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Glenn Burke

 

Before there was Michael Sams or Jason Collins there was Glenn Burke.

Actress Jamie Lee Curtis is putting on her producer’s cap to make a film honoring the memory of Glenn Burke, a professional athlete who came out of the closet long before Jason Collins or Michael Sam.

Out at Home: The Glenn Burke Story will focus on Burke’s tenure with the Dodgers and Athletics during the 1970s, a time when he shared his sexual preferences to his teammates and management but not the general public. Burke died of AIDS-related causes in 1995.

Curtis told the press the time is right for such a story to hit movie houses.

With (openly gay college football player) Michael Sam’s brave and bold statement, he joins the Trifecta of American sports, Glenn Burke – MLB (Major League Baseball), Jason Collins – NBA (National Basketball Association), Michael Sam – NFL (National Football League), dealing with gay athletes, and forcing open the door permanently. Our film will clearly honour the force and the struggle to get there.

As a gay man, Burke’s association with the Dodgers was a difficult one at best.  According to his 1995 autobiography, Dodgers General Manager Al Campanis offered to pay for a lavish honeymoon if Burke agreed to marry.  Burke refused to do so, and is said to have responded “to a woman?” He also angered Dodgers’ manager Tommy Lasorda by befriending the manager’s gay son, Tommy Lasorda, Jr.  Lasorda has disputed that but says he does not understand Burke’s behavior at the time: “Why wouldn’t he come out? 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.”

The Dodgers eventually traded Burke to the Oakland Athletics for Billy North, claiming that they needed an experienced player who could contribute right away. North did have more experience and better statistics, but some would argue he was less talented, and there have been suggestions that homophobia was behind the trade.  In Oakland Burke received little playing time in the 1978 and 1979 seasons.  Billy Martin used the word “faggot” in the clubhouse when he became an Athletics’s manager in 1980, and some teammates avoided showering with Burke.

Burke suffered a knee injury before the 1980 season began, and the Athletics sent him to the minors in Utah and then released him from his contract before the season ended.

An article published in Inside Sports magazine in 1982 made Burke’s homosexuality public knowledge.  Although he remained active in amateur competitions, Burke turned to drugs to fill the void in his life when his career ended.  An addiction to cocaine destroyed him both physically and financially.  In 1987, his leg and foot were crushed when he was hit by a car in San Francisco.  After the accident, his life went into physical and financial decline. He was arrested and jailed for drugs and lived on the streets of San Francisco for a number of years, often congregating with other homeless people in the same neighborhood where he had been a popular figure. He spent his final months with his sister in Oakland.

Glenn Burke died on May 30, 1995, of AIDS complications at Fairmont Hospital in San Leandro, California, at age 42.

2 Comments

  1. Burke’s story might be worth dramatizing on film, but, with respect, Will, your first statement that he “came out of the closet long before Jason Collins or Michael Sam” is contradicted by “he shared his sexual preferences to his teammates and management but NOT the general public [as Collins and Sam did]” for it is the “public closet” that team owners, managers, coaches, other players, and the public most care about.

  2. Digging deeper, I discovered that, while nothing can change the fact that he effectively demonstrated that a gay man could be a great baseball player, it is a myth that Glenn Burke outed himself to management, or, apparently, anyone in sports, while he was playing. In the October 1982 “Inside Sports” article that officially outed him publicly, called, “The Double Life of a Gay Dodger,” Burke said, emphasis mine: “I didn’t want to make other people uncomfortable, so I faded away. My teammates’ wives might have been threatened by a gay man in the locker room. I could have been a superstar but I was too worried about protecting everybody else from knowing. If I thought I could be accepted, I’d be there now. It is the first thing in my life I ever backed down from. No, I’m not disappointed in myself, I’m disappointed in the system. Your sex should be private, AND I ALWAYS KEPT IT THAT WAY.” 1994 interviews with him the year before he died confirm this further, emphasis mine:
    “Though Burke NEVER talked about his sexual orientation to his family or teammates, word got around.” – 1994 People magazine interview. “He was adamant that the baseball community would never find out. … ‘I couldn’t let anybody know who I really was’, Burke said.” – 1994 New York Times interview. “Once Burke realized he was gay, he understood that it was taboo to talk about it in the clubhouse. ‘I just knew what I had to do. Play baseball, stay quiet and live my life’. ,,, Burke went to nightclubs with his teammates, dined with them, and never let on. A few players eventually found out Burke’s secret. Cleo Smith, a minor-leaguer with the Dodgers who grew up near Burke knew about his lifestyle and mentioned it to several others.” – 1994 Associated Press interview.

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