The Only Major League Baseball Player to Openly Admit He was Gay During His Career Also May Have “Invented” the High-Five

glenn-burke“They can’t say that a gay man can’t play in the Majors, because I’m a gay man and I made it.”- Glenn Burke

Major League Baseball has been going strong now for well over a century. Many thousands of players have taken the field since the beginning of organized professional baseball, but only one, Glenn Burke, ever “came out of the closet” during his playing career, letting managers, teammates, and owners know he was gay.  Burke also is noted as being the man who popularized, and possibly invented, the high-five.

Burke was born in 1952 in Oakland, California.  By the age of 18, he was voted Northern California’s high school “basketball player of the year”.  A highly gifted athlete, Glenn could reputedly dunk a basketball with either hand- quite a feat considering he was just over six feet tall.  But he soon turned all his attention to baseball.

An outfielder, he was drafted by the L.A. Dodgers and, as so often happens with young “toolsy” prospects when scouts are trying to hype them, he was quickly compared to one of the greats of all time- touted as “the next Willie Mays”.

Burke made his MLB debut on April 9, 1976.  From the word go, Burke made no secret of the fact that he was gay, freely talking about it with teammates and management.  As a result of this, during his time with the Dodgers, then General Manager Al Campanis offered to treat Burke to a lavish honeymoon (actually offering him $75,000), if Burke would just agree to get married- no doubt worried that the fact that Burke was gay would be leaked or discovered by the media at some point with how open Burke was about it.  Burke responded to this marriage request by saying, “I guess you mean to a woman?”  He refused the offer.

Despite management apparently being uncomfortable about Burke’s sexual preferences, players didn’t seem to feel the same way.  Burke was often described in his Dodger days as “the life of the clubhouse”.

While things were great with his teammates, problems arose with manager Tommy Lasorda.  The issue started when Burke befriended Lasorda’s gay son, Tommy “Spunky” Lasorda Jr.  According to Burke’s sister, Burke and Spunky were just very close friends, not intimate.  In Burke’s 1995 autobiography, Out At Home,  he purposefully didn’t go into details about the extent of his relationship with Lasorda’s son, saying that it was “my business”.

Regardless, Lasorda Sr. and Burke’s relationship quickly soured. Lasorda Sr. was in denial that his son, Spunky, was gay, at least publicly, despite the fact that Lasorda Jr. made no great secret of the fact. (Sadly, Spunky died in 1991 at the age of 33 from pneumonia and was thought to be suffering from AIDS at the time).

Whatever he actually believed, Lasorda Sr. was not happy at all about Burke and his son being friends.  Given Lasorda Sr.’s position on the subject, it’s probably for the best that they abandoned a prank Spunky and Burke were going to play on Lasorda Sr. The two dressed up in drag and showed up at Lasorda Sr.’s house for dinner.  When they got to the door, Burke said they chickened out and just went home without knocking.

Even without showing up to dinner in drag, Lasorda Sr.’s liking for Burke completely soured and Burke’s clubhouse antics, which Lasorda used to love for keeping the team loose, now were no longer appreciated by the skipper resulting in a major chewing out of Burke after one particular dugout incident.  Burke’s sister, Lutha Davis, later said,

Glenn had such an abundance of respect and love for Tommy Lasorda.  When things went bad at the end, it was almost like a father turning his back on his son.

This all came to a head in 1978, when the Dodgers suddenly traded Burke away to the Oakland Athletics for Billy North. One L.A. sportswriter stated after the fact that “[the trade] sucked the life out of the Dodger’s clubhouse.”  He even claimed to have seen a couple of the players crying when they heard Burke was traded.

When Burke arrived in Oakland, his welcome was not good. A’s manager Billy Martin supposedly introduced him as a “faggot” in front of his teammates and reportedly referred to him that way several times.  Further, there were rumors that many of his new teammates would not take showers or undress if Burke was around.

With this added strain, Burke’s play on the field suffered greatly and was later compounded by a knee injury. He went down to the Minor Leagues once his knee healed up, playing in 25 games there, but then decided to call it quits.  “It’s the first thing in my life I ever backed down from,” Burke said.  “Prejudice just won out.”

In his 4-season career (1976-1979), Burke, who showed some promise when he first came up and was a very hyped prospect, ended up hitting just .237 in 523 at-bats, including 38 RBI’s, 2 home runs and 35 stolen bases.

Besides being the first MLB player to come out during his playing career, at least with teammates and management, Glenn Burke is also often credited with being the guy who invented the high-five. To be clear, “low-fives” had been around for several decades at this point, particularly within the African American community, and there are a few people who claim to have “invented” the high-five.  Perhaps they really did perform a high-five first at some point- it being not exactly a complicated extension of the already popular low-five.  The reason Burke is so often given credit is there is substantial documented evidence of his first high-five, unlike so many other claimants. Further, after he started doing this, it caught on with the Dodgers and later throughout baseball and the world.  So even if he was not really the first person to have the bright idea to convert the low-five to a high-five (which seems likely), he at least was integral in popularizing the switch.

This “first” momentous high-five happened in 1977 when Burke ran onto the field to congratulate his Dodger teammate Dusty Baker who’d just hit his 30th home run.  Rather than do a low-five, Burke raised his hand over his head as Baker jogged home from third base.  Baker got what Burke was going for and slapped Burke’s hand, thus “inventing” the high-five.  After retiring from baseball, Burke used the high five as a symbol for gay pride, even at the same time the Dodgers were selling trademarked “high-five” symbol t-shirts due to the tradition of high-fiving teammates started by Burke.

As tragic as Glenn Burke’s baseball career may seem, it was a picnic compared to his post-baseball life.  At first things went well for him.  He became a star shortstop in his local gay softball league and led his club to the Gay Softball World Series.  He said of this:

I was making money playing ball and not having any fun. Now I’m not making money, but I’m having fun.

He also competed in the Gay Games in 1982 and 1986 in basketball and a few running events.  He even took home medals in the 100 and 200 meter sprints in 1982.  He also initially had aspirations of trying to pick back up his once promising basketball career and perhaps become the first openly gay NBA player, with that distinction, of course, now going to Jason Collins.

One of Burke’s gay friends, Jack McGowan, said of Burke at this time,

He was a hero to us. He was athletic, clean cut, masculine. He was everything that we wanted to prove to the world that we could be.

However, things soon took a turn for the worse.  For reasons known only to him, Burke started doing drugs… a lot of them.  Things got even worse when, in 1987, his leg and foot were crushed when he was hit by a car in San Francisco.  Struggling to find work and now thoroughly addicted to cocaine, he found himself on the streets.  During this period, he was also arrested for drug possession and grand theft.  To add a healthy dose of lemon juice to his cuts, in 1993, he tested positive for HIV.  Just two years later, now living with his sister in Oakland, Burke passed away from complications due to AIDS on May 30, 1995 at the age of just 42.

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Bonus Fact:

  • Since Burke, one other Major League Baseball player has announced to the world that he is gay, though he waited to tell anyone until after his career was finished.  The man is Billy Beane… No, not the current Money Ball GM of the Oakland Athletics.  William Daro “Billy” Beane who played for the Tigers, Dodgers, Padres from 1987 to 1995, and also played in Japan one year during that span.  In 1999, four years after retiring, Beane announced to the world that he is gay, and later wrote a book, Going the Other Way: Lessons from a Life in and out of Major League Baseball.
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  • kevin

    it’s not a sexual preference, it’s a sexual orientation. big difference.

  • Dave

    nobody chose to be gay and nobody chose to be heterosexual. If that option was available I would not be gay

  • Chris D

    I met Glenn Burke in ’92 while living in San Francisco. He used to come into a deli I worked at , as he was a friend of my boss at the time, and he would ask for food. He used to get my boss tickets when he played for the A’s, but my boss, a total douche woudl ridicule him for beding so down on his luck, broke and hungry. I remember feeling so bad for Glenn. Just for th record, he was an awesome guy. He was on skid row, but always smiling and humble. He had a great demeanor about him.

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  • ACE

    I admire him for his strength — God rest his soul

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  • Bob reeves

    While those comments sound like something Billy Martin would say, he was not the A’s manager in 1978. He did not become the A’s manager until 1980.