Glenn Burke was an outfielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Oakland Athletics during the late 70s and early 80s. He’s also considered to be the country’s first openly gay player in Major League Baseball, which is why a new campaign‘s been launched to honor Burke in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
“They can’t ever say now that a gay man can’t play in the majors,” he once said, “because I am a gay man and I made it.” He was once described at the next Willie Mays.
“Glenn Burke came out to his teammates at a time when no one else was talking publicly about their sexual orientation, let alone athletes,” says Jeremy Redlien, president of PLFLAG Oneonta/Otsego in Oneonta, N.Y., a stone’s throw from the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. “We live in a world where the contributions of gay athletes to the history of sports is overlooked. It’s time to recognize Burke’s bravery so that young people can be inspired by this important figure in baseball.”
Not only was Burke openly gay, but he’s credited with popularizing the now-famous high five. In 1977, during a late-season game, Burke’s Dodger teammate Dusty Baker hit a home run. And Burke, who was on desk, raised his right hand as Baker crossed the home plate and gave him the first high five in the game. That same year, he had one in five hits during the World Series.
“It’s amazing to think that Glenn Burke not only made history by coming out as gay, but that he also popularized something that millions upon millions of people do, from T-ball players to professional athletes, whenever they want to celebrate a special moment,” says Redlien. “Burke’s story is something that everyone deserves to learn about.”
Sadly, Burke’s career in MLB was short. Not only did his orientation cause problems among his teammates, but the Dodgers management even encouraged him to get married to a woman to hide his gayness, according to his autobiography Out at Home. He also befriending Tommy Lasorda’s gay son, angering the Dodgers’ manager, and was traded to the Oakland A’s shortly after. It was there that the A’s manager introduced him as “faggot” to his new teammates.
Despite his achievements on the field, the backlash was a little too great for the outfielder. He retired in 1980 at the age of 27, saying, “prejudice drove me out of baseball sooner than I should have, but I wasn’t changing.”
He died 15 years later from complications of HIV and AIDS. He was 42 years old.
“I think if Burke had been supported by managers and teammates early on, he would not have left baseball so early,” says Redlien, “and could have been a contender for the Hall of Fame. Instead, Burke died tragically after feeling he didn’t belong on professional sports. It is time for his favorite sport to give him the respect he always deserved.”
In an interview with People magazine in 1994, Burke said, “My mission as a gay ball player was to break a stereotype. I think it worked.” It was only until 1999 that the second professional baseball player came out. Billy Bean, however, didn’t break the news until after his retirement.