Glenn Burke’s story

By |2010-12-09T09:00:00-05:00December 9th, 2010|Entertainment|

By Dan Woog

The OutField

“Glenn was comfortable with who he was. Baseball was not comfortable with who he was.”
That encapsulates the life and career of Glenn Burke, Major League Baseball’s first openly gay player. And it is a measure of the sports world’s continuing discomfort with homosexuality that it has taken three decades for his compelling tale to be told.
“Out. The Glenn Burke Story” premiered last month in San Francisco. The one-hour documentary played to a sold-out audience at the Castro Theatre – Burke’s old backyard. It described his rise, from multi-sport star at Berkeley High School to his heralded signing with the Los Angeles Dodgers as “the next Willie Mays.” And then his fall.
In 1978 – one year after starting in the World Series – Burke was traded to the Oakland Athletics. By 1980 he was out of baseball. Despite being loved and admired for both his athletic skills and great clubhouse personality, it is widely believed that Burke’s tacit acknowledgement of his sexuality led to the quick end of a promising career.
The documentary details his public announcement of his homosexuality in 1982 (on the “Today” show with Bryant Gumbel), to a life filled with drugs and prison, through a period of homelessness and his AIDS diagnosis in 1994.
Burke succumbed to the disease – but his story ends with support from the A’s and some former teammates.
The documentary pulls no punches. Claudell Washington recalls Oakland manager Billy Martin introducing Burke to his new teammates: “This is Glenn Burke and he’s a faggot.”
A high school classmate says that Dodger executives offered Burke $75,000 to get married. His response: “I guess you mean to a woman?”
Former sportswriter Lyle Spencer remembers Burke’s popularity. When he was traded, several Dodgers cried.
And Pamela Pitts, Oakland’s director of baseball administration, says Burke was amazed his former team would reach out to a man with AIDS. “I can’t believe someone wants to help me,” he said.
It is a sad testament to his life that Pitts had to say this about his death: “I do believe he was in a much better place. His demons were gone.”
After the premiere, Comcast SportsNet Bay Area hosted a town hall meeting in the theater. Bay Area professional athletes, journalists and sports executives discussed the film and whether the sports climate has changed in the three decades since Burke played.
San Jose Sharks hockey broadcaster Drew Remenda took his 14-year-old son to the screening. The boy could not understand why anyone cared about sexuality, but Remenda took a more nuanced view. With Americans still battling over issues like gay marriage and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Remenda said, “I don’t know how far we’ve come.” Gay athletes, he said, are still “fearful” about coming out.
Remenda described the movie as “a great story of courage” about Glenn – but a story of cowardice about society.
San Francisco Giants president and chief operating officer Larry Baer countered that “there is enlightenment in sports.” He pointed to his team’s promotion of the AIDS-awareness Until There’s a Cure Day as far back in the early 1990s. Giants manager Dusty Baker took a lead role in the event.
The Giants stood up – as Burke did – for “what’s right,” Baer said.
Discussing any potential problems his team would face today from advertisers if a Giant came out, Baer replied: “The answer should be, ‘Too bad.’ At the end of the day, we have to do what’s right.” Of course, he acknowledged, things might be easier in San Francisco than other cities.
Four-time Super Bowl champion Bill Romanowski said that nearly every day in the San Francisco 49ers locker room, he hears gay slurs. “It’s not right,” he noted. “But it just is.”
Asked whether having an openly gay athlete would divide a team, Romanowski said “probably.” But, he added, far smaller issues divide teams too. “That’s reality,” he explained.
The 49ers’ trainer was openly gay, Romanowski said. “That opened my eyes. He was a phenomenal trainer – and a really good man.”
Fourteen-year NFL fullback Lorenzo Neal said flat out: “People will feel uncomfortable” with a gay teammate. “We’re humans. We can’t control other people’s emotions.”
But Bay Area sports columnist Ray Ratto thinks things will be fine – if the openly gay athlete is “an indispensible player.” That, he said, would force teammates to realize that their feelings of discomfort were less important than the opportunity to win big with a gay guy.
Jackie Robinson’s teammates didn’t like him at first, Ratto said, “but they came around when they realized he’d help them make money.”
Robinson was, of course, the first black Major League Baseball player. His team was the Brooklyn Dodgers. They moved to Los Angeles in 1958 – where, 20 years later, they cast aside the man who eventually became the first openly gay baseball player.

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BTL Staff
Between The Lines has been publishing LGBTQ-related content in Southeast Michigan since the early '90s. This year marks the publication's 27th anniversary.