When Glory Has Soured : Former Dodger Glenn Burke Battles AIDS as He Struggles to Survive Life on the Streets
On the sidewalk below, a watchdog group has stenciled a reminder in black paint: “A Queer Was Bashed Here.” Two men move past, walking arm in arm. Across the street are Hot ‘N Hunky, a hamburger joint, and the Deaf Gay and Lesbian Center. Less than two blocks down is Castro Street, the heart of this city’s gay community.
Glenn Burke, former Dodger outfielder, was once idolized here.
As the only player in major league history to say openly that he is gay, Burke was an inspiration to less self-assured homosexuals even before he revealed his sexual orientation in a national magazine two years after his retirement from baseball in 1980.
“He was a hero to us,” said Jack McGowan, a longtime friend and former sports editor of the San Francisco Sentinel, a gay publication. “He was a hero because he was real. He was athletic, he was clean-cut, he was masculine. He was everything that we wanted to prove to the world that we could be.”
Said Tommy Lee, a restaurateur and another longtime friend: “People were just honored to be in his presence. My God, a major league baseball player, and he’s gay. And he didn’t seem to hide it. At least, he didn’t hide it around us. He sort of flaunted it, which was kind of exciting.
“He had a following every place he went--like an entourage.”
But these days, as Burke, 41, battles AIDS, his plight has generated surprisingly little sympathy among those who used to admire him.
They say that Burke, who has served time in prison, is a panhandler and a street thug, a drug user and a thief. They say that Burke, homeless and impoverished, owes money to many of his friends. They say that although he is unwelcome in almost every nightspot in the Castro district, he still hangs around out front, badgering patrons into giving him money.
They say that many in this area have lost patience with Burke.
“I could give you a list of people he’s ripped off,” said Morgan Gorrono, a restaurant manager. “He has burned more bridges than anybody I know around here.”
Even those who still support Burke aren’t blind to his shortcomings.
“You can’t tell the truth about Glenn without saying bad things, because he’s gone through a hell of a 10-year period where he hit rock bottom and did many personal things that are bad,” McGowan said. “It’s a matter of being sympathetic, but being honest. He has done some terrible things.
“But the gay community has not given up on him. He hasn’t been deserted. Many, many gay people have tried to help him because they loved him and because he was a hero. He still is a hero.”
Although the interview had been arranged a week in advance, Burke seemed edgy and fitful when a reporter and a photographer arrived from Los Angeles. He announced that he had changed his mind and wouldn’t sit for an interview unless he was paid $10. He needed the money, he said, for food.
Told that it was against the newspaper’s policy to pay for interviews, but that he would be treated to lunch, he said he had been having trouble keeping food down and would rather have the money.
Later, after eating candy and sipping from a 32-ounce container of cola, he said he needed the money to purchase a new identification card.
Finally, after twice telling his visitors to leave and then asking them to return later at a specified time, he agreed to be interviewed without compensation, but for no longer than 15 minutes.
More than two hours had passed since the original time for the appointment.
Ravaged by drug use and a disease that, by his count, has killed more than 100 of his friends, Burke looked nothing like the promising rookie center fielder who helped the Dodgers reach the World Series in 1977.
His face was gaunt, his eyes cloudy and distant. His teeth were chipped, his hair oily. His once-powerful body, which inspired the nickname “King Kong” from his Dodger teammates, was a memory. He had lost about 75 pounds since February, he said, and was down to 155.
Blood vessels running up and down his arms bulged conspicuously. Lifting his pants leg, he revealed several Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions.
He spoke in a gravelly voice. He hesitated frequently, pausing for quick gulps of air, and after running a comb through his hair, he absent-mindedly picked his teeth with it.
“I thought I was going to die,” he said of the most recent of his frequent hospital stays. “My mother said I slept for, like, three days. Sometimes, it gets frustrating. My head hurt for six months, like a migraine--and my throat, I couldn’t eat. I try to eat chicken and it gets caught back here (in my throat) and I start coughing.
“It’s like, the AIDS thing . . . if you want to live, you’re going to have to make that effort. I hurt every day, every . . . day, 24 hours a day.”
He indicated that he had not ruled out suicide.
“It’s frightening, what’s in store for me,” he said. “I don’t need much because material things don’t excite me no more. I know my situation, so I just sit back. If I feel like getting high, I get high because I’m old enough and it’s my life. And if I don’t want to be here, I won’t be here no more because I’m not going to sit there and suffer from the pain.”
Burke said he discovered in February that he had contracted AIDS, but others said he has known for several years he has suffered from the virus.
“I think he’s been sick much longer than we knew about, but he’s really had a bad year this year,” said Burke’s mother, Alice, who still lives in Oakland, where Burke grew up. “He was sick during Christmas, and that was the first (sign), to our knowledge, that he was ill.
“He’s been really ill since, just trying to push himself.”
Once, that was not necessary.
Once, he was considered a great prospect, batting .300 or higher five times in the minors.
Once, the late Jim Gilliam, a Dodger coach, said Burke could be the next Willie Mays.
But in four major league seasons, 2 1/2 with the Dodgers and 1 1/2 with the Oakland Athletics, Burke batted .237 in 225 games, with two home runs and 38 runs batted in.
Still, he left a lasting contribution to baseball lore.
Late in the 1977 season, with the Dodgers headed toward the National League pennant, an exuberant Burke greeted teammate Dusty Baker at home plate after Baker hit his 30th homer of the season. Burke raised his right hand above his head, Baker did the same, and they slapped hands.
It was, according to baseball legend, the first high-five.
Burke appeared in three games in the 1977 World Series against the New York Yankees, going one for five, but he was traded to the A’s in May 1978 for aging outfielder Bill North.
It is Burke’s belief that he was a victim of discrimination, that the Dodgers suspected he was gay and got rid of him. His teammates, angered by the trade of a promising young prospect, were later told as much, he said. And he said that shortly before the trade, he rejected a suggestion by Al Campanis, then the team’s general manager, that he get married.
“I think he was throwing out the hint,” Burke said.
Campanis denied having suspected that Burke was gay, adding: “We always liked to get young players married because it tended to make them more serious about baseball.” But in 1982, Campanis told Inside Sports magazine that the Dodgers had heard rumors; however, he said, they had no bearing on the trade. "(Billy) North,” he said, “was a more experienced player.”
In his hometown, Burke never felt comfortable with the A’s. The team was struggling at the time, and Burke said later he knew that his secret was not safe in a place where he was so well known.
A friend suggested that he reveal his homosexuality, and tried to arrange an interview with a San Francisco columnist, but Burke balked. Still, the columnist wrote that a member of the A’s was a regular on Castro Street.
Early in the 1979 season, a teammate told Burke that the Pittsburgh Pirates, contemplating a trade for the center fielder, had asked about the rumors. Only 26, Burke retired in the middle of the season.
He had a change of heart and reported to spring training in 1980, but suffered a knee injury and spent the season with triple-A Ogden, Utah. He retired for good at season’s end, believing that he was no longer wanted in major league baseball because of his sexual orientation.
“I never really blamed nobody, but I think it was (bad) . . . (the way they) took my game away from me,” said Burke, who ultimately explained the reason for his abrupt retirement in a 1982 article in Inside Sports that carried the headline, “The Double Life of a Gay Dodger.”
“I worked hard to make it, and all of a sudden, I was blackballed. It’s their ignorance. Don’t take my life away from me because of what you think I do in the bed. Common sense will tell you, ‘Ain’t none of your business’ . . . but I was prepared for that day. It was either get married and play along with the game, or be yourself.
“I was 27 years old and I was good. I knew why (I wasn’t wanted), but I could face that. But they could never look me in the face and say that I couldn’t play baseball. So, for me, that was my self-satisfaction. They could never say, ‘Glenn Burke couldn’t play,’ because I could play.”
Life after baseball has mostly been a struggle for Burke.
“Now, that’s a downhill journey there,” his mother said softly. “Because that was his life, baseball. And I think after that . . . I don’t know what he did, really. I think that after he couldn’t play any more baseball, he felt that was the end of his life. After things happened the way they did, I don’t think he much cared after that.”
Burke worked at a series of odd jobs for several years--doorman, advertising salesman--but mainly relied on others to care for him.
Recently, a trust fund was established by the San Francisco General Hospital Foundation to help defray Burke’s medical expenses. And the A’s, through the Assn. of Pro Ballplayers of America, set up a line of credit for Burke at a San Francisco restaurant and bought him a cellular telephone.
“It didn’t seem like he was ever on his own in an apartment, taking care of himself,” said Mike Gray, an accountant and friend who has known Burke for about 15 years. “Since I’ve known Glenn, I’ve never known him to be self-sufficient.”
Burke explained: “I was spoiled rotten, so I got lazy.”
In the Castro district, Burke retained his celebrity status long after he stopped playing baseball, not only because he came out in a national magazine but also because of his good looks and outgoing personality.
“Glenn had a great sense of humor,” said Lee, his friend. “He was a lot of fun, a great guy to be with. These later years sort of changed all that, but I used to love being around Glenn. We had a ball. He was the life of the party every time we went somewhere.
“And if you were his friend, he protected you too.”
Burke continued his athletic career, playing in recreation softball and basketball leagues. In 1982, he helped a bar team, the Pendulum Pirates, win the North American Amateur Athletic Gay Assn. “World Series.” In the Gay Olympics, he won gold medals in softball and basketball.
Opponents and teammates were awed by Burke’s talents, generally regarding him as the best gay athlete in the nation, and Burke reveled in this recognition and the adulation of his peers.
Bar owners paid him to play for their softball teams.
“I think everybody looked at him as a star, and he was,” Gray said. “He was the best gay softball player I’ve ever seen. I was just at the World Series last week in Nashville, and there was nobody at that tournament who could compare to Glenn. He could do whatever he wanted to do.”
But in 1987, Burke suffered a broken leg when he was hit by a car while crossing a street. He reached an out-of-court settlement with the driver, he said, but soon, according to friends, the money was gone. And his athletic skills were diminished by the injury.
“He has never really walked right since then,” Gray said.
Burke’s drug use became more prevalent, his behavior more erratic.
“Since that accident, he’s gone down farther and farther and farther,” Gray said. “Glenn, I think, always had a drug problem, but after the accident he was never the same person. He could never do the things that he wanted to do. When his leg got shattered, it was through for him.
“I noticed at that point, he was always on drugs. It’s really sad, the things drugs drove him to do, because he really wasn’t that type of person the first five years I knew him. It just got steadily worse.”
Friends started to avoid him.
“He’d go through phases,” said Marc Earnshaw, a bartender at a popular Castro nightspot. “Like, sometimes he was OK and then sometimes he was kind of belligerent and would be kind of aggressive in asking for money.
“He was a big, intimidating guy, and people started staying away from him just because they didn’t want to lend him any more money--he wasn’t paying it back--and he’d be a little forceful. Eventually, he wasn’t allowed in the bar here because he’d come in and try to intimidate people.”
In 1991, records show, Burke pleaded guilty to grand theft and possession of a controlled substance, and was convicted of false imprisonment. Sentenced to 16 months in San Quentin, he was paroled six months later. The next year, he spent another month in San Quentin for violating terms of his parole.
Burke said he has continued to use drugs, mostly cocaine.
“I use them because I like them,” he said. “I don’t shoot no needles, I don’t rob nobody, but I do get high.”
Lee offered to help him quit, but Burke told him to back off.
“I was trying to help him by getting him into a program,” Lee said. “I even offered my house, to have him stay here. He says, ‘Tommy, just leave me alone. I’m going to die doing drugs. I’ve been doing them since I was 11 years old, and I’m going to die doing drugs.’
“What can you do for somebody like that? They’ve already got their mind made up. And I think when he told me that, he already knew he was sick, so there was no reason for him to clean up his act now.”
Lee said he and Burke had a falling out about a year ago. Burke, he said, knocked him to the floor in a bar and repeatedly kicked him because Lee refused to give him $5.
His ill health notwithstanding, Burke still spends a lot of time on the streets. But he bristled when asked if he was homeless.
“If I’m on the streets, I’m on the streets because I want to be, not because I have to be,” he said. “I’m not a bad person. I’m always able to go to somebody’s house, but I’m out there because I want to be out there and I’m old enough to be out there.”
Lee saw Burke recently and was startled by his appearance.
“I’m shocked that he’s still walking the streets,” Lee said. “He saw me at the bar and he turned away. I wanted to go up and say something to him, but I don’t have the (courage), I guess.
“I’m not scared of him. I’m sorry that it’s like this, and I hate to see him this way. I like to remember him the way he was.”
In Oakland, Burke’s 76-year-old mother tries to do the same.
“The poor boy,” she said. “We all love him and we’re all worried about him, but we feel like his time is near.”