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Being Gay in Major League Baseball

11/8/2010 12:43:07 PM

Tags: baseball, Glenn Burke, Oakland A’s, Los Angeles Dodgers, Dusty Baker, Davey Lopes, homosexuality, don’t ask don’t tell, arts, Michael Fallon

Out movie poster 

Certain intransigently conservative institutions, such as the U.S. military or professional sports leagues, may not be the barometer of up-to-date national attitudes toward difference and diversity, but they can be important bellwethers of things to come. For example, Harry Truman’s Executive Order 9981 moved, in 1948, to end discrimination in the military by banning the segregation of Army units along color lines. While the order was unpopular in the military, Truman’s move was one of the earliest tangible steps toward the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Another institutional bellwether—one that may have influenced Truman’s decision on military segregation—was the sport of baseball, which had just broken its own color line in 1947.  

The slow evolution of prejudices and bigotry in institutions such as the military and baseball are very telling. During the late 70s and early 80s, long after the bulk of Civil Rights Acts had become law, American views of gays remained particularly harsh. The arrival of HIV stirred up all kinds of national phobias, and the 1978 murder of Harvey Milk and an attack against skater Dick Button in Central Park were only two among a spate of homophobic hate crimes. That homosexuals were discriminated against in the workplace is evident in the Department of Defense’s Directive 1332.14, which, in 1981, made the discharge of gay and lesbian soldiers mandatory. Meanwhile, in baseball during that era—as is evident in “Out: The Glenn Burke Story,” a new documentary produced by Doug Harris and Sean Maddison—being gay was widely recognized to be, as one of the era's top stars put it, “a kiss of death for a ballplayer.”

The soul’s journey of Glenn Burke began in 1952 in Oakland, California. As the film describes, Burke’s was an outsized athletic talent. At Berkeley High School, he excelled at baseball and basketball. After high school, at the age of 20, he was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 17th round of the 1972 amateur draft. According to Dodger scouts interviewed for the film, his relatively low draft position was not due to any qualms about his talent, which got their highest ratings for speed, arm strength, and raw power. Rather, the team worried that Burke was ultimately more interested in playing basketball. Burke, however, saw baseball as his most likely means to success, and he signed with the team in time for the 1973 season.

Burke immediately began moving up through the Dodgers’ farm system, showing he was a legitimate candidate for the major leagues. At the same time, the team also developed concerns about Burke’s behavior. In the minors, Burke was an inconsistent teammate, sometimes a clubhouse cutup, and other times sullen and moody. He often fought with the managers, and he kept personal habits that were different from other players—living at the YMCA, for example, rather than in a house with some of his teammates. Dodger upper management, which touted the team’s traditions and conservative values, worried increasingly about how to “reach” the off-beat young player. The Dodgers’ general manager at the time, Al Campanis, took two unusual, and telling, steps: First, he assigned one of the team’s top stars, Reggie Smith, to room with Burke during spring training; then, he offered Burke $75,000 if he would settle down and get married. Burke’s growing self-awareness and sense of humor were evident in the young player’s reported response: “I guess you mean to a woman?”

In 1976, the Dodgers’ outfield was depleted by injury, and the team brought Burke up from the minors. While he was mediocre at the plate that season, in the field he was spectacular—running down certain base hits from his spot in centerfield, representing a constant threat to steal or score runs on the base paths. Even more important, many Dodger veterans saw the spirited and witty young player as the glue that helped hold together a mismatched bunch of strong-willed veteran players. “He was the guy who kept the chemistry going in the clubhouse,” said the Dodgers’ All-Star second baseman and team captain, Davey Lopes. Burke grew close to players like Lopes, Dusty Baker, even the team’s clean-cut star Steve Garvey, and by 1977, he had performed well enough to start in centerfield and bat lead-off for the Dodgers in the opening World Series game against the New York Yankees. Still, despite Burke’s progress, management remained split on the young player, and, early in the 1978 season under questionable circumstances, the Dodgers suddenly traded Burke to the Oakland A’s for an aging veteran named Billy North.

The Dodgers’ move would ripple through the team and beyond. According to a Dodgers’ beat-writer at the time, players were “visibly distraught over the trade.” Dusty Baker speculated that the Dodger management knew about the young player’s hidden life as a homosexual. Davey Lopes was particularly upset about the trade. “You don't break up, disrupt a team going as well as it was going, to make change,” Lopes told the filmmakers. “I didn't feel it was going to make us a better ballclub…. It was probably not the real reason why things happened.” A life-long friend of Burke’s spelled out the full ramifications of the Dodgers’ decision on the young ballplayer: “He was hurt because they traded him not for his baseball ability but for his life choice.”

Much worse than the trade’s effect on the Dodgers’ team chemistry, the move set off a dramatic chain-reaction that eventually caused Burke, depressed and tired of increasing harassment from fellow players and the A’s manager at the time, Billy Martin, to give up the sport for good about a year later—in the middle of the 1979 season. It was a decision that, although made for his own well-being, Burke increasingly regretted as he grew older. In 1982, perhaps still smarting over the end of his baseball career, Burke allowed his lover at the time, J. Michael Smith, to write an article for Inside Sport exposing his homosexuality. The article, called “The Double Life of a Gay Dodger,” was unprecedented, and Burke became a national symbol of how far the sport of baseball had to go to overcome its intolerance.

In the aftermath of his disappointing career, and the national revelations for at least part of the reason for his disappointment, Glenn Burke’s life took a downward course. He was unable to hold down a steady job, and he hopped between relationships and living arrangements. After a car accident destroyed the last of Burke’s athletic abilities, his life declined into drug addition, homelessness, and HIV. Burke died a relatively young man, at age 42, of complications related to AIDS in 1992.

In “Out: The Glenn Burke Story,” the filmmakers tell a bleak story of one man’s failed struggle to achieve his potential in the face of prejudice and unfair treatment. But the filmmakers also tell a story that is relevant today, more than thirty years later. Such workplace prejudices against openly gay workers still exist—just look at the military’s “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” policy, which is so out-dated that a September ruling by a federal judge in Riverside, California, recently overturned it. But as for baseball, the most conservative and traditional-minded of all American sports, well, there may still be a ways to travel yet. As the film’s end credits point out, of the 6,552 men who have played in the Major Leagues since Burke’s last game in 1979 no one single player has dared come out as gay during his career.

Michael Fallon is a writer and arts administrator based out of St. Paul, Minnesota. His work has appeared in Art in America, American Craft, Public Art Review, Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine, the OC Weekly, City Pages, and many other publications.  Read his previous posts for utne.com, Take Me Out to the Art GalleryCuban Artists Grapple with Local Racism on a World Stage, and Artist Faces Darkness at Heart of Amazon Rainforest . 

Michael Fallon is a guest blogger at utne.com. The views expressed by this guest blogger belong to him and do not necessarily reflect the mission or editorial voice of utne.com or the Utne Reader. 

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