YouTube has a strange ability to showcase fare that rebuilds queer reality in previously unknown ways. Hence, we can delve into the life of Glenn Burke, an extraordinary man who came up Black and working class in Oakland, California, developing enviable shoulders, thighs, personality, and athletic prowess that bowled over Major League Baseball (MLB) prospectors, not to mention everyone around him.
Glenn was the first baseballer to (quietly) own his “homosexuality” with teammates. But he fielded in the hostile world of 1970s sports. We can probe his history with, among other things, “Out: The Glenn Burke Story,” a 2010 documentary that explores the life of a major leaguer who should be as well known as Cy Young or Roberto Clemente.
Equally at home in baseball and basketball, Glenn chose the horsehide and started with the Los Angeles Dodgers’ minor league team in 1976. Beginning his meteoric rise in 1977, his first year with the actual Dodgers, he played in the World Series, earning the ring to prove it.
A fan and player favorite, Glenn is widely credited with inventing the “High Five” salute. Yes, on October 02, 1977, rookie Glenn excitedly flew out onto the diamond to greet Dusty Baker, a Dodger powerhouse charging into home plate.
Dusty: “His hand was up in the air, and he was arching way back, so I reached up and hit his hand. It seemed like the thing to do.”
The Dodgers seized on the gesture, even featuring it in publicity materials: “The ‘High Five’ has become the Dodgers’ standard salute during the 1980 season.” But they’d stolen this signifying bit from a man they’d already kicked into the weeds.
As rumors began to swarm, the front office offered him $75,000 (over $300,000 in 2023 dollars) for a lavish honeymoon. Get married! was the clear message.
Front office attitudes worsened as he began spending time with “Spunky,” i.e., Tommy Lasorda Jr., offspring of Lasorda Sr., the Dodgers’ extremely homophobic manager, who never acknowledged his son’s queerness nor the AIDS that killed him. His sole comment on Glenn’s crash and burn? “I don’t know what happened. He just wasn’t happy here.” (Lasorda rebuffed all entreaties by Burke documentarians for an interview.)
Things changed. By 1978, Glenn no longer bunked or even partied with team members. Instead, “strange” men collected him after games in (literally) pink Cadillacs. And there was the red jock strap, something none of the other guys would ever wear.
In 1980, the hatefully homophobic Billy Martin came in as a manager. He “fag-baited” Glenn to no end, bouncing him back to the minors and then trading him to the Oakland A’s.
So, Glenn retired at the age of 28. Young, “built like a Greek God,” and blessed with a personality that could fill a room and make people swoon, he leaped into the burgeoning Castro scene.
He partied. Noticeably stoned, he came out publicly in an interview with Bryant Gumbel in 1982.
That same year, he participated in the first Gay Games and later played in the San Francisco gay softball league. But he finally ran out of money, even spending a short spell in prison for theft and drugs.
In 1987, his left leg and foot were crushed when he was hit by a car. After that, he went completely off the rails. He lived on the streets of neighborhoods he formerly owned.
Finally, in 1994, the Oakland Athletics organization discovered his struggles and began to help financially. Glenn finally moved in with his sister Lutha as his health worsened. He died at the age of 42 in 1995.
In 1990s interviews, he discussed the difficulties of AIDS, but nursed no grudges. Indeed, the one regret he expressed was never having the opportunity for a second pro sports career in basketball.
In the past few years, Glenn has obtained some positive recognition. Former 1990s Dodger Billy Bean took it upon himself to cement Glenn’s place in MLB and queer history. In 2015, Bean billed himself as “the only other openly gay [baseball] player in the past 151 years” (that has changed; there now are at least two more).
While he did wait until he retired in 2014 to come out, as MLB’s Vice President for Social Responsibility and Inclusion, Bean arranged Glenn’s premiere career celebration at the Oakland A’s first ever LGBTQ Pride game in June 2015. One of the commemoratives was the donation of over $23,000 to the Glenn Burke AIDS Project East Bay. Rest in peace, Glenn.