Baseball fans who grew up in the 1970s remember the Los Angeles Dodgers of that era being among the greatest teams in Major League Baseball history.
That team was so indelible that it’s easy for fans to recite the starting lineup: Steve Garvey at first base, Davey Lopes at second, Bill Russell at short, Ron Cey at third, Steve Yeager behind the plate, Dusty Baker, Rick Monday, and Reggie Smith in the outfield, and a pitching staff extraordinaire. The team was led by celebrity manager Tommy Lasorda, a future Hall of Famer.
Lasorda had a gay son who made no secret of his sexuality and would eventually die of AIDS complications. When Tommy Lasorda Jr. first befriended the team’s rising star and phenom outfielder Glenn Burke, it raised eyebrows, especially when being gay, particularly in sports, could get you the equivalent of exiled to a faraway deserted island.
Books and news reports indicate Burke struggled mightily with being gay, but remained one of the most beloved and charismatic members of that glorious Dodgers team. He kept the clubhouse laughing, was always the first to congratulate a teammate on a home run or a run scored, and he’s even credited with inventing the high five. Burke’s future was brilliantly bright. Until it wasn’t.
Manager Lasorda is said to have rigorously frowned upon the friendship between Burke and his son (they were rumored by some to be lovers). Despite his burgeoning talent, Burke was shipped off to the Oakland Athletics in 1978. Some thought the Athletics were chosen because of Oakland’s proximity to the gay mecca of San Francisco.
Burke’s trade was protested by some Dodgers players who wondered why the team was giving up on a sure bet. Mysteriously — or not — after his transfer, Burke seemed to lose his way, and his career tanked in Oakland. He was given little playing time, and as rumors spread about him, some of his new teammates refused to shower with him. At the age of 27, after the 1979 season, Burke left the game that he loved so much; however, as the first known gay Major League player, Burke hoped his coming-out (which took place after he retired) would make a difference.
Burke’s life was difficult after he left the game. But he kept active in sports, competing in the Gay Games in track in 1982 and basketball in 1986. He played for several years in San Francisco’s Gay Softball League.
Tragedy struck in the late ’80s, when Burke was hit by a car, which crushed his right leg and foot. The pain pushed him into addiction, and with no steady income, he spiraled. He was arrested, jailed for drugs, and was unhoused for a time. In May of 1995, he died from complications related to AIDS.
This year, the Oakland Athletics renamed the team’s annual Pride Night, held in June, in Burke’s honor. And there have been calls for the Dodgers to do the same. Recognizing his value and his identity, even now, more than 30 years after he played, seems only fitting.
Burke’s story is a lesson in what it means to be excluded because of your sexuality and the personal cost of being unable to be who you are. Unfortunately, there are still athletes who struggle, who others won’t shower around, and whose talent would most likely be ignored if they came out of the closet. There are still players who struggle because they have not been able to be true to themselves. The best way to honor Burke and all he could have been is for the league to make sure it never happens again.