Remembering Berkeley’s own Glenn Burke: First openly gay man in MLB

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Many athletes have been revered for their significant impact on not only sports, but also culture. However, few managed to do so in a manner as everlasting as professional baseball player Glenn Burke. Responsible for popularizing the high-five (and formerly credited with creating it), Burke certainly put into motion a timeless national phenomenon. It is hard to believe that his name could be accredited to something even more monumental to the world of sports, yet it certainly is. Since the start of the MLB in 1871, well over 20,000 athletes have stepped out onto a professional diamond. Yet, only one man has came out as gay to his teammates and coaches while actively participating in his baseball career: Glenn Burke.

Born Nov. 16, 1952 in Oakland, Burke attended Berkeley High School where he excelled in both basketball and baseball. Advertised as “the next Willie Mays,” Burke joined the Dodgers minor league system after attending Merritt College and became a top prospect instantly.

Throughout two seasons on the Dodgers, Burke showed glimpses of amazing potential as a baseball player. Even more significant was Burke’s impact in the dugout.

“(Burke was a) great, gregarious person who made up poetry and danced around the clubhouse,” once commented sports reporter Ross Newhan.

Amongst a lineup of big personalities including Steve Garvey and Davey Lopes, Burke was the “life of the party,” never failing to uplift his teammates’ morale with his humor and positivity.

However, in 1978, Burke was suddenly traded to the Oakland Athletics. As he had yet to reach his prime, players and fans were devastated by the Dodgers’ decision.

Before long, it became speculated that the true reason behind Burke’s trade was due to homophobia.

While he was not openly gay at the time, Burke stated that by 1978, “pretty much everyone knew” about his sexuality and “he was sure his teammates didn’t care.”

However, Dodgers executive Al Campanis allegedly offered $75,000 to Burke to get married to a woman, and manager Tommy Lasorda was openly outraged by Burke’s friendship with his son, Tommy Jr., who was also gay.

Following his stint with LA, Burke’s playing career was shrouded in controversy related to his sexuality. On the A’s, players openly treated Burke disrespectfully, and refused to shower with him. At only 27, Burke retired from baseball permanently, shortly after Athletics manager Billy Martin referred to him as the “f-slur” in front of his teammates.

“Prejudice drove me out of baseball sooner than I should have,” Burke admitted, having played just four seasons in the MLB.

Following his retirement, Burke made history by publicly coming out as gay in an Inside Sports article in 1982. He also dominated throughout the 1980s in various sports leagues designated for gay men in basketball, softball and track.

Although Burke became an icon within the gay community in San Francisco after his career, he became plagued with substance abuse issues in his late 30s, leading him to periods of homelessness and criminal convictions. Following several tough years, Burke contracted AIDS in the early 1990s and passed away from complications of the virus in 1995 at just 42 years old.

“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,” Burke stated proudly in 1994 regarding his time in baseball, despite the hardships he endured.

In 2022, both the Dodgers and A’s embrace Burke’s memory and honor him during their annual pride ceremonies. The franchises who cruelly pushed him away for his sexuality are now celebrating him for it. Even though it is devastating that Burke isn’t able to witness the growing acceptance of the LGBTQIA+ community, his determination to be himself will never be forgotten.

Leila Rosenberg is a Bear Bytes Blog writer. Contact her at [email protected].