Updated: Aug 3, 2021
Glenn Lawrence Burke (November 16, 1952 – May 30, 1995)
“Prejudice drove me out of baseball sooner than I should have. But I wasn’t changing”
Almost seventy-five years ago, Jackie Robinson, become the first African American to play baseball for a major league team, the Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson and the Dodgers made history by breaking the color barrier that separated white baseball players and black players. Twenty-nine years later another African American would break a different barrier, be being the first openly gay baseball player to play for a major league baseball team, the Los Angeles Dodgers. Glen Lawrence Burke, played for two California Major League teams, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Oakland Athletics (A’s) from 1976 – 1979.
Burke’s sexuality was widely known, having “come out” his teammates, coaches and managers; he is the first know player to have acknowledge is sexuality stating, “They can’t ever day now that a gay man can’t play in the majors, because I am a gay man and I made it.”
Burke was an accomplished high school basketball star, leading the Berkeley High School, California, Yellow Jackets to an undefeated season and the 1970 Northern California championships. Burke could dunk a basketball with both hands, a rare feat for anyone under 6"0 tall. He was voted onto the all-tournament team at the Tournament of Champions (TOC) and received a Northern California MVP award. Burke was named Northern California's High School Basketball Player of the Year in 1970.
Burke was a highly scouted prospect by the Dodgers’ organization and was thought to be next Willie Mays. However, as an openly gay man his association with the Dodgers was not an easy one. According to his 1995 autobiography, “Out at Home” Dodgers General manager offered to pay for a lavish honeymoon if Burke would agree to marry. Glenn refused and is said to have said, “to a woman?”
The Dodger would trade Glenn Burke at the end of the 1977 season to the Oakland A’s. His time there, too, was also brief. He received very little playing time in the 1978 and 1979 seasons. And his relationship with some of the Oakland players was not as cordial as they had been in L.A. He injured his knee at the star of the 1980 season and was sent the minors in Utah, and shortly there after The Athletics released him from his contract before the season ended. During his four seasons in the majors playing for the Dodgers and Athletics, Burke played 225 games, had 523 at-bats, had a batting average of .237 with two home runs, 38 RBIs and 35 stolen bases.
Glenn Burke is credited with inventing the “High-Five.” On October 2, 1977 during a game against the Houston Astros, Dodger Team Dusty Baker hit his 30th homerun in the last game of the season. Burke ran on the field to congratulate Baker. He extended his hand above his head as Baker rounded third base. Thereby creating the most popular celebratory act in all sports today.
Glenn Burke continued his athletic endeavors after retiring from baseball, he won two medal for the 100 and 200 meter races in the first Gay Games in 1982, and competed in basketball in the 1986 games, both hosted by the city of San Francisco. He also played softball in the SFGSL (San Francisco Gay Softball League) he played third base for Uncle Bert’s Bombers.
Sadly, Glenn Lawrence Burke fell upon hard times due to an increasing drug addiction to cocaine that destroyed him both physically and financially. A car accident later injured his foot and leg that led to spiral decline that further complicated his demise. His final days were spent with his sister in Oakland, and on May 30. 1995 he died from complications of HIV and AIDS.
In 2011, Glenn’s High School jersey was retired by his alma mater, Berkeley High School. On August 2, 2013, Burke was among the first class of inductees in the National Gay and Lesbian Sports Hall of Fame. And on June 17, 2015, the Oakland A’s honored Glenn Burke as part of Athletics Pride Night. He was also inducted into the Baseball Reliquary’s Shrine of the Eternals later that year.
Glenn Burke’s story isn’t just important because he was a ”first” but because at a time when it wasn’t popular to be openly gay in sports it wasn’t safe either, and it did hasten Burke’s retirement from the sport. His story is important because he dared to live his best authentic self, when it could have been easier to hide.
He paved the way for us. . .