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Glenn Burke was ideal Dodger teammate whose sexuality wasn't an issue

Glenn Burke, who played two seasons for the Dodgers in the late 1970s, didn't hide from teammates that he was gay. He was a popular figure in the clubhouse.

August 21, 2013|By Diane Pucin
  • Glenn Burke, who played for the Dodgers in the 1970s, didn't hide or advertise the fact that he was a gay man.
Glenn Burke, who played for the Dodgers in the 1970s, didn't hide or… (Associated Press )

Glenn Burke was just doing what came naturally.

Dusty Baker's home run blast to left field on the last day of the regular season, Oct. 2, 1977, was history-making. It was his 30th, meaning the Dodgers became the first team to have four players hit 30 home runs in a season.

As Baker rounded third to the roar of the Dodger Stadium crowd, Burke, a rookie outfielder, ran from the on-deck circle, jumped up and gave Baker an over-the-head hand-slap in celebration.

And, the high-five was born.

Most people don't remember Burke for that moment — or, frankly, any other moment — during his two years with the Dodgers. The onetime Oakland prep basketball star would be gone from the Dodgers a year later. Two years after that, he was out of baseball.

Burke was mostly forgotten as a ballplayer. But, it was also forgotten that he was a trailblazer for something far more significant than the high-five.

NBA player Jason Collins recently came out as being the first active U.S. professional male athlete in a major team sport to announce he was gay. But Collins was not even the first athlete with Los Angeles ties to deal with this issue.

In thanking all the people who came before him, Collins never mentioned Burke, who never held a news conference to say he was gay. He neither hid it nor advertised it. He spent his playing career as a guy who could keep the clubhouse light, make teammates laugh and make friendships that would last.

Burke was hardly the only gay athlete in the 1970s.

David Kopay didn't come out until his NFL career ended. He wrote in his 1977 autobiography, "The David Kopay Story," that playing pro football would have been "impossible" as an openly gay player.

Diver Greg Louganis, born in 1960, won Olympic gold medals at the 1984 and 1988 Olympics and was already a star when the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Games. Tom Waddell, who finished sixth in the 1968 Olympic decathlon, was openly gay when he competed in Mexico City. Waddell went on to organize the first "Gay Olympics" and died of complications from AIDS in 1987.

Even as early as 1920, tennis player Bill Tilden toured the world as an openly gay athlete. But in the world of baseball, where so much of an athlete's time is spent in the close confines of the clubhouse, before and after games, it was more difficult.

Cyd Ziegler, a co-founder of a website, outsports.com, that writes about and keeps track of gay athletes, said that there has been a huge cultural transformation since Burke's athletic days.

"Let's face it," Ziegler said. "We live in Hollywood, one of the most liberal places in the world, and Liberace went out of his way to claim he was straight. Rock Hudson too. The idea that a pro baseball player would be welcomed if he became publicly gay is just not true.

"At that time it was still totally accepted for someone to say, 'I hate gay people.' That was a legitimate position. Today that is simply not a legitimate or respected place to be."

Since Burke's revelation, the only other major league player to make the same acknowledgment has been Billy Bean, who played for the Detroit Tigers, the Dodgers and the San Diego Padres before he announced he was gay in 1999.

Yet Burke's Dodgers teammates seemed to know, accept and understand him.

Dodgers broadcaster Rick Monday, who started in center field when Burke was with the Dodgers, described a moment in 1977 when the team was playing in Philadelphia during the National League playoffs.

"I remember a championship [series] game in Philly," Monday said.

"It was cold and rainy and he put on an overcoat and hat and had the entire locker room rolling on the floor laughing. He could take any moment in time and make it fun. There was no better guy in the clubhouse, I'll tell you that. There was no one who didn't love having Glenn around."

Burke can no longer tell his story. He died at age 42 in 1995 from AIDS-related pneumonia.

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Lutha Davis, Burke's sister, said she had no idea her brother was gay when he was growing up in Oakland.

"Glenn just ate and slept sports," she said of one of two boys in a family of eight children. "Baseball, basketball, it didn't matter. He was a late bloomer and I always thought of Glenn as a man's man. He was the kind of young man most men desire to be."

As a teenager, Burke was considered the class clown, according to Abdul-Jalil al-Hakim, Burke's friend and future agent. But it was in a good way, always telling jokes or making funny comments. "Hurrahs," they were called, al-Hakim said. "Glenn was always making the best hurrahs."

But the jokes, al-Hakim said, may have been Burke's way of coping with the secret he was keeping.

Burke wrote in his 1995 autobiography, "Out at Home: The Glenn Burke Story," that it wasn't until after high school that he understood why he didn't want to date, even though he was often pursued by girls.

"I know I was different," Burke wrote. "I wasn't dating either men or women. [It] just wasn't part of my life. Period."

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