At Pride Night, Los Angeles will celebrate the life of Glenn Burke, M.L.B.’s first openly gay player. His family will be there hoping the honor makes Burke “partially whole.”
LOS ANGELES — The life and times of Glenn Burke are too big to squeeze into one night, but the Los Angeles Dodgers finally are giving it their best shot. In staging their ninth annual LGBTQ+ Pride Night, they will celebrate their former outfielder — and the first major leaguer to have come out as gay — on Friday during their series with the Mets.
Call it closing the circle 44 years later. Call it righting a wrong after they drove him out of town in 1978.
Call it what you will. Lutha Burke Davis, Burke’s oldest surviving sister and the family matriarch, is pretty sure how her brother would have reacted.
“Glenn probably would have said, ‘Dang, about time!’” Davis said with exuberance and an easy chuckle last week. “He’d be grinning from ear to ear. He would be thrilled that he was thought about that much, really.”
In all, more than 40 of Burke’s family and friends are expected to be at Dodger Stadium: Three of Burke’s sisters (Lutha, Joyce, Paula), his lone brother (Sidney), 13 nephews, nine nieces and assorted other friends. And Davis, who fed and nursed her brother, rubbing his feet for comfort as he lay dying in her home, will finally get the chance to see where those feet once danced. This is her first trip to Dodger Stadium.
She’s arriving just in time to see her brother’s legacy burning brighter than ever.
Burke played big and lived bigger, his time in Los Angeles brief but his imprint lasting. Teammates adored the outfielder with outrageous athleticism and an outsized personality. They describe him as a player who could beat you on the baseball field and school you on the basketball court. The athlete and showman who invented the high-five and had a physique that a teammate said could rival even Bo Jackson’s.
“People talk about the high-five,” said Dusty Baker, Burke’s partner in what is credited to be the celebratory slap’s invention on Oct. 2, 1977. “Glenn started that. All I did was reciprocate to it.”
In so many ways, Burke, who followed Baker’s homer — and that first high-five — by smashing his only homer as a Dodger, was part superhero and part cartoon character.
“He could jump out of a stadium,” said Rick Monday, Burke’s former Dodgers’ teammate and now the club’s radio analyst. “With his vertical leap, he could have been one of Santa’s reindeer.”
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“Relax, all right? Don’t try to strike everybody out. Strikeouts are boring! Besides that, they’re fascist. Throw some ground balls, it’s more democratic.”
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But Burke was also a man so far ahead of his time that the times didn’t — wouldn’t — recognize him. He was traded by the Dodgers, shunned by the Oakland Athletics and, eventually, ostracized from baseball. He wound up lost, alone and alienated. He was briefly homeless and turned to cocaine and crack. He did a short stint in prison for drug possession. He contracted AIDS and died from its complications at 42 in May 1995.
That’s where the story could have ended. But today, the credits continue to roll.
“The most unique human being, the most dynamic person, that I’ve ever met,” said Larry Corrigan, a minor-league teammate of Burke’s (1973-1976) before working more than three decades as a scout and executive, mostly for Minnesota. “He was built like a god. He was funny, witty and semi-loud if he knew you. But he could be quiet, too.”
Burke debuted with the Dodgers in 1976 and mostly backed up their great outfield of that era — Dusty Baker, Reggie Smith and Monday. When the 1977 World Series opened between the Dodgers and Yankees, he started Game 1 in center field while Monday nursed a sore back. Only seven months later, the Dodgers shipped him to Oakland in a trade for Bill North. It was a baffling, mid-May deal that didn’t add up unless you knew about Burke’s personal life. The Dodgers’ players did, but most say they didn’t care. As the shock of the trade plowed through the clubhouse, several say they shed tears.
“I tell you, he was the life of the party,” Baker, now managing Houston, said from Seattle over the weekend. “He’d get out and dance; he could dance his butt off. He’d crack on anybody, and we loved having Glenn around. Glenn was a big part of our team, man. And he was a hell of a ballplayer who was learning how to hit.”
The issue, of course, was that the Dodgers’ management had figured out Burke was gay. He had quietly told a few teammates but wouldn’t come out publicly with his sexuality until 1982. He was close friends with Tommy Lasorda Jr., who was the son of the Dodgers’ manager and was also gay and died of AIDS complications in 1991. Lasorda Jr., who was known by many as Spunky, had a complicated relationship with his father based largely on his sexuality, and while some wondered, there was never an indication that he and Burke were more than friends.
Regardless, after the 1977 World Series, Al Campanis, the team’s general manager at the time, called Burke into his office. Burke’s family says Campanis offered the young outfielder what amounted to a $75,000 bribe: If Burke were to get married, the club would contribute toward a very nice honeymoon.
“To a woman?” Burke asked.
It turned out, Burke was ahead of his time in trolling, too.
“If there’s any truth to the story, I can’t tell you how many different ways that’s wrong,” Stan Kasten, the current Dodgers’ president, said of Campanis.
When Burke told his family how he responded to Campanis’s offer, “that struck us as funny,” said Davis, who joked that since her brother grew up in “a house full of girls” — older sisters Beverly, Lutha, Joyce and Elona and younger sisters Carol and Paula — maybe Campanis should have thought of something else. Beverly has since passed and, in another family tragedy, Elona was stabbed to death during a robbery in 1983.
The trade to Oakland initially excited the family because it sent Burke home to the Bay Area. But when the A’s named Billy Martin as manager in 1980, all paths back to the majors quickly closed. One teammate, Claudell Washington, said Martin introduced Burke to the team with a homophobic slur. The team soon sent Burke to Class AAA, and it wasn’t long before the outfielder decided he’d had enough.
Had Burke lived in today’s world, with Billy Bean as Major League Baseball’s senior vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion, perhaps he would have had a chance. Bean, also a former Dodgers outfielder, was the second — and still the only other — ex-big leaguer to come out as gay. Today, Bean has developed a close relationship with the Burke family.
“If there had been a Billy there in that position to help navigate in an honest way with all the cards on the table, there might have been a different outcome,” Davis said, speaking both of her brother’s baseball career and, ultimately, his life. “But with Billy Martin, it was like leading a lamb to slaughter.”
Billie Jean King, the tennis superstar who is a minority owner of the Dodgers, was quietly treading through her own personal hell at the time Burke was working through his. King was outed in a palimony suit filed by her onetime secretary in April 1981. She lost control of her story, lost all of her endorsements within 24 hours and says today that it probably took her “20 years to get right again.”
“I wish we had known each other back in the early ’80s,” said King, whose brother Randy Moffitt pitched for 12 seasons in the majors. “I wish I had known. I wish somehow we could have connected. I just think that maybe we could have supported each other emotionally.”
On Friday night, in a display their former outfielder surely would have enjoyed, the Dodgers will wear custom rainbow caps on Pride Night for the first time in the franchise’s history. And on San Francisco’s Pride Day on June 11, both the Dodgers and the Giants will wear the rainbow colors on their caps.
“These celebrations are important,” said King, who serves as the honorary lifetime president of the Elton John AIDS Foundation. “Just for one moment, you slow down and think about whatever is being celebrated, think about the deeper meaning as well as the fun part.
“There’s a lot to celebrate. But we also need to be very vigilant,” she said.
Up north, the Glenn Burke Wellness Clinic at the Oakland LGBTQ Community Center offers a variety of “LGBTQ+ centered and affirming services.” The A’s honored Burke on their Pride Night in 2015 and then last June permanently renamed their annual event after him.
But it is in vibrant, colorful, diverse Los Angeles, where Burke first splashed into the majors, that, until now, a club’s silence has echoed the loudest.
“Being made partially whole, a part of the Dodgers’ fabric, I’m excited and ecstatic that my uncle will be acknowledged as a part of the team, with his contributions and his character not being in question anymore,” Alice Rose, his niece, said.
In January, nearly five decades after Burke was sent on his way, the team that wanted Burke to marry a woman held a wedding at Dodger Stadium: Erik Braverman, a senior vice president for the club, married Jonathan Cottrell on the pitchers’ mound.
Last Thursday, Braverman led a video call with Dodgers’ employees to help educate them on Burke and his impact.
“The Dodgers are a celebrated organization for breaking barriers,” Braverman said. “This is the 75th anniversary of Jackie Robinson. We are a proud organization. With that said, if there are moments in our past that are not as heroic or moments not to be proud of, I think it is our job to look at those moments and say, OK, let’s acknowledge them and realize we can make change. Progress takes time. But progress also takes a lot of hard work.”