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MLB Failed Glenn Burke but Won't Fail Its Next Gay Player

Major League Baseball doesn't have a gay player, but they're taking steps to ensure that it won't be a big deal when they do.
Photo via San Jose Mercury News

In the last two years we've witnessed an astonishing amount of progress for gay men in the world of sports. Robbie Rogers became the first openly gay man to compete in a top North American sports league in 2013 when he debuted with Major League Soccer's Los Angeles Galaxy, Jason Collins came out in a first-person Sports Illustrated cover story before signing with the Brooklyn Nets, and linebacker Michael Sam came out months before the NFL Draft, wound up getting picked by the St. Louis Rams, and took part in one of the most indelible moments in sports television history when ESPN showed him and his boyfriend kissing after Sam's name got called.


Major League Baseball, however, remains officially 100 percent hetero. While it's statistically likely that there is a penis-loving man among the 750 players on MLB's 30 rosters, he's still in the closet, or at least keeping a very low profile. To its credit, though, the league is making a concerted effort to foster an inclusive and tolerant league and make it easier for a player in the future to say, "I like dudes. No, I mean I like like dudes." To understand why MLB is doing this, it's instructive to look at the story of Glenn Burke.

Last summer in ESPN the Magazine, writer Jon Mooallem attempted to discover the inventor of the high-five by investigating the popular urban legends surrounding the gesture. One of the suspected fathers of the now-famous palm slap was Burke, a marginal outfielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Oakland A's in the late 70s. Nicknamed King Kong because of his "astonishing physique and 17-inch biceps," Burke is believed to have spontaneously invented the move on the last day of the 1977 regular season while congratulating teammate Dusty Baker as he returned to the dugout after hitting his 30th home run of the season. Burke hit the first home run of his career in the next at-bat and was high-fived by Baker in return. And so history was made.

Burke was a well-liked member of the Dodgers that season, known to light up the clubhouse with comedy routines and assorted gags, but he was also gay, something he figured out about himself while in the minors. While his secret was safe during his playing days, Burke was the subject of rumors, which the team tried to put a stop to. Al Campanis, then a Dodgers executive, even supposedly offered him $75,000 to get married during the 1977 offseason. Burke declined but managed a wonderful response, according to Mooallem's account: "I guess you mean to a woman."


Around this same time, Burke was fast becoming friends with manager Tommy Lasorda's son, Spunky, himself believed to be a closeted homosexual. (To this day, Lasorda remains in denial about his son's sexuality and refuses, 23 years after his death, to acknowledge his son died from complications due to AIDS.)

Nevertheless, as Burke and Spunky's friendship grew, Lasorda lost interest in Burke's antics and "once turned on him and chewed him out," according to Mooallem's piece. Burke was distraught by the change in his relationship with the coach he admired and was soon traded to the less-than-middling Oakland A's.

After two mediocre seasons with the A's, Burke sought to reestablish himself under new manager Billy Martin, but the rumors wouldn't die. Martin used homophobic slurs around him freely and teammates soon stopped showering with him. He retired from baseball abruptly at 27 while slinking through a humiliating demotion to Triple-A.

Reinvigorated, Burke relocated to San Francisco's Castro neighborhood and became the masculine homosexual man he wanted the world to know existed. He dominated in the Gay Softball World Series, won medals in the Gay Olympics, and high-fived passersby outside of a bar he frequented. He publicly came out in a 1982 Inside Sports feature called "The Double Life of a Gay Dodger," after which his former Dodgers teammate Davey Lopes was one of the many Dodgers who said Burke was traded because he was gay.

His life later spiraled out of control thanks to the twin scourges that hit the gay community in the 1980s: drug addiction and HIV. He died after a sudden decline in health in 1995.

Maybe Burke was just another physically gifted world-class athlete who never realized his potential and just happened to be gay, but certainly his sexuality—and the way he was ostracized because of it—played a part in his decision to leave baseball when he was 27 years old, an age when most players are hitting their primes. To put that into perspective: Josh Hamilton turned 27 during his first season with the Rangers. Like Burke, Hamilton had  a rocky introduction to the majors, in his case because he was battling various substance abuse problems. But unlike Burke, Hamilton received support along the way—in professional sports, having an addiction is in many ways easier to explain than being gay.

This week, the league invited the surviving members of Burke's family to the All-Star Game in Minneapolis. It was the first time that the league had reached out to them, the first time the league acknowledged who Burke really was. During a press conference, Commissioner Bud Selig told Burke's sister Lutha that Burke was a pioneer. At the same press conference, Selig announced that Billy Bean, a former pro who came out after his retirement, would be serving as MLB's ambassador for inclusion. Small steps, but things can change quickly—I mean, 40 years ago we didn't even have the high-five.