Glenn Burke: African-American Gay Baseball Player

Glenn Burke

Pride Month is upon us, and in these admittedly troubled times, I sometimes find it inspirational to compare and contrast what was going on in 1978, forty years ago, in the world of LGBTQ persons.

1978 was a year of hope and tragedy; the gay icon Harvey Milk was assassinated, but the Briggs initiative, which would have banned gay and lesbian persons from being teachers in California, was defeated.

But something else was going in the world of sports, which resulted in an action spontaneously made by the first openly gay major league baseball player becomming a common physical expression in our culture.
 

Newspaper article about Glenn Burke entitled We'll Never Know How Good He Could Have Been

Glenn Burke, known as “King Kong” by his colleagues because of his massive biceps, was the first openly gay Major League baseball player. And he was open about it.

According to an NPR interview, “Because you'd look over in his locker, you know, and he had his red jock in his locker. You know, nobody wore a red jock, you know? And Glenn wore a red jock and, you know, he'd be dancing around in the clubhouse.”

Hmm … I did not know wearing a red jockstrap was indicative of one's sexual orientation, but times were different, and also according to the interview, the teammates in the minor leagues really did not know.

But then, also according to the interview, the Latino guys figured it out, and started calling him “maricón” (which means, essentially, faggot), perhaps jokingly, and they supported him when he entered the major leagues.

Glenn played on the Dodgers, and when the management found out he was gay, they offered him $75,000 to get married. To this offer, Burke replied with acerbic wit, “I guess you mean to a woman.” Burke did not get married.
 

Glenn Burke Dodgers baseball calrd

He was traded to the Oakland A's as a result, close to San Francisco, at that time the gay mecca of meccas. But Glenn was not able to thrive. Billy Martin came over from the Yankees to manage the team soon after, and his homophobia was apparent. During the spring training, he was introducing all the players to the new players that were coming in. When he got to Glenn, he said, “Oh, by the way, this is Glenn Burke, and he's a faggot.”

The discrimination and harassment continued, and Glenn was demoted to Triple-A ball. He retired at the age of 27.

The story gets sadder, but there's a happy twist. Glenn Burke invented the high five! Yes, he did!

According to an article in the Advocate, Burke was waiting for his chance at bat on October 22, 1977. The Dodgers were playing against the Houston Astros. Left fielder Dusty Baker had just hit his 30th home run, putting the team into the playoffs. As Baker came back from his circuit around the bases, Burke thrust his hand out into the air. Burke instinctively slapped Baker's palm. Voila! Right after that action, Burke, his his first major league home run. When he returned to the dugout, Baker gaive Burke that high five.
 

Glenn Burke giving a high five on the baseball field

Glenn Burke died of AIDS-related complications on May 30, 1995, after struggles with drug addiction and homelessness.

If it wasn't for the legacy of Glenn Burke, Jason Collins and Michael Sam would still be unable to be their true selves in the sports world.

And Glenn's integrity makes those high fives, that expression of pride and jubilation, so much more meaningful. There's a history behind all of them them, and a history we should not forget in a time when one doubts that the arc of the universe curves toward justice.

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