High Five: Glenn Burke

A quick look into a baseball pioneer and the inventor of the high five!

On October 2, 1977, the Dodgers stood to make history. Steve Garvey, Ron Cey, and Reggie Smith knocked in at least 30 home runs for the season. Dusty Baker entered the last game of the season with 29.

If Dusty Baker could hit a home run, the Dodgers would become the first team to have four teammates hit at least 30 home runs for the season. The Dodgers had already clinched a visit to the postseason. Manager Tommy Lasorda kept Baker in the lineup, despite giving some players time off, to give Baker a chance to hit number 30.

 

High Five

 

On the last game of the season, the Astros sent 6’8″, 220-pound, 100 mile-per-hour flame-throwing right-hander J. R. Richards to the mound, looking for his eighteenth win of the season. Baker wasn’t excited about his chances to hit his thirtieth home run of the season. His teammates, including rookie Glenn Burke, offered encouragement. In the bottom of the sixth inning, Richards gave up a home run to Manny Mota. Later in the inning, with Burke on deck, Baker finally hit his thirtieth home run of the year.

Glenn Burke was so excited he ran up to Baker shouting “Way to go!” and extended his right hand high in the air waiting for Baker to slap it. Baker slapped his right hand into Burke’s to produce the “high five” out of Astrodome’s climate-controlled air. 

For Baker and the rest of Burke’s teammates, the spontaneous celebration was not new. Burke’s electric personality was infectious on a team heading towards the World Series. Davey Lopes called Glenn Burke an invaluable piece of the Dodger’s clubhouse.

He would often bolt in front of manager Tommy Lasorda to congratulate teammates coming off the field. Born with a great sense of humor, Burke gave his teammates nicknames and could keep the clubhouse rolling in laughter.

Teammates said his joking kept their heads clear to hit. He kept the clubhouse loose by dancing to music from an almost always present boom box. He dressed with a style that would rub off on his teammates. The young rookie became integral to a team loaded with veteran talent.

 

An Open Secret In the Clubhouse

 

Glenn Burke had an open secret with his teammates. He was gay. His teammates knew. But for a few teammates that started wearing towels, they accepted him. 

Glenn Burke grew up with his mother and four sisters in Oakland. His mother left his abusive father in 1952 while she was pregnant with Glenn. On the day Alice Burke finally left her husband, she cooked Luther breakfast. After he left for work, she moved everything out and left. She did, however, leave Luther a chair and a table with his dinner prepared. After Glenn was born, Luke would become an infrequent guest to Glenn’s life. Alice’s love, courage, and strength as a young African American single mother gave her five children a safe and loving childhood. After Glenn came out, his biggest supporters were his family.

Glenn was a standout athlete at Berkeley High School, leading the Yellow Jackets in an undefeated basketball season in 1970 and Northern California champion. While he excelled at baseball, he accepted a basketball scholarship to the University of Denver. His skill in college hoops was never an issue, it was the scholastic side that he lacked enthusiasm for. He eventually left Denver for the comfort of home. Receiving an offer from the Dodgers in 1972, he gave up his dream of basketball to play baseball for a paycheck. 

Working his way through the Dodgers’ minor league system, Burke began to see that he was different from the other plays.

A naturally muscular body and outgoing nature made Glenn an attraction while out with this teammates. His personality had some quirks and he was prone to fighting authority.

In frustration, he would threaten to leave baseball and try basketball again. He could be friendly and appreciate the help the coaches gave, yet would still explode with anger and threats when he felt he was wronged. He never felt right.

Burke realized that, unlike his teammates, he wasn’t interested in the opposite sex. Progressing closer to the big leagues, he realized that he was gay. During the season he would party with his teammates and energize the clubhouse while becoming a major league prospect. But, during the off-season, he would return home, spending time in the Castro district in nearby San Franciso.

In his early 20s, Burke explored his sexuality and began to have relationships. When the season started up, he was back on the road. At times, he would beg off going out with his teammates. Instead, he would secretly find a gay bar, keeping a close lookout for people that might recognize him. It was not unusual to see familiar faces enter the bar. Burke wasn’t alone in baseball.

 

The Future Looks Bright

 

Burke’s baseball skills would lead him to a 1976 call-up to the Dodgers, but he was sent back to AAA at the start of 1977. The Dodgers had just signed Rick Monday to play centerfield despite Glenn’s work the previous year. His play had the Dodgers calling him the next Willie Mays, but the Dodgers opted for a veteran presence in Monday for their World Series push in 1977. 

Monday was hurt, forcing the Dodgers to call Burke up to play in Monday’s stead. Burke quickly made an impact on the field, hitting .254 while stealing 13 bases in 83 games. His versatility allowed him to play all the positions in the outfield and his personality tied the team together.

Even as his teammates learned that he was gay, they still respected him. Hitless in four games of the NLCS, he still got to start Game 1 of the World Series and appeared in 3 of the 6 World Series games. The young rookie had a bright future ahead of him. 

During the off-season, Dodger GM Al Campanis came to the Bay Area to meet with Burke. Burke thought they would review the 1977 season and discuss the plan for the 1978 season. Campanis was there to convince Burke to get married. “You mean to a woman?” Burke replied.

Campanis stood his ground, offering $75,000 to Burke to get married. Burke had no plans to many anybody, he wanted to play ball. Campanis, reportedly, let Burke know his Dodger future was in the balance. 

There is speculation Tommy Lasorda might have been driving this. Lasorda’ son, Tommy Lasorda Jr. was also gay. Lasorda Jr., or “Spunky,” as everybody called him, was into fashion, photography, and modeling. Spunky and Burke developed a friendship that may have blossomed into a relationship at one point.

Lasorda Sr., while having a good relationship with his son, was not openly supportive of his son’s sexuality. When Spunky died of complications of AIDS, Lasorda Sr. refused to accept it, claiming he died of pneumonia. Burke’s teammates may have accepted him but the front office was not pleased. Running around with the coach’s son probably didn’t help.

 

When People Just Are Not Ready For You

 

Baseball as a sport was not ready for Burke and he knew that. In 1974, The Advocate sent letters to all Major League teams requesting an interview with players leading a gay lifestyle. They wished to show their audience that that gay people were a part of everybody’s life. A typical response was sent by then Twins PR director Tom Mee:

Your colossal gall in attempting to extend your perversion to an area of total manhood is just simply unthinkable.

In 1977, the singer Anita Bryant led a successful campaign to overturn a Miami law providing equal rights to gay people. During the campaign, she would refer to gay people as “human garbage.” Burke’s acceptance by his teammates was not a reflection of the world outside the clubhouse.

Campanis was right, Burke was not in the plans in 1978. The promise of 1977 wasn’t enough to keep Burke with the Dodgers. He was traded in May to the Oakland A’s. Teammates cried when they heard the news.

Oakland was a team in dire straits. Gone were the superstars that lead the team to three straight World Series championships. The team was floundering and so did Glenn Burke. By the time Billy Martin was hired to be the A’s manager for the 1980 season, Burke had left baseball.

Perhaps it was because the bigoted Martin would refer to Burke as a “f****t.” During his first year in Oakland, Burke was with the A’s playing the Yankees. A young Yankees fan had his giveaway signature book. He offered the book to Glenn Burke, who signed it with a smile. That young man, Erik Sherman, still has that signature book.

A former partner, Micheal Smith, wrote an article in 1982 for Inside Sport that publicly outed Burke. In that same year, he competed in the 100m and 200m sprint in the 1982 Gay Games. In the 1986 Gay Games, he showed his basketball skill set off again. He played softball in several Gay Softball leagues in San Fransisco.

 

Paying Back Kindness

 

Burke’s life, to that point, had been about sports. As sports were slowly leaving his life, he turned to drugs. He ended up in jail and eventually became homeless. Burke was found and was offered help, but was dying of AIDS.

Erik Sherman, now a writer, read a story in the newspaper about Burke fighting AIDS. In November of 1994, he sent a book proposal to the Oakland A’s about writing Glenn Burke’s story. Many people did. Burke, without knowing it, had chosen the boy to write his biography before either of them realized it.

Sherman and Burke spent a week together getting the stories for the book. When Sherman was getting ready to leave, Burke gave Sherman a bat from his playing days. Once again, Sherman got an autograph. The bat said, “Have a Great Life.” Sadly, Burke died on May 30, 1995, before Sherman could finish the book. Eventually, Sherman was able to complete the book, entitled “Out at Home – The Glenn Burke Story.”

The Oakland A’s helped the hometown-born Burke during the last part of his life. The A’s renamed their Pride Night to Glenn Burke Pride Night. In 2014 MLB honored Burke at the All-Star game. Some things remain the same after all these years.

Unless you were at the pregame press conference you missed it. The press conference was not on TV. Burke failed to be mentioned during the game. The Dodgers rarely, if ever, mention Glenn Burke. 

Sometimes, progress is too slow. His teammates loved him, but too many people were not ready to accept him. But, in his own words. Glenn Burke proved something that doesn’t need proof now and didn’t over 40 years ago:

They can’t ever say now that a gay man can’t play in the majors, because I’m a gay man and I made it.

Mat Kovach

Despite being an Indians fan in the late 70's I grew to love baseball. I started throwing spitballs when I was 10 and have been fascinated with competitive shenanigans in baseball ever since.

Account / Login
>