*Writer Stacy Coronis (Edge Sports contributor) and Bob Brigham (Diamond Angle) wrote a fascinating piece for "Out Sports," in 2005, on the first “outed,” baseball player, Glenn Burke, as follows:

OUTED BASEBALL PLAYER:

It is the irony of sports that homophobia runs rampant in clubhouses and high school locker rooms but it is acceptable and normal to slap a teammate on the butt for a job well done, when that same gesture would beget questions about the perpetrator’s sexuality if done in anything but a sports context.  To be an athlete or a coach, especially as a professional, conotates manliness, screams of machismo. Irony strikes again, then, when one learns that the origin of the high five, a staple of sports masculinity, is attributed to a gay athlete, Glenn Burke. Glenn Burke introduced the world to the high five in 1977. Los Angeles Dodgers teammate Dusty Baker had just hit his 30th home run in the final game of the regular season. Burke ran out to congratulate Baker and began a trend that has spanned decades, countries and sports. This wasn’t Burke’s only first; he is also credited as the first professional athlete to openly discuss his homosexuality.

Always an exceptional athlete, Burke was the Northern California High School Basketball Player of the Year in 1970, a track star and touted by Dodgers coach Jim Gilliam as the next Willie Mays.  In 1972, Burke was recruited by the Dodgers and went to play minor league ball in Utah, Washington, Connecticut, and New Mexico before going on to the majors. While a minor leaguer, Burke moved rapidly through the farm system, impressing every coach he played for. Burke hit .300 or better in four of his five seasons playing minor league ball and stole a Pacific Coast League leading 63 bases, catching the Dodger’s attention. Once up at the show, the speedy 6’1," 200 pound 24 year old spent most of his time as a utility outfielder and became well liked on the team. Confidence on the field during his minor league career made Burke more confident in every area of his life. Claiming he always felt different, Burke did not act on his feelings until 1975, the heart of his minor league stint, but after that there was no turning back. Of course, Burke was aware of the enormous ramifications that coming out would produce and did not hold a press conference or pull aside every teammate and coach in the Dodgers organization to tell them of his sexual orientation, but he also did not go to great pains to hide. Burke dated, went to gay bars and even brought some men home to his family, who did not care who he dated, as long as he was happy.

Unfortunately, the Dodgers organization did not feel the same way. Originally enjoying an easy-going relationship with manager Tommy Lasorda, Burke and Lasorda’s relationship began to deteriorate towards the end Burke’s first full season in part because of Burke’s sexuality. In order to really bother his manager, Burke befriended Lasorda’s son Tommy Jr., or Spunky, as he was known, an extremely effeminate homosexual. Lasorda was not known to be very tolerant and the friendship worsened the strain between the two. This did nothing to help Burke keep his homosexuality quiet and his position with the team began to disintegrate. “They knew I was gay, and were worried about how the average father would feel about taking his son to a baseball game to see some fag shagging fly balls in center field,” Burke was quoted as saying. The Dodgers, and most likely any other professional team from any sport, did not want to be associated with homosexuality. Dodgers’ Vice President Al Campanis offered Burke a bonus if he would accept a marriage of convenience but Burke refused. This lead to Burke’s trade to the Oakland A’s at the end of his second major league season.

Burke’s short stint with the A’s was a mess from the beginning. The A’s were horrible, losing 93 games and 108 games in Burke’s two years with the team. The pressure of playing for a losing team, his hometown team, as well as the difficulty of trying to keep his public and private lives separate became a huge strain on the athlete. Sadly, Burke turned to drugs to help alleviate some of his stress. Burke drank and had a taste for cocaine and hard partying. Mixed with the stress and the substance abuse was a larger problem, his first long-term boyfriend, Michael J. Smith. In his autobiography, Burke calls Smith a user and a control freak. According to friends and family, Smith did not want Burke to have any friends and tried to control him. Burke had his own problems when it came to relationships; he liked to take the role of the younger man and be taken care of by his older lover, a role that Smith could fulfill. It was a complex relationship of mutual co-dependency that hurt Burke and brought him more into the spotlight.

In his second year with the A’s, Burke’s sexuality became more of an issue. His life in the gay district of San Francisco was increasingly seeping into his professional sports career across the bay. Eventually, the strain became too much and Burke retired mid-season. The next year Burke returned for spring training, but an injury to his knee and new manager Billy Martin’s vocal anti-gay sentiments led Burke to retire for good at age 28. According to friend and running buddy, Pancho Morales, Burke did not miss playing in the major leagues and, in his autobiography, Burke calls the year after his retirement the best of his life. Now able to live his life in the open, Burke fully embraced his life but still did not seek the spotlight. He played a major role in the Gay Softball League, which was a great source of happiness for him. His charisma and former professional status helped to elevate the league and gave gay athletes someone to look up to. He became a superstar in the world of gay athletics. Not everything went well, however. After Burke and Smith broke up they continued their relationship in a complex financial way. Burke lived with another older boyfriend, Art Searle, but continued to be financially tied to Smith. To add to their problems, Smith decided to out Burke by writing an article for Inside Sports in October 1982. He wrote about Burke’s double life as an athlete and a gay man, but failed to mention the relationship between the two of them. This led to Burke’s appearance on the Today show and his coming out as the first gay professional athlete to discuss his life. His family was proud of him and baseball ignored him.

Until 1987, Burke managed to live the good life – superstar status in the gay community, the chance to play sports, partying and everything that went with it, financial support from the men he dated. While crossing Pacific Avenue one day in 1987, everything changed for Burke. Hit by a car, his leg was broken in four places and he took months to recover. The loss of his physical prowess, an attribute that had come easily to him and had been the center of most of his life, was knocked out in a split second. When he finally got out of the hospital and tried to go back to the softball team, he found that he couldn’t perform the way he and others were used to. As a result, people began to slip out of Burke’s life and Burke went into full-blown self-destruct mode. Burke had always had a dark moody side, but the occasional outbursts became worse and he managed to alienate almost everyone he had once been friendly with. He also began to ask for loans and then started to steal and beg to support his drug habit, which was now the cheaper crack instead of cocaine. In just one short year, from 1987 to 1988, Burke had spiraled so out of control that he ended up in jail on drug possession. A year after that, he pled guilty to grand theft auto and another drug possession charge. Shipped off to San Quentin, Burke served four months of his 16-month sentence.

After his release from jail, Burke disappeared, even from his close-knit family. He wanted no help and no pity for the state of his life. Occasionally he would show up at one of his sisters’ houses, but never for long. In 1993 the official diagnosis came – Burke had AIDS, but he continued to live on the streets. By 1994, though, his conditioned had worsened to the point where Burke was finally willing to accept that he needed help and he moved in with a sister. Instead of resting quietly at home, Burke once again became the object of media attention, this time much stronger than at any time during his professional career. In the homophobic and AIDS paranoid culture of the ‘80s and ‘90s, Burke’s illness and former life as a big leaguer made him a top story. He was an object of pity for some and an object of scorn for others, but never as a real man, a man with more to him than some glory days playing baseball or some horrendous days has a homeless man suffering from AIDS. To those that were close to him and those that lived in his hometown, Burke was not be pigeonholed this way. The community rallied around him and offered support in any way possible. Perhaps this is what helped Burke let go of all the bitterness he had been carrying around about his accident and his untimely retirement from baseball. In the last months of his life, Burke collaborated on an autobiography where he even forgave former manager Tommy Lasorda for everything that had happened. He talked about the end of his life with expectation and hope, about seeing friends in heaven. When he died May 30, 1995 at age 42, he hopefully found the peace he was looking for.

Sadly, homophobia is still a major part of sports; Glenn Burke’s story should be an example to those who play that being gay does not take away a player’s masculinity of prowess.

 

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