1000 Words: Gay Too Soon

It was some time in the late 1970s. The sun was shining, the wind was blowing, there were a few puffy, white cumulus clouds scuttling across the sky. It was a perfect day to be in the bleachers at Wrigley Field.

Not that the Cubs were any good; they never were from mid-1973 through the end of 1983. The only reasons I’d want to be in the Wrigley Field bleachers back then were the historic beauty of the ballpark, the glorious summer day, and the opportunity to rub shoulders with the characters who preferred the cheap seats.

Those characters that day were giving hell to the Los Angeles Dodgers left fielder, a fellow named Glenn Burke. He was the team’s fourth outfielder but for some reason was starting that day. A finely chiseled, extraordinarily athletic, and exquisitely handsome person, Burke never achieved stardom in Major League Baseball. It was as if Michelangelo had cut his figure from a huge slab of marble, but Burke never was able to master the art of hitting major league pitching. It’s no insult to say that as hitting a pitched baseball long has been known as the most difficult feat in all sports. Burke hung around the bigs for just four years.

He was beloved in the Dodgers clubhouse. He was a happy-go-lucky, jocular, fabulously dressed, breath of fresh air in an environment that too often can become oppressive due to the overwhelming pressure to win, to succeed. The Dodgers already had a long tradition of succeeding at that time and have carried that tradition though to this day. The team was and is not usually prone to suffering lousy players. Glenn Burke offered the promise of becoming a great one. Sadly he never did.

“I tell you, he was the life of the party,” longtime and peripatetic manager Dusty Baker, Burke’s teammate on the Dodgers, told a reporter for a story in today’s New York Times. “He’d get out and dance; he could dance his butt off. He’d crack on anybody, and we loved having Glenn around. Glenn was a big part of our team, man.”

He came up to the Dodgers in 1976, played in a couple of World Series with them, and was abruptly traded away in May, ’78. His teammates were shocked when they heard the news. A number of them openly wept in the clubhouse. Burke was only 25 years old when Los Angeles pulled the plug on him. This Greek god of an athlete conceivably could have become great star as he entered his prime years but the Dodgers’ brass had their own reason for wanting to be rid of him.

Glenn Burke was gay.

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The High and Lows of Glenn Burke’s Life.

Burke, at first, wouldn’t come out to his bosses but most of his teammates knew about his private life. To their credit, they didn’t care. Even big tough guys like Dusty Baker embraced him, despite baseball’s long tradition of imposing a crushing homophobic, misogynistic mind set on its players.

Somehow, though, the Dodgers brass found out about Burke’s love life. The story goes that Dodgers’ general manager Al Campanis summoned Burke and offered him a $75,000 honeymoon if he would only get married. Burke, reading the handwriting on the wall, responded, “To a woman?”

Next thing anybody knew, Burke was shipped off to the Oakland Athletics for pennies on the dollar. Another story goes that Oakland manager Billy Martin, a notorious hard-ass, described him as a “fag” when informing A’s players of their new teammate. Later, Martin, no longer able to bear being around a gay man, mistook for Burke a young minor leaguer playing outfield outfield during a spring training game. “Get that motherfucking homosexual out of there!” Martin ordered. The young player was promptly sent back to the minor leagues, ending his major league career before it had even started. So it can be said Burke’s sexual orientation ruined two players’ careers — although it’d be far more accurate to state old hard-assed men’s ass-holiness really did that trick.

In any case, we in the bleachers that beautiful summer day knew nothing about Glenn Burke’s private life, only that he was wearing the uniform of a hated enemy, so several thousand bleacherites razzed him mercilessly. Finally, after six or so innings of enduring verbal abuse, insults, slurs, and the almost-constant, loud incantation, “Burke, you suck!,” he’d had enough. Burke turned away from the field of play, faced us, and grabbed his package, the look on his face clearly conveying the opprobrium, “Fuck you!”

There was silence for a moment then, suddenly, as if a switch had been flipped, the bleachers erupted in raucous laughter and cheers. At least half of the crowd gave Burke a standing ovation. People raised their beer cups to him. A few saluted. Burke’s face then broke into huge grin. He saluted back. The razzing, the insulting, the slurring, the endless chants of “Burke, you suck!” stopped. For the rest of the game, Burke was almost as popular among the bleacherites as if he were a member of the Cubs.

I’ve never forgotten that incident. Glenn Burke gave back to the bleacherites in language and gesture they appreciated. He won them over by playing their own game.

Much of Burke’s life after baseball was sad. He came out in a 1982 Inside Sports magazine profile. He competed in the Gay Games that year and won medals for sprinting. But later, he had problems finding work and got into substance abuse. He was homeless for a while and spent some time in jail on drug charges. Then he contracted AIDS. He died, after living his last few months with his sister, in 1995.

Times have changed, thank goodness. After Burke’s troubles became widely known, the Oakland A’s helped him with his living expenses. Major League Baseball honored him at the 2014 All-star Game. The A’s have named their annual Pride Night for him. He was elected to the National Gay and Lesbian Sports Hall of Fame.

And tonight, the Los Angeles Dodgers are honoring his surviving family at their ninth annual LGBTQ+ Night celebration.

This holy land has come a long way since the late 1970s, even if we still have a hell of a long way to go.


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