In light of the recent announcements by Jason Collins, I wanted to remind readers of another historical black professional active player who didn’t hide his sexuality.  This is a re-post from our “early days” here at Cypher Avenue (8-29-2011). Enjoy!

Baseball Legend – Glenn Burke
Nov 16, 1952 – May 30, 1995


“He was real.  He was athletic, clean cut, and masculine. He was everything that we wanted to prove to the world that we could be.”
Jack McGowan
“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.”
Glenn Burke

Glenn Burke’s name was mentioned in the fifth season of the TV show “Crossing Jordan”.  The episode titled “Thin Ice” focused on a star professional baseball player falsely accused of raping a woman.  The character “Quentin Baker” would rather be smeared and imprisoned on a false rape charge than to be labeled as a homosexual.  Referring to two real world athletes who were accused of rape, the character dialogue follows below:

        Quentin:  “Do you know what a locker room’s like? You know what they say about faggots?
                        What they do to ’em?”
          Jordan:  “What do they say about rapists?”
Quentin:  “Mike Tyson got past it. Kobe was accused and he’s still going strong; 
                        but Glenn Burke came out and he was run out of Baseball!”

Rape, drug abuse, domestic violence, gambling, infidelity you name it; All these things are forgivable in sports except homosexuality.

Glenn Burke is the person who is credited for inventing the “High-Five“…how?  Well it was late in the 1977 season. Player and teammate Dusty Baker of the Dodgers was rounding third and heading for home (having just hit his 30th home run).  The Dodgers were heading for a National League pennant. The on-deck hitter was Glenn Burke, enjoying his second season in the big leagues. As Baker crossed the plate, Burke raised his hand. Baker responded by raising his. The two hands slapped together and a bit of history was made. The first high-five!

Oh and by the way he also happened to be a masculine African-American man who was openly gay within the ultra homophobic Major League Baseball.  He was the first and only baseball player open about his homosexuality.  This streak was not broken until 1995 when Billy Bean came out of the closet.

Burke was a basketball and baseball star at Berkeley High in the late 1960s and 1970, remembered by locals mostly for his phenomenal hoops skills. The big money that was offered to him was on the baseball field.  He quickly rose through the Los Angeles Dodgers ranks, to eventually be the starting batter in a World Series game in 1977.

Five minor league seasons in which Burke batted over .300 and plus he had exceptional defensive skills caused him to be heralded as the “Next Willie Mays”.

Burke felt the Dodgers management knew of his sexual orientation, but they would attempt to come up with a cover story.  General Manager Al Campanis once suggested that it would be a good idea if Burke got married and even offered to give him a $75,000 bonus if he would get married.  Al Campanis also offered to pay for a wedding and the honeymoon.  Of course being true to himself Burke turned the offer down.

In 1978, his third year with the club, he was traded to Oakland. The Dodgers said it was because he had not lived up to his minor league promise. His teammates, feeling he had made good progress toward star if not superstar status, were angry at management for making the trade and felt it was really because his sexual orientation and his relationship with with Tommy  Lasorda’s son.

In his autobiography “Out At Home,” written with Erik Sherman, Burke said that he felt his close association with Spunky Lasorda (nickname of the son of baseball legend Tommy Lasorda) and this was something Spunky’s dad could not tolerate. Although the rest of the world accepts the fact that Spunky was gay and died of AIDS, Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda is in total denial on both counts.

“The Next Willie Mays” took his hat and glove and went to Oakland, but did not enjoy his year and a half with the A’s. The team was struggling in the late ’70s. Also, Burke felt his secret was not safe in his hometown so he retired before the end of the ’79 season.  The retirement was brief. He reported for spring training in 1980, but injured a knee. Right or wrong, he thought baseball no longer wanted him because of his sexual orientation, and he retired for good at the end of the ’80 campaign.


Glenn Burke opened up about his homosexuality in a 1982 Inside Sports magazine article “The Double Life of a Gay Dodger” and on “The Today Show” with Bryant Gumbel.  Burke continued his athletic endeavors after retiring from baseball. He competed in the 1986 Gay Games in basketball, and won medals in the 100 and 200 meter sprints in the first Gay Games in 1982. His jersey number at Berkeley High School was retired in his honor.”He was a hero to us”, said Jack McGowan, former sports editor of the San Francisco Sentinel (a gay newspaper). “He was … real. He was athletic, clean cut, masculine. He was everything that we wanted to prove to the world that we could be.His athleticism wasn’t the only thing going for him. Glenn had a great sense of humor, was a great dancer and was the life of the party everywhere he went. Although he remained active in amateur competitions; as with many athletes, Burke turned to drugs to fill the void in his life when his career ended. An addiction to cocaine began to destroyed him both physically and financially.

In 1987 he was hit by a car in San Francisco while crossing the street, suffering a broken leg and crushed foot. An out of court settlement brought him some money, but it was soon gone. He was never again the athlete he had been.

His drug use increased and his behavior became more erratic. The man friends once flocked to was now avoided by them. The big guy they once looked to for protection now became an object of their fear. He was homeless on the streets of San Francisco for a number of years often congregating in the same neighborhood that once embraced him. In 1991-92 he spent seven months in San Quentin for grand theft and possession of a controlled substance.

When news of his battle with AIDS became public knowledge in 1994, he received the support of his former teammates and the Oakland Athletics organization.  In interviews given while he was fighting AIDS, he expressed little in the way of grudges, and only one big regret – that he never had the opportunity to pursue a second professional sports career in basketball.

Glenn Burke spent the last months of his life at his sister’s Oakland apartment.  First diagnosed in January 1994, AIDS had taken his once magnificent six foot, 195 pound physique to a lesion scarred, 150 pounds. Pain and fatigue were now his constant companions.


A few old friends would stop by to say hello. But they all knew they were really saying good-bye.  The man who greeted Dusty Baker at home plate in 1977 with the first “high five” could barely lift his arms.  Glenn Burke died of AIDS related causes in May 30, 1995.  He was only 42 years old.Glenn Burke’s story has now been immortalized in film.  “Out: The Glenn Burke Story” is a documentary about his life and career (which is currently viewing on some local Comcast stations).  With open and candid interviews from former teammates, you really get a true sense of who this baseball legend really was.  A trailer for the documentary is below.
“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.” – Glenn Burke