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Glenn Burke was ideal Dodger teammate whose sexuality wasn’t an issue

Glenn Burke was ideal Dodger teammate whose sexuality wasn’t an issue
Glenn Burke, who played for the Dodgers in the 1970s, didn’t hide or advertise the fact that he was a gay man.
(Associated Press)

Glenn Burke was just doing what came naturally.

Dusty Baker’s home run blast to left field on the last day of the regular season, Oct. 2, 1977, was history-making. It was his 30th, meaning the Dodgers became the first team to have four players hit 30 home runs in a season.

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As Baker rounded third to the roar of the Dodger Stadium crowd, Burke, a rookie outfielder, ran from the on-deck circle, jumped up and gave Baker an over-the-head hand-slap in celebration.

And, the high-five was born.

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Most people don’t remember Burke for that moment — or, frankly, any other moment — during his two years with the Dodgers. The onetime Oakland prep basketball star would be gone from the Dodgers a year later. Two years after that, he was out of baseball.

Burke was mostly forgotten as a ballplayer. But, it was also forgotten that he was a trailblazer for something far more significant than the high-five.

NBA player Jason Collins recently came out as being the first active U.S. professional male athlete in a major team sport to announce he was gay. But Collins was not even the first athlete with Los Angeles ties to deal with this issue.

In thanking all the people who came before him, Collins never mentioned Burke, who never held a news conference to say he was gay. He neither hid it nor advertised it. He spent his playing career as a guy who could keep the clubhouse light, make teammates laugh and make friendships that would last.

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Burke was hardly the only gay athlete in the 1970s.

David Kopay didn’t come out until his NFL career ended. He wrote in his 1977 autobiography, “The David Kopay Story,” that playing pro football would have been “impossible” as an openly gay player.

Diver Greg Louganis, born in 1960, won Olympic gold medals at the 1984 and 1988 Olympics and was already a star when the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Games. Tom Waddell, who finished sixth in the 1968 Olympic decathlon, was openly gay when he competed in Mexico City. Waddell went on to organize the first “Gay Olympics” and died of complications from AIDS in 1987.

Even as early as 1920, tennis player Bill Tilden toured the world as an openly gay athlete. But in the world of baseball, where so much of an athlete’s time is spent in the close confines of the clubhouse, before and after games, it was more difficult.

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Cyd Ziegler, a co-founder of a website, outsports.com, that writes about and keeps track of gay athletes, said that there has been a huge cultural transformation since Burke’s athletic days.

“Let’s face it,” Ziegler said. “We live in Hollywood, one of the most liberal places in the world, and Liberace went out of his way to claim he was straight. Rock Hudson too. The idea that a pro baseball player would be welcomed if he became publicly gay is just not true.

“At that time it was still totally accepted for someone to say, ‘I hate gay people.’ That was a legitimate position. Today that is simply not a legitimate or respected place to be.”

Since Burke’s revelation, the only other major league player to make the same acknowledgment has been Billy Bean, who played for the Detroit Tigers, the Dodgers and the San Diego Padres before he announced he was gay in 1999.

Yet Burke’s Dodgers teammates seemed to know, accept and understand him.

Dodgers broadcaster Rick Monday, who started in center field when Burke was with the Dodgers, described a moment in 1977 when the team was playing in Philadelphia during the National League playoffs.

“I remember a championship [series] game in Philly,” Monday said.

“It was cold and rainy and he put on an overcoat and hat and had the entire locker room rolling on the floor laughing. He could take any moment in time and make it fun. There was no better guy in the clubhouse, I’ll tell you that. There was no one who didn’t love having Glenn around.”

Burke can no longer tell his story. He died at age 42 in 1995 from AIDS-related pneumonia.

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Lutha Davis, Burke’s sister, said she had no idea her brother was gay when he was growing up in Oakland.

“Glenn just ate and slept sports,” she said of one of two boys in a family of eight children. “Baseball, basketball, it didn’t matter. He was a late bloomer and I always thought of Glenn as a man’s man. He was the kind of young man most men desire to be.”

As a teenager, Burke was considered the class clown, according to Abdul-Jalil al-Hakim, Burke’s friend and future agent. But it was in a good way, always telling jokes or making funny comments. “Hurrahs,” they were called, al-Hakim said. “Glenn was always making the best hurrahs.”

But the jokes, al-Hakim said, may have been Burke’s way of coping with the secret he was keeping.

Burke wrote in his 1995 autobiography, “Out at Home: The Glenn Burke Story,” that it wasn’t until after high school that he understood why he didn’t want to date, even though he was often pursued by girls.

“I know I was different,” Burke wrote. “I wasn’t dating either men or women. [It] just wasn’t part of my life. Period.”

During his 1974 minor league season in Waterbury, Conn., Burke wrote, “I realized my homosexuality. I was 23 at the time and wanted to begin my life as a gay man, albeit a closet(ed) one.”

Burke describes searching out a high school teacher he had a crush on back in Oakland. The man responded. “I was relieved because for the first time I was sure of who I was,” Burke said.

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In 1976, Burke was promoted from Waterbury to the Dodgers. It was clearly the pinnacle of his athletic career, but, yet, he couldn’t be himself.

Davis sensed a change in her brother once he started professional baseball.

“Glenn was never really able to live his life openly,” Davis said.

Davis said that during the off-season her brother would come home to the Bay Area and live in the Castro District, an area well-known to being the home for many gay men. “He was living right there in the Castro,” Davis said, “but I wish it would have been a different time for him. He had great potential.

“I believe he was happy, happier playing the games he loved. It must have been awfully lonely at times, but he weathered the storm with all the dignity and character he could.”

According to Burke, Dodgers general manager Al Campanis, who died in 1998, offered him $5,000 to pay for a honeymoon if he would be part of a fraudulent marriage. Burke was the only unattached player on the team.

That account was contradicted by Ross Newhan, who covered the Dodgers for the Times. Newhan said that he never believed the story about the “sham” wedding and said that Burke never seemed bothered by such talk.

“Outwardly Glenn never seemed to let what anybody said about him bother him. Inwardly, we can’t know how he handled it,” Newhan said.

Burke’s roommate at the time was Marvin Webb, an infielder, who said Burke was well-known for keeping the clubhouse loose.

“He could make everyone laugh, but then, after the game, he’d always want to go off by himself,” Webb said. “Maybe some of us wondered why, but it didn’t really matter.”

Newhan described Burke as “a great, gregarious person who made up poetry and danced around in the clubhouse. The players loved him.”

“There were always questions about Glenn’s lifestyle,” said Doug Harris, producer of a 2010 documentary: “Out: The Glenn Burke Story.”

“Glenn was trying to jump from the minors to the majors, then trying to stay in the majors, so he didn’t want that stuff around.”

Dodgers manager Tom Lasorda had a different view of Burke’s time with the Dodgers.

“Why wouldn’t he come out?” Lasorda asked. “Why keep that inside? Glenn had a lot of talent. He could have been an outstanding basketball or baseball player. He sure was good in the clubhouse. What happened? I don’t know what happened. He just wasn’t happy here?”

According to Burke’s autobiography, Lasorda didn’t like Burke because he was having a relationship with Lasorda’s son, Tommy Jr. Lasorda has denied there was ever such a relationship, although the two knew each other.

In May 1978, Burke was traded from the Dodgers to the Oakland Athletics to play for volatile manager Billy Martin, who, according to Davis would call Burke by a common pejorative for gays. Martin died in 1989.

“The day he was traded to Oakland some guys were actually crying,” Newhan said. “He was immensely popular as a player. I think it was later on that rumors started to percolate.”

But Burke’s lifestyle was probably better known in the clubhouse than the press box.

Longtime Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully, 85, said he recalls so little about Burke, “I couldn’t tell you if he was a left-hander or right-hander. But he was shy with a nice smile.”

Teammate Davey Lopes, now a coach with the Dodgers, said: “I knew. ... It didn’t matter if he was gay or not. No one cared.”

Lopes said that when Burke was traded to the A’s: “I was devastated.”

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After a year and a half in Oakland, Burke said he wasn’t treated fairly and chose to retire. He had played 225 games in four seasons with a career batting average of .237 and two home runs.

“The person I remember was always reinventing the normal,” said Monday, who Burke backed up in center field for his two years as a Dodger.

In 1982, Burke’s onetime romantic partner, Michael Smith, wrote an article for Inside Sports magazine that outed the retired player.

“As a fan, the first time I knew he was gay was the Inside Sports story,” said Mark Langill, the Dodgers’ historian. “He was a big prospect coming up and after reading that, it made sense what happened. Growing up with the Dodgers and always being tuned in to the next prospect, there were glowing stories about him. It just made more sense.”

Without baseball, Burke’s life took a downturn. He played for several gay softball teams in the Castro area of San Francisco, and had a few relationships.

According to Harris, Burke fell sick and turned to illegal drugs to ease his pain. He spent six months in prison for purchasing crack cocaine. After he was released he lived with his sister, Davis, until he died.

Monday says Burke should be remembered fondly.

“To speak of his sexual preference diminishes the spirit of Glenn Burke,” Monday said. “He was actively always trying to be a great teammate and he had a great sense of humor.

“We all have different mechanisms to deal with life. Baseball, quite frankly has a lot of deniability. You have a lot of denying when you’re not seeing the ball. You deny that even if you hit .300 and you’re not getting a hit two of every three at-bats.

“You’re denying the fact you’ve played 142 games and you’re physically and mentally tired and you have 20 games to go. Yet, Glenn had a levity that compensated for that.”

diane.pucin@latimes.com

Twitter: @mepucin


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