ready to hear,” he told People Magazine that year.
For the next 15 years things more or less remained that way. But as other gay professional athletes have begun to break their silence on their sexuality — the NBA’s Jason Collins, the NFL’s Michael Sam — baseball and those who write about it have proven more receptive to hearing Burke’s story. He was the subject of an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary. Jamie Lee Curtis reportedly bought the rights to adapt Burke’s memoir into a movie. His name gets a brief mention every time another athlete comes out.
In 2014 the MLB invited Burke’s family to the All-Star Game in Minneapolis, the same time it announced the creation of Bean’s position of “ambassador for inclusion.” It was in that position that Bean counseled young David Denson on his own decision to come out to his team.
“It’s time,” Burke’s sister, Lutha, told the New York Times last year. “… Make sure that other little boys get a chance to live out their dream. Glenn would be very proud. Something good has come out of it in the end.”