Sunday, February 17, 2019

Remembering the First Openly Gay Pro Athlete

Glenn Burke was the original pioneer for gay athletes. And was shunned and forgotten for it.

In light of the hype around both Brooklyn Nets center Jason Collins and NFL prospect Michael Sam, both of which are openly gay athletes, we remember the original pioneer.

The media has done it again. And maybe their respective leagues have found a new media and marketing niche to latch onto. But when Jason Collins officially came out last summer, and Michael Sam just two weeks ago, the country began to seriously talk about openly gay athletes, and how groundbreaking it is for them to do what they're doing.

The word "courageous" comes up a lot when talking about those two. And, maybe understandably so depending on your opinion of gay athletes, let alone the timing of all of this coverage.

Yet, they aren't really breaking any new ground as far as being an openly gay athlete. Sure, the topic is still somewhat new in today's society; with how fast news can travel, let alone opinions and so forth.

But what about the guy who really broke the barrier. Another Dodger, this time an L.A. Dodger, by the name of Glenn Burke. The forgotten "hero" of sort in the gay community.

Burke, an outfielder from Oakland, California was, in fact, the first openly gay pro athlete to play in one of America's four major sports when he made his Dodgers debut on April 9, 1976.

On April 7, 1978, Burke officially became the first active openly gay player in major American pro sports when he came in as a defensive replacement in the 6th inning. He went 0-for-2 from the plate with a walk and a stolen base.

Burke spent five years in the bigs, batting .248 in three years with the Dodgers before being traded to his hometown Oakland Athletics, where he hit just .228. He had two career home runs, 38 career RBI and 35 stolen bases in 225 career MLB games spanning between 1976-79.

So, why didn't we hear about Burke before? Or, for some of us, ever?

Because when Burke decided to come out, everyone around baseball decided to just plug their ears and keep the show going on.

This was the 70's after all, and although peace and love and all of that stuff was coming up, the world, especially baseball, as it was the top sport in America at the time, was not ready for an openly gay athlete. Anywhere. Again, especially in a sport like baseball that has such a rich, deep history that is mostly celebrated.

Think of it like the original "don't ask, don't tell."

As Allen Barra wrote for "The Atlantic" last May, he said, "Burke made no secret of his sexual orientation to the Dodgers front office, his teammates, or friends in either league. He also talked freely with sportswriters, though all of them ended up shaking their heads and telling him they couldn't write that in their papers."

Again, this was the world we lived in. "Peace and prosperity for all" and if anything seems like it'll ruin whatever tranquility there was suppose to be, we'll just keep it hush.

"By 1978, I think everybody knew," said Davey Lopes, Burke's teammate with the Dodgers.

Barra added in his article, "Burke was so open about his sexuality that the Dodgers tried to talk him into participating in a sham marriage. (He wrote in his autobiography that the team offered him $75,000 to go along with the ruse.) He refused."

Burke died from AIDS-related causes in 1995 and "officially" came out to the world in 1982 in an article in Inside Sports magazine, three years after his MLB career ended in Oakland.

In the same article in 1982, teammate Dusty Baker, whom Burke invented the "high-five" with, talked about the time he asked his trainer, BIll Buhler why they traded Burke. Buhler responded, "They don't want any gays on the team."

"My mission as a gay ballplayer was the breaking of a stereotype ... I think it worked ... They can't ever say now that a gay man can't play in the majors, because I'm a gay man and I made it.," Burke mentioned in an interview for an article in People magazine while promoting his book shortly before he passed away in '95.

Even 18, 19 years after his death, there is still little knowledge, or any type of biography on Burke outside of his autobiography and a 2010 documentary produced by the Bay Area's own Doug Harris and Sean Maddison titled Out: The Glenn Burke Story.

It's funny once you learn the story about Glenn Burke. The average outfielder for the Dodgers and the Athletics, who started game one of the 1977 World Series (went 1-for-3 with a strikeout) who was practically ignored by baseball because of who he was, then shipped off for an aging outfielder because of who he was, then virtually retired from baseball because partially.... of who he was.

Although Jason Collins Brooklyn Nets debut in Los Angeles on Sunday was special, and Michael Sam's announcement was courageous in it's own sense, neither of which are really groundbreaking compared to Glenn Burke. Had, then baseball commissioner, Bowie Kuhn actually supported Burke then, like NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and new NBA Commissioner Adam Silver are with Sam and Collins, respectively, the over-the-top coverage of those two might not be so heavy as it is today. There wouldn't have had to be a Sports Illustrated article, or a coming-out on ESPN's Outside the Lines.

Everything happens for a reason though and hopefully we can learn from this. From the absurdity that is the coverage of Collins and Sam, and the lack of awareness that was Burke.

The world could've been different in a sense if you think about it.

Kind of sad that people are celebrating something now that actually happened 35 years ago.

About the Writer

Jeff Weisinger is a writer for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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2 comments on Remembering the First Openly Gay Pro Athlete

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