Out at the Plate: Glenn Burke's Baseball Legacy Transcends Gay-Straight Barrier
On Wednesday, the San Francisco Giants will be taking the field against the Texas Rangers in the 106th edition of baseball's World Series. The players will be trotting out to their respective positions, digging into the batter's box and toeing the pitcher's mound with only one thing on their minds: winning.
Yet 33 years ago, the starting center-fielder for the National League champion Los Angeles Dodgers had a lot on his mind. Granted, it was Game 1 of the 1977 World Series. He was technically still a rookie, and was being touted as the Dodgers' version of Willie Mays.
He was facing one of the most experienced World Series pitchers of all time in Don Gullet, and he was playing his first game ever in historic Yankee Stadium.
Oh, and he was gay.
Glenn Burke, still accepted around sports as the first and only player in the big four sports (NFL, MLB, NHL, NBA) to come out to his teammates while he was still playing, was in the majors for only four years before his lifestyle seemingly drove him out of the game. Three decades after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, Glenn Burke attempted to break the gay barrier, but sadly their paths were not parallel.
Burke, an Oakland native and Berkeley High two-sport star, was one of the best Bay Area athletes to come out of high school in the 1970s. Remember, this is a region and decade that also produced Rickey Henderson and Claudell Washington, who have played a combined 42 Major League seasons to Burke's four. And according to them, Burke was still the best talent out of all three.
When will it be accepted to be a gay professional athlete?
Burke may have had the talent and the star power personality to match, but when he began to reveal glimpses of his sexuality to his teammates and management, it started him down a slippery slope that was simply to steep to climb back up.
Out. The Glenn Burke Story is an exclusive Comcast SportsNet documentary that chronicles his descent from the World Series to being traded to the Athletics to a voluntary retirement and down into the abyss of drug abuse, homelessness, and AIDS that eventually took his life, and shows how much his story affected many people who have until now been silent.
Featuring interviews with Dodger teammates Dusty Baker, Davey Lopes and Rick Monday, among others, as well as A's teammates Claudell Washington, Mike Norris, and Shooty Babitt, Out gets into the nitty-gritty of Burke's athletic and post-athletic career.
According to almost everyone interviewed, Burke was run out of baseball because he was gay. The Dodgers apparently offered to pay for his wedding and honeymoon if he got married, and when he refused, he was promptly traded to the Athletics. The situation was no better there with manager Billy Martin, and Burke took a leave of absence from the team to clear his head.
When he decided to come back, it was starkly clear to him that, while he still loved baseball and obviously had the physical tools to play the game, there was no place for a gay man in professional baseball. Burke then took the celebrity that he did have and played it up, spending a majority of his time in San Francisco's famed Castro District.
Yet his fame ran out, and his party lifestyle turned into one of drug abuse. The tragedy was compounded when Burke contracted AIDS in 1994. But in the last years of his life, the same game of baseball that abandoned him came back to support him in his greatest time of need.
Out. is being premiered for a public screening at the Castro Theater on Wednesday, November 10, and will be replayed exclusively on Comcast SportsNet on Tuesday, November 16. Tickets for the screening are $5, with all proceeds benefitting Marty's Place, which once provided a homeless Burke with shelter and care as he coped with the effects of AIDS/HIV.
For more information, and for ticket sales, please visit Comcast SportsNet's exclusive information page.
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