Glenn Burke: The First Gay Athlete In Pro Sports

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Before Michael Sam, and before Jason Collins, there was a man that faced the same unfair bigotry that those two now face. The same discrimination that unjustly pierced his soul.

That man was Glenn Burke. The first gay major league baseball player.

Burke was an accomplished high school basketball star, and received offers to be a professional basketball player, but his first offer came from Major League Baseball. An offer he couldn’t refuse.

Touted as the next Willie Mays due to his uncanny athleticism and grace on the baseball field, Burke was a top prospect in the Dodgers minor league system before being called up to the major league club.

After making his debut with the Dodgers in 1976, Burke played sparingly that year and the next, hitting just .245 over those first two seasons while facing daily discrimination because of his homosexuality from his teammates, coaches, and organization.

In 1977, Burke sprinted onto the field to congratulate his Dodgers teammate Dusty Baker on his 30th home run in the season’s final game. Putting his hand over his head, Burke ran towards Baker in jubilation. Not knowing what to do about the upraised hand, Baker slapped it.

The high-five was born.

But the prejudice stayed.

In a matter of two seasons, Burke endured his general manager offering to pay for a lavish honeymoon if he married a woman, Tommy Lasorda getting angry at him for befriending his gay son, and the Dodgers trading him to Oakland for a much lesser player, sighting they needed experience, although most would suggest homophobia was behind the trade.

Things didn’t get much better for Burke in Oakland, either. In 1979 he played sparingly, and in 1980 Billy Martin became the A’s manager and openly used the word “faggot,” while other teammates refused to shower with him.

Before the 1980 season, Burke suffered a knee injury, got sent to the minors, was released, and then never played baseball again.

In an autobiography that Burke would write years later entitled Out At Home, he had this to say about his short time in major league baseball:

“Prejudice just won out,” Burke said. “My mission as a gay ballplayer was to break a stereotype, and I thought it worked.”

After baseball, Burke went on to medal in the 100 and 200 meter sprints in the first Gay Games in 1982, and the Gay Games in basketball in 1986.

With a giant void left in his life after finishing his professional baseball career, Burke sadly turned to drugs. The former Berkeley standout’s addiction to cocaine crippled him physically and financially, and became homeless on the streets of San Francisco before dying of AIDS complications on May 30th, 1995 at the young age of 42.

Burke only played 225 career games in the major leagues, he only complied 134 hits, and he only hit two home runs, but he did so much more, something that’s possible Jason Collins and now Michael Sam had no chance of doing without. Burke was a pioneer.

He put it best.

“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.”

He did make it. He made it easier for others after him.

In 2013, Burke was one of the first inductees in the National Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame.

You can follow OPSN Lead Writer Shawn Ferris on Twitter @RealShawnFerris

 

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