A High-Five for Glenn Burke
VERSUS broadcasts documentary about Major League Baseball’s first openly gay player.
By Blase DiStefano
Those of you who love sports will think Out. The Glenn Burke Story knocks the ball out of the park. For those of you who have little or no interest in sports, this story about the first openly gay Major League baseball player is for you, too.
The documentary, which was nominated for a GLAAD Media Award, tells the fascinating story of Burke’s life in and out of sports. He came out while he was still one of the best baseball players in the league.
When the Los Angeles Dodgers management offered Burke $75,000 to get married, he said, “I guess you mean to a woman?” Not only did he not marry a woman, he began openly dating Tommy Lasorda Jr., whose father is a former Major League baseball player and manager. (To this day, Lasorda Sr. is still homophobic and refuses to admit that his son was gay or that he died of AIDS.)
Burke was traded from the Los Angeles Dodgers to the Oakland Athletics. His teammates were devastated, and many of them believe he was traded because of his sexuality. Davey Lopes, a former Dodgers infielder, says, “You don’t break up, disrupt a team going as well as it was going to make changes. I didn’t feel it was going to make us a better ball club…. Probably not the real reason why things happened.”
Lyle Spencer, a former Dodgers beat writer, says, “I was shocked that he was traded … I walked into the clubhouse … and guys were visibly distraught over the trade, and that told me that my sense of how important he was to them internally was accurate. I even remember a few players crying when they found out about it…, which is stunning.”
Within a few years, it was obvious that the Oakland A’s management was not thrilled with Burke’s being openly gay, and he retired. Abdul-Jalil al-Hakim, a childhood friend and sports agent, says, “It was uncompromising on both ends. Glenn was comfortable with who he was. Baseball was not comfortable with who he was.”
Without baseball, Burke was lost. He began doing drugs and was eventually diagnosed with AIDS in 1994.
But help was on the way. Burke was told that the Oakland A’s wanted to help and asked to meet with him. Pamela Pitts, Oakland A’s Director of Baseball Administration, says, “[When he saw us] Glenn started to cry and said, ‘I’ve been told you’re going to help me. I can’t believe someone wants to help me.’”
Burke died in 1995. Pitts says, “I do believe he was in a much better place. His demons were gone.”
His demons may be gone, but Burke’s legacy lives on, arguably at every sporting event held in every stadium or back lot, every day, throughout the world: it is widely believed that this brave gay man was responsible for inventing the “high five.”
Out. The Glenn Burke Story airs on VERSUS at 9 p.m. (central) on Tuesday, August 9; and at 10 p.m. on Saturday, August 13, and Wednesday, August 17. More: versus.com/nhl.