It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart.
In the nineties, wallpaper was not half as gauche as it is now. Don’t believe me? I remember a time that we had four separate designs of it on our bedroom walls coming together to make one ode to the greatest game alive. My Dad hated installing the ever-changing trends around the house, and as his end of the deal of keeping up with my Mom’s tastes she agreed to let the kids pick the wallpaper for their rooms. He knew where our hearts lied. It might be a floral print in the living room, but at least a couple rooms in the house would have a sporty touch.
Running along the baseboard heating was a broad swath of classic pinstripe. Most classically associated with the Yankees, of course, but it’s the nineties and every team is doing it. A border motif featuring the menacing glare of the Pittsburgh Pirates' logo broke up the pinstripes and an equally broad field of verdant green, crisp and clean as new astroturf. At the top of the wall, a Baltimore Orioles trim matched the buccaneer like a parrot perched on his shoulder.
The borders represented the two places to which we had sojourned with our Dad to have our proverbial hearts broken.
The first, Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh to see our “hometown” Pirates, the same team my Dad had grown up watching and idolizing their right fielder, Roberto Clemente. I say “hometown” because home is Mifflin County, and it’s at least three hours by car to the Steel City.
(It’s at least three hours by car to any city, even driving like my Dad does.)
The Oriole stood proud for Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the recently constructed icon where we saw Cal Ripken, Jr. in the midst of his historic iron man streak, outpacing Lou Gehrig.
Smack dab in the middle of the state, there was a constant war between fans of the Pirates and Phillies. You had as much liberty to pick one as the other. By dint of being across state lines, the Orioles hardly factored into the equation. You’d say that was arbitrary if it weren’t a Line singular enough to warrant a capital letter.
I don’t remember a time a bat didn’t feel natural in my hand. In pony league I was one of the only lefties on the team, but at school I wrote right handed. My Dad was one of the only lefties on his high school team, and it helped him secure a spot on the team. He watched a lot of baseball from the bench, but by golly, he was on the team. From the moment he first put toy bats in my hands he stood me on the left side of the plate and told me to swing. By the time I was old enough for organized leagues if I tried to bat from the side I saw all the other boys standing on it felt horribly unnatural.
Sometimes I think that’s the difference, the measure. Standing as nature would have me, the bat felt awkward and clunky, a weight to wield and little more. Every swing threw me off balance. That was nature, that was my God-given ability. Standing on the left side, without the natural athleticism but with the determination of will to find a place within the sport I loved, the bat felt like an extension of my own arms.
As the older brother, at least in that room, I had the top bunk. We didn’t have a TV in our bedroom, but we had a radio, and when Dad put us to bed the evening games would be just wrapping up, so he’d put on the twilight innings of the Pirates game to keep us company until we fall asleep.
Directly above my bed, close enough I could read the text in the dim light, was a poster featuring a disconsolate photo of Babe Ruth from behind, showcasing his immortal number 3, in an empty Yankee Stadium. Accompanying the photo were the famous words by A. Bartlett Giamatti, former commissioner of Major League Baseball. Night after night after night I listened to my post-Bonds Pirates come up short as I read and wondered about the meaning:
“It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart.”
The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings,
In the fall of 1977 Glenn Burke made his his first start in the World Series, taking center field in Game 1 for Tommy Lasorda’s Los Angeles Dodgers against the New York Yankees and Mr. October, Reggie Jackson.
It was something like the usual boyhood dream. Sure, he was playing for the team down south from his native Oakland- and against the man he had grown up watching bash homers as an Athletic- but he was starting in the World Series. The only thing left was to come up to bat in extras and knock the winning shot.
Just imagine, starting a game in the World Series. Not just playing, but starting, and not just anywhere but straightaway in center field. A small percentage of a small percentage of a small percentage of anybody who would even envision themselves in the concept will actually live it. It’s a pinnacle Glenn Burke worked all his life to achieve, but he hadn’t been struggling for long. He made it in only his first full season in the Majors, at twenty-four years old.
Burke had been a tremendous athlete all his life. So enveloped with sports was Burke he didn’t realize he was gay until he was twenty-three and on the verge of his Major League career. He thought sports were his escape from the pressure of having to date a girl. Turned out he just didn’t want to.
He must have really wanted to avoid those dates, because Burke showed promise as a multi-sport athlete. As gifted as he was, there was no doubt about his true love, the sport he’d play the rest of his life if he could help it.
Burke wrote in his autobiography, Out at Home:
I may have gone on to play major-league baseball with the Dodgers and the A’s, but basketball was always my first choice. I may have been a midget compared to the height of other basketball players, but I was good enough to be named High School Basketball Player of the Year for Northern California in 1970. My greatest attribute was my jumping ability. At only six-one, I was still grabbing an average of eleven rebounds a game. I could jump up there and touch the top of the white square above the basket on the backboard. Dunking was never a problem. Opponents hated me. As I drove down the line on a fast break, I’d be thinking, “I’m scoring. Nobody’s gonna stop me. I’m getting my two points!”
The Oakland Tribune was always covering the Berkeley games, and one of their columnists labeled me “Baby Elgin,” after the great Elgin Baylor. Elgin and I both had that “hang-time.” People would say Elgin could stand in the air for four seconds. I had some of his moves, so the Tribune called me Baby Elgin.
Burke’s prominence rose quickly, his name popping up in stories run by the Oakland Tribune with such reverence around it you’d think he’d descended to Oakland from the heavens, a physical specimen of perfection granted to the planet to dunk basketballs.
Despite being shorter than the typical basketball player, Burke rebounded with the best and could set himself up for an alley-oop before they knew to call an alley-oop an alley-oop. The NCAA still banned the dunk.
Entering college, priorities would change. In January of 1972, the Oakland Tribune reported the Merritt star had reportedly turned in his jersey.
Burke wasn’t gone from the sports world, however. Hardly a month later the paper would run a profile teasing his Major League potential. Burke had come across two roads diverging, and you can’t blame him for not taking the path less traveled by looking to baseball where jobs are better paid and more plentiful.
Not to mention he’d be playing the National Pastime. More eyes couldn’t be on him, and for a young kid already years-deep into a relationship with the sports press, he couldn’t be happier or more comfortable in that spotlight.
Burke had changed directions on a path that would lead him through the roundabouts of Minor League purgatory and in time to center field at Yankee Stadium for Game 1 of the 1977 World Series. It was only his first full season in the Majors. I don’t have Fangraphs’ research department but I imagine that’s rare.
Burke seemed satisfied with his debut:
Personally, I had a pretty good World Series debut. I made a great catch in center field and was involved in the series’ most pivotal play. We were leading 2-to-1 in the top of the sixth, and I singled to center field. Yankee center fielder Mickey Ricers, who had a weak throwing arm, threw Garvey out at home trying to score from first base. It set off a huge argument at home between Garvey and the home plate umpire before Lasorda joined the mix. We ended up losing the game in twelve innings, 4–3. But I was really pleased to contribute, especially after going hitless in the championship series.”
Maybe he was really only happy to get Lasorda so angry. The two developed quite a relationship in his time as a Dodger. So had Glenn developed quite a relationship with Tommy’s son, Spunky. They were a natural pair, and loved to coax reactions out of the famously animated wannabe celebrity, some of those hijinks appearing in Burke’s autobiography, Out at Home:
As a practical joke, Spunky and I were going to go to Tommy’s house one night for dinner, a la the Spencer Tracy-Sidney Poitier movie Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? We were going to go to his house wearing pigtails with all the female trimmings. I swear, it was all planned out. Tommy would have shot us both in the head. Then he would have had a heart attack and died. No question about it. So we chickened out at the last minute.
Although Spunky was openly gay, Tommy refused to acknowledge it.
Although Spunky died of complication from AIDS, Tommy refuses to acknowledge it.
Burke’s spot would come up one more time in Game 1: Needing one run and down to their final three outs, Dusty Baker led off the 9th with a single to left field. The final act of the boyhood dream fell into place. World Series. Ninth inning. Game on the line. Burke’s spot up in the order.
Manny Mota pinch hit and flew out to right.
After a Lee Lacy single finally scored Baker to force extras, Rick Monday took charge in center field. The Dodgers lost in 12.
Burke would come off the bench a few more times that World Series, but Reggie Jackson was too large a star for Burke to have been able to turn the Series the Dodgers’ way even under the rosiest of presumptions.
Burke watched the decisive Game 6 from the dugout as Jackson earned his nickname, pummeling three home runs to seal the Series for the Yankees.
As Jackson circled the bases after hitting his third home run of the game, I had tears in my eyes. Not because we were going to lose the World Series. I cried because I was happy for him. Reggie was an all right guy and that was a tremendous individual feat. Growing up in Oakland, I got to watch them play a lot. Reggie was a great power hitter.
In Yankee Stadium, through every borough of New York, all around the country even, grown men were brought to boyish tears.
For years from then and for years from now, miles of highlights have spun and will spin about that moment. Swimming pools of ink have been and will be printed memorializing and romanticizing it, committing it firmly to the historical record so it can pass on the the next generation. Enough air has escaped and will escape lungs praising this glorious achievement to terraform small planets. And as often as not, someone has been and will shed a tear as they’re taken back to where they were, how they felt, who they were with.
And all those times since and all these times hence, Glenn Burke has been and will be there in that moment, too. In the visiting Dodgers dugout, unaware that the best days of his career in Major League Baseball are unequivocally over, crying with the rest of the world that would be so bold as to open themselves to heartbreak and love the game of baseball. With millions then as the 1977 World Series drew to a close, and with countless yet to come as its memory is continually reignited, Glenn Burke cried tears of joy.
and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall all alone.
Burke’s sexuality didn’t remain a secret from the Dodgers for long. Burke had reasons to suspect the team was discovering things early in his Major League career. Not the least of these reasons was his friendship with Tommy “Spunky” Lasorda, Jr. Burke wrote about their relationship in Out at Home:
I have bittersweet memories of Spunky. We were great friends. He had a tremendous sense of humor. He was a transvestite some of the time, but not all of the time. And extremely flamboyant. The Dodgers always had suspicions that there was a sexual relationship between us. I’ve never responded to that suspicion. That’s my business.
Spunky died of AIDS-related complications a couple of yeas ago. It’s somewhat tragic, but Tommy is still in denial about Spunky’s sexual orientation and how he died. He tells his friends Spunky died of pneumonia only, not AIDS complications. I feel bad for Tommy that he lost his son. It must be very painful to bury your child. But he should stop being a jerk and accept Spunky for who he really was.
In the Dodgers’ effort to straighten up Burke, Dodgers General Manager Al Campanis, offered Burke a bonus to get married. Burke refused without making explicit his sexuality, pointing out the hypocrisy that other players on the team hadn’t received similar offers. He believed the directive had come from the top ranks of the Dodgers organization, and that the franchise was too large a money-making enterprise to have a gay player.
The Dodgers traded Glenn Burke, a promising young player- a player they trusted to start Game 1 of the World Series in Yankee Stadium’s center field- for Bill North, an aging veteran recovering from injury.
By the preferred stats of the time, North garnered a .234 batting average and hit zero home runs. He got on base at a .344 clip, and as a speedy centerfielder he’d be called on to swipe 27 bags, though be caught eight times accumulating them.
There’s a lot more, but don’t worry about it. Once the sabermetrics revolution came it was distilled to 1.8, and that’s good enough for most people these days.
When that revolution came, Glenn Burke’s short career was reduced to -2.4.
Steve Garvey and I cried. Don Sutton too. Dusty Baker and Davey Lopes were just pissed off. In fact, the two of them marched up to Dodger vice president Al Campanis’s office and screamed, “You fuckin’ assholes! You traded our best prospect. Not to mention the life of this team.”
In 2014, the New York Times ran a profile on Burke which confirmed this as not just bitterness and bluster:
“He was the life of the team, on the buses, in the clubhouse, everywhere,” Davey Lopes, a teammate, said of Burke the next day. When Burke came out in 1982, Lopes was among several former teammates who said that Burke was traded because he was gay.
The Los Angeles Dodgers have never apologized for trading Glenn Burke on account of his being gay. They’ve also never denied it, because despite the insistence of teammates they’ve never acknowledged it as even a potential consideration.
What do you mean, Glenn Burke was traded because he was gay?
Who do you mean, ‘Glenn Burke?’
In Oakland, Burke reported being heckled by fans with homophobic insults while he sat in the dugout, unable to get playing time. Oakland manager Billy Martin was furious with the decision to bring Burke on board, calling him a faggot behind his back and insisting that one would never play on a team of his.
The terrifying reality became too obvious: they knew.
Any kid that grows up lucky enough to get to follow and call their own a Major League Baseball team dreams of playing for that team. I’m 5' 8", I weigh 115 lbs., but there’s not one thing in the world I’d like more that to stand up on the mound at PNC Park and twirl a slider right at my adversary that breaks so far off the plate they can’t not swing at it like I’m Oliver Pérez in 2004.
“No faggot” in 1978 would be an Oakland Athletic if Billy Martin had anything to say about it, though.
If Billy Martin was hurling epithets from the shadows, if even fans in Oakland and on the road knew exactly how to taunt him, it must have been much more than just the Dodgers that suspected his sexuality. In puff pieces written today, sports journalists describe this as being “the first openly gay baseball player.” In 1978, Burke was outed and terrified for his future.
Billy Martin must not have had as much pull with the Oakland front office as he thought, because Burke was allowed to languish in Martin’s dugout until retiring in frustration after the 1979 season.
Burke wanted to play. He couldn’t play for Billy Martin. “Martin never called me a faggot to my face,” Burke wrote. “He may have known I would have kicked his ass.”
Burke’s only hope was that a more progressive team, or at least one that wasn’t aware of or didn’t put stock into the word going around, would pick him up.
“I waited two years for a call from a team,” Burke confessed in Out at Home. “Only one team, the Pirates, inquired about my availability. And the Pittsburgh scout asked my pal, Mitchell Page, if I was bisexual.
Burke expressed his lasting sense of betrayal in the same pages: “The Dodgers never gave me a chance. They blackballed me, and that fact still bothers me to this day.”
You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive,
When Burke contracted HIV in 1994, a friend reached out for support to a new regime in Oakland: Sandy Alderson. Credit should go where it’s due, as the team reached out to provide support.
Burke’s autobigoraphy goes into some detail without laying out an inventory of the support provided. He does express his graciousness. Most of the support is directed through Burke’s sister, Lutha, who took responsibility for his full time care as the disease progressed.
Burke even ventured to hope that it might have been possible for him to play under Sandy Alderson and Tony LaRussa, if only he’d been born fifteen years later.
By then it was no longer an open secret that Burke was gay. In 1982, a former partner published a story outing Burke in an issue of Inside Sports. While it is often reported that Burke proudly came out, his own words in Out at Home contradict that interpretation:
Michael was always so political about everything and had wanted me to come out since my days with the Dodgers. I never wanted to make my orientation public for several reasons. And I still really didn’t give Michael permission to write the article about me in 1982. He did it anyway.
Michael had reasons for writing that article that went beyond politics. He had a huge ego and wanted to get the publicity that such a news item would bring him. He also thought that if he wrote that piece, I’d move back in with him. We had been living apart at the time. And he also did it for the money, which was pretty substantial for a feature this one in those days. I never did see any of that money. Michael kept it all.
Glenn and Spunky both died in the 90’s during the AIDS epidemic among a generation cheered on to their graves for sheer ignorance and raw antipathy.
In the 41 years since, Burke has been reduced to trivia. Today, a discussion about Glenn Burke is almost certain to revolve around his invention of the high five. Since then, the ‘high five’ has run the course from a cultural meme to a thing that just is, something you’d hardly imagine had been ‘invented’ in the first place. But in those four decades, baseball has made no discernible progress on the issue that ended Burke’s career: institutionalized homophobia.
Although the popular whipping boy for baseball’s homophobia problem is the players themselves it’s a woefully inadequate explanation for why no gay Major League Baseball player feels comfortable competing openly.
For one thing, we do have confirmation from former players of cases where teammates were openly gay within the clubhouse- but that this information was confined to what is often referred to as the open secret. People know, but it’s not polite discussion in any kind of public conversation.
Anderson Cooper would be the example that most people would be familiar with. It was something many people knew, to various degrees of certainty, but not something publicly confirmed until Cooper himself was comfortable coming out.
Quite frankly, most arguments centering players as the major cause of Major League Baseball’s homophobia problem are frankly racist: Whether the player has a background in a Catholic Latin-American country, or rural American, or has black heritage- always, some demographic about the player will describe why of course they all must be homophobic. It’s base projection.
Again, I don’t want to get too far into the argument against the idea if only because it’s that ridiculous. It’s not harassment from teammates that keeps players in the closet, it’s the potential loss of millions of dollars in contracts and endorsements. Not to mention the potential for explicit threats from reactionary fans in a political climate where socially regressive nihilists have escalated the entire concept of culture war.
Billy Bean became the next and last gay former Major League Baseball player to come out of the closet in 1999. He would write in his own autobiography that he had not accepted it himself until after his playing career ended in 1995. Guess he and Burke were alike in that, too in love with a game to let any person intrude.
In a ceremony at the 2014 All-Star Game, Bean received honors as the first Major League Baseball Ambassador for Inclusion. An alum of the 1985 Los Angeles Dodgers, the team tweeted their support:
On October 26, 2018, Tommy Lasorda delivered the ceremonial first pitch of the World Series before thousands of adoring fans at Dodger Stadium and millions in homes around the world. Lasorda arrived at the mound in the Dodgers’ bullpen cart, accompanied by Magic Johnson and throwing the first pitch to legendary Dodger first baseman Steve Garvey, the same man called out at home by an out-of-position official in that fateful sixth inning.
When many look at Lasorda now they see a frail old man, because he is a frail old man. The decades in baseball and Championships aside, Lasorda would be described as a “relic” by those who somehow mean it as a compliment. The only agreement among baseball faithful seems to be that, for whatever of a litany of reasons a person might give, baseball simply isn’t as fun to watch as it was in Tommy Lasorda’s day.
Lasorda is a relic, an unforgettable marker in a shameful patch of baseball history. As much as Lasorda has to be understood as a product of his time, and the media-friendly managerial style that made him famous, he also is arguably the single most indelible and inescapable image of Major League Baseball’s institutionalized homophobia.
But he’s not a part of baseball’s history, because he remains a part of baseball’s present. Lasorda to this day seems unwilling to turn down a microphone or a photoshoot, figuring into promotions such as last year’s bobblehead night.
It’s de rigeur to find any unflattering comment from players’ pasts to drag them for- and to be clear, I believe it’s perfectly acceptably to ask players to address past comments. But these are primarily just silly tweets from teenage years. Lasorda, in the employ of Major League Baseball, helped orchestrate the end of a player’s career simply because he was gay.
Once Lasorda passes, undoubtedly the hands will begin to wring. Until then, every sports journalist in the game would be thrilled to stand next to him on any of baseball’s grand stages and smile for the cameras.
Only days before Lasorda threw out the ceremonial first pitch at Game 3 of the World Series, Major League Baseball promoted a Spirit Day initiative with the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation to stand up to bigoted harassment and bullying of LGBTQ people.
Almost every MLB club’s social media participated, each using the same cookie-cutter graphics and purple-clad group shots, the uniformity of it all giving away the lie of it, the certainty of an explicitly bullet-pointed memo delivered at 8:59 AM. Some clubs chose to either minimize or outright eliminate the explicit pro-LGBTQ message of the initiative despite the prominent involvement of GLAAD. To their credit, the Dodgers participated with a $15,000 donation to Trevor Project.
Yet for the immediate response a memo from corporate office got, it is impossible to find one instance of the Dodgers officially recognizing Glenn Burke and his contributions to Major League Baseball at Dodger Stadium. With over 100,000 and counting individual tweets to the club’s official twitter, this appears to be the only one that mentions Burke at all:
We can only speculate if it is out of deference to Tommy Lasorda that the Dodgers have not yet recognized Burke despite the numerous Pride Nights held at Dodgers Stadium. To their credit, in 2015 the Athletics invited Lutha Burke to be honored at Pride Night. And while MLB did recognize Burke during the 2014 All-Star game at which Billy Bean was announced as Major League Baseball’s Official Gay Friend (oh, oh, I’m sorry, Ambassador for Inclusion), his continued absence from Pride Night promotions across the League speaks much louder than the singular instance of recognition.
“I know Glenn must have had a lot of lonely nights, not having anyone to turn to,” Lutha Burke, Glenn’s representative at the press conference, commented with her turn at the microphone. “For the kids just starting to play, now there is something for them.”
“Your brother was a pioneer,” MLB commissioner assured Lutha, and promised her: “We remember him to this day and want to tell his story.”
It wasn’t enough that the Dodgers would trade Glenn Burke for being gay. Now they, and Major League Baseball, are perfectly content to deny his humanity and reduce him to something less than trivia. Inasmuch as he’s celebrated, his sexuality is ignored. Inasmuch as his sexuality is acknowledged, the painful history of the repercussions that brought him and continue to bring his legacy are ignored, too.
No ring of honor. No bust in the mezzanine. Not even a mention in the annual press releases detailing Pride Night fun. Glenn Burke was blackballed from baseball, as much as is a fact and can never be change. Glenn Burke is being erased from baseball, but it’s an effort not yet finished. Some people still remember Glenn Burke’s name, and not just for slapping palms with Dusty Baker. The Dodgers, and Major League Baseball, need to remember his name, too.
There are a hundred things destroying baseball if you listen to anybody out there.
Pace of play, replay, free agency, the length of the games, too many strikeouts, too many home runs, everybody seems to have their favorite explanation for why a sport we all love but apparently absolutely hate to watch continues to lose fans every year.
We haven’t even talked about the cheating. Oh my word, the cheating. You’ve heard enough about the cheating. We all know they were cheating.
Allow me to put forward a theory. I have not seen this theory directly, though there have been little parts of it in the usual defenses of Pride Nights. But let’s expand that scope a little.
Baseball is dying off because it isn’t gay enough.
How is a League supposed to appeal to a younger, progressive generation when it’s hard to argue it isn’t one of the most homophobic institutions remaining in the country? And how can you argue Major League Baseball isn’t one of the most homophobic institutions when you look at its total lack of openly gay players, and how it tramples over the legacy of one of its trailblazers?
Anywhere else you look in public life, there are openly LGBTQ people. But very few in men’s professional sports. Not any on Major League Baseball fields. Outside of actual religious organizations and political interest groups, it’s hard to find many industries and companies where LGBTQ people are so uncomfortable working openly.
We have openly LGBTQ legislators in every state. We have openly LGBTQ people in churches. Some of the biggest music acts of our time are open about not being heterosexual. You see LGBTQ people when you turn on any of the major news networks. You probably have an LGBTQ member of your family and have LGBTQ coworkers. But you turn on Major League Baseball and nowhere do you now, or have you ever, seen an LGBTQ player openly and proudly take the field.
Major League Baseball can continue their Pride Night marketing, their anti-bullying initiatives, so on. And even the Dodgers finally acknowledging and apologizing for their motivations behind trading Glenn Burke would only be a partial step. But before any real progress can be made, Major League Baseball, and its fans, need to understand that institutionalized homophobia in the League is much more of a threat to the health of Major League Baseball than anything else that baseball’s handwringing class can insist upon. Except maybe all the cheating.
The Dodgers have a reputation among baseball fans that they only half deserve. The team that gave Jackie Robinson his chance to create a legacy can’t go back in time and give back Glenn Burke his. But they can at least say his name.
and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.
On Independence Day of 1939, Lou Gehrig stood before thousands of fans at Yankee Stadium to publicly address the recent news of his illness. The disease was so rare, and Gehrig so famous, that it would come to be known for him- Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
Gehrig was toward the end but arguably still in the prime of his career, and for weeks stories of pity about the young man being cut down in his prime ran through papers. Gehrig must have taken umbrage, as his comments cut directly to the matter:
Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth. I have been in ballparks for 17 years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.
Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn’t consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day? Sure, I’m lucky. Who wouldn’t consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert? Also, the builder of baseball’s greatest empire, Ed Barrow? To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins? Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy? Sure, I’m lucky.
Lou Gehrig died on June 2nd, 1941, adored by anybody and everybody that claimed to love the game of baseball.
Glenn Burke died on May 30, 1995. The illness that claimed his life, AIDS, would be too common and take too many for Burke to be associated with it in any way other than the final paragraph of his biography. Throughout the Eighties, the Reagan administration allowed the epidemic to worsen and spread. Many felt the disease only impacted people getting what they deserved.
There would be no teary-eyed goodbye speech on the Fourth of July for Glenn Burke. There would not be weeks of pitying headlines wailing from every sports page in the country. There would be no MLB-sponsored benefit, no awards named in honor, no final recognition and apology for blackballing he received from the spot.
Six months before his death, Burke would make one of his final living appearances in print. Not in any sports page- but with People Magazine.
DRESSED ONLY IN A PAIR OF BOXER shorts, Glenn Burke does not rise from the bed to meet his guests. No matter — you can see the devastation. The arms on the man once called King Kong by his Dodger teammates are now as scrawny as chicken wings. The legs that once led a minor league in stolen bases are rippled with dark lesions. “I’m so tired,” says Burke, stretched out in his sister’s Oakland apartment. “This is about the end.”
The tone of the article suggests they at least handed the assignment to someone sympathetic, but in 1995, while I had four kinds of wallpaper on my bedroom wall and listened to Pirates games on the radio while going to sleep, homosexuality was still a divisive issue. The Defense of Marriage Act would be signed into law the next year which as recently as 2016 has been defended by the Democratic nominee for President of the United States and the shills who carried her water as necessary to have prevented a potential constitutional amendment against recognition of marriage equality.
Less than two months after Burke’s passing, Billy Bean would be called to the Padres to support a four-game series against Houston culminating in a doubleheader on the 8th of July. Bean went hitless in 8 PAs, and there has not since been an appearance in a Major League Baseball game by a player who would later come out as gay.
Burke didn’t know Bean was gay. Bean didn’t know Bean was gay. But the only companion Burke could claim to have in leaving baseball’s open secret was seeing his career end just as Burke himself drew to a close his time on Earth.
The People Magazine interviewer asked the sickly Burke if he had any regrets. The bold and brash King Kong, former life of the Los Angeles Dodgers dugout and thorn in Tommy Lasorda’s side, starter in center field for Game 1 of the 1977 World Series, the man who cried tears of joy as a boyhood hero ended a boyhood dream, could only think of one:
“I should have played basketball.” He does not elaborate. Instead, he closes his eyes and slowly turns away.
It breaks your heart.