It has been 27 years since the first "high-five" was given to Dodger outfielder Dusty Baker by teammate Glenn Burke in 1977. The Dodgers were playoff bound that year, and on October 2nd Baker hit his 3oth homerun of the year, giving the Dodgers four players to hit that milestone number. Burke ran out to meet Baker at the plate, extended his hand in the air, and lept up. A legend was born.
Sadly, the pioneer of that legend was driven from the game not long after. While few remember Burke for being the high five pioneer, even fewer remember him for being a pioneer in a different arena. Glenn Burke was the first pro baseball player to admit he was a homosexual, and he was black as well.
The coming out was in 1982, two years after he was forced out of the game; some say by injuries, others say because of the whispers. Burke was close with Tommy (Spunky) LasordaJr., the son of Dodger manager Tommay Lasorda (who, despite his son dying of AIDS, has never admitted his son was gay), and Lasorda traded Burke to the Oakland A's in 1978.
In his 1995 book "Out at Home" Burke alleged that the Dodgers VP Al Campanis had offered to pay for a luxurious honeymoon in 1977 if he were to get married. He refused, and that sealed his fate in Los Angeles. "How cruel would it have been to marry a girl while having no intentions of ever making love to her?" he reflected in the same book.
Burke's career was one of mediocrity, of untapped potential held at bay by his secret life. Coming up through the minors he hit .300 for five straight years. He was, at 220 punds, capable of running a 9.7 hundred yard dash. In other words, he was a five-tool player by todays standards. yet he never lived up to expectations, hitting .237 with two homeruns and 35 steals in 225 games. But it wasn't just the gay lifestyle that held him back, it was the 70's lifestyle of cocaine and partying as well. As much as many in the gay community want to push his failures entirely on to his environment (in 1980 new A's GM spent most of spring training proudly stating he "didn't want any faggots on (his) team"), Burke must accept some responsibility for the party atmosphere he chose to live in.
Of course, it is entirely possible that Burke didn't really want to play baseball at all. Or, at least didn't want the pressure of being a gay ballplayer. The year following his release from the major leagues Burke described as "the happiest year of my life." He was free of the pressure of baseball, and free to be himself.
The end for Glenn Burke was quite tragic. In 1987 he was struck by a car, and broke his leg in four places. The moderate but decent life he had of playing baseball in Gay Competitions was gone, and Burke quickly fell into a life of drugs. By 1988 he had managed to alienate many of his friends, and he was arrested and served time for drug possession. By the early nineties he was homeless, and likely suffering from AIDS, which he was officially diagnosed with in 1993. His sister Lutha took him in in 1994, where his story spread. The media decended on him, wrote stories about him, and hailed him as a trailblazer. He wrote his book, made his peace, and passed away on May 30, 1995, at the age of 42.
Today it appears Burke is largely forgotten. I read the "today in baseball" section on MLB.com and it said October 2nd was the anniversary of the high five. I googled Burkes name and came back with a few sites. Two of the best are listed below.
Go read them for the whole story if you are interested.
Cross posted at Thetalkarena