Glenn Burke’s promising Major League Baseball career was cut short in 1980 by antigay ridicule and harassment from legendary figures in the game. He died in 1995 in San Francisco, after a stint of homelessness, of complications from AIDS.
Giving new meaning to the phrase “too little, too late,” MLB is finally getting round to honoring Burke and taking baby steps in addressing the shameful fact that of nearly 1,000 active players, not a single one feels comfortable being openly gay. Homophobia’s stranglehold on the game remains so strong that to this day Burke and Billy Bean are still the only former players to acknowledge their homosexuality. Soccer (Robbie Rogers), basketball (Jason Collins), and football (Michael Sam) have all begun to make strides.
At Tuesday’s All-Star Game in Minneapolis, MLB will host Burke’s family as honored guests, the first recognition of the role baseball had in a young gay man’s demise, according to The New York Times.
Baseball has hired Bean, who played from 1987 to 1995, to help create a more level playing field for players. MLB has also pledged support for Athlete Ally, an organization that advocates for inclusion through prominent straight and gay athletes.
Burke’s story is a modern day tragedy. Once projected as a five-tool player in the mold of the great Willie Mays, Burke never had an opportunity to excel as an everyday player. Two prominent managers, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Tommy Lasorda and the Oakland A’s Billy Martin, clashed with Burke over his increasing unwillingness to stay in the closet, and both directed slurs at him in front of his teammates. The Dodgers traded Burke to the A’s after Burke dared to befriend Lasorda’s son, Tommy Lasorda Jr., who also died of complications from AIDS. When he could no longer deal with Martin’s abuse, and suffering from an injury, Burke quit the game he loved and moved across the bay to San Francisco’s Castro, where he could be himself. He played gay softball and hung out with the boys in the bar until his life began to unravel.
Burke’s story lives on, however. A 2013 documentary, Out: The Glenn Burke Story, immortalized his struggle. The charismatic athlete is also widely credited with inventing the high five, which associates him forever with the kind of celebration he himself was denied.