The book: “Out At Home: The True Story of Glenn Burke, Baseball’s First Openly Gay Player”
The author: By Glenn Burke with Erik Sherman
Vital statistics: Berkeley Books/Penguin Publishing, 194 pages, $15
Find it: At amazon.com, at barnesandnoble.com, at powells.com
The pitch: When this first came out 20 years ago, Burke had already come out.
Here was his last chance to tell his own story, a baseball life that was nearing its end as he fought through his last days with AIDS.
He had nothing to lose. But plenty to gain.
The Dodgers organization betrayed him, he lamented. The relationship he had with manager Tommy Lasorda’s son was too much for them to tolerate.
“The Dodgers are arguably the sharpest organization in all of sports,” Burke wrote. “They knew I was gay, and were worried about how the average father would feel about taking his son to a baseball game to see some fag shagging fly balls in center field.”
The Dodgers didn’t do him any favors trading him away to Oakland, where Billy Martin became his manager.
“Martin started telling people behind my back that ‘no faggot’ was going to play on one of his teams. I was crushed and decided to leave the A’s permanently. I was leaving the A’s because of Billy Martin. I wasn’t going to go through that homophobic shit with another manager. I didn’t need that over my head again.”
Yet, despite what the baseball world put him through, it wasn’t all bitterness and spite.
“As I reach my final days, I’d like to be remembered as just a down-to-earth good person,” he wrote. “A man that tried to never have a bad thought in his mind. A man who really tried to get along with everybody at all times, no matter what the situation. A man who will always love his great friends and family. Despite what people are going to say or write about me after I die, I want it to be known that I have no regrets about how I lived my life. I did the best I could. Well, maybe I do have just one regret. I should have been a basketball player!”
Jason Collins might read that line and smile today.
Just looking at the cover of this reissued paperback (above), however, the photo of Burke is even more haunting: The “LA” logo on his batting helmet and the script “Dodgers” across his chest have been airbrushed out of this well-circulated AP photo of him in a batting cage at Dodger Stadium. Compare it with the original cover in 1995 (left).
Is Burke still a man who major league baseball won’t acknowledge?
Aside from the anniversary of Burke’s passing, what puts this story into context is the new forward by Billy Bean, another former Dodgers outfielder who eventually came out as a gay man after his career ended, and a new afterward by Sherman, covering the last 20 years of so-so progress.
The final chapter, as well, is a transcript of a MLB press conference last July when Bean was named the game’s ambassador for inclusion. Why this happened now, instead of in 2011 with the MLB and its players union added a “non-discrimination protection based on sexual orientation” to its CBA, is another odd fact revealed. The right people may not have been available at the right time.
Bean says he wants to “champion Glenn’s story, his highs and lows and everything in between … I will help make sure his memory is never forgotten.”
Sherman, who self-published the first edition of this book, also writes: “As for what Glenn would have likely thought about the latest societal developments, and those in baseball in particular, I am sure he would have been delighted if not a bit shocked. As a man who strove to be true to himself, he sought most of his life to extinguish the stigma of one’s own sexual orientation. But for all the anguish and disappointment of a baseball career and, ultimately, a life cut short, somewhere Glenn is likely very proud that, in the end, positive change was made. His life had great meaning.”
To read Burke’s voice another time, trying to fit it into what’s happened in the last two decades, the pain still feels real. It’s worth taking that journey again with him.
More to know:
== The author’s web home: erikshermanbaseball.com
== A 2013 NPR “All Things Considered” piece on a Burke documentary with filmmaker Doug Harris
== A “30 for 30” ESPN Grantland.com piece from 2014 on the origin of the “high five.”
== When the MLB acknowledged Burke as a “gay pioneer” during the 2014 All-Star Game.
== Former Burke teammates look back on his life in a 2013 LA Times piece.