Hollywood is in the business of putting keisters in seats, and right now business is good. It's also why there's a new movie coming out about the Oakland A's that features Brad Pitt as Billy Beane (the "Moneyball" one), and not Jamie Foxx as Glenn Burke. The former is safe -- unless you hate math. The latter would definitely be controversial. And here in 2011, that's sad indeed.
Burke, as you may know, was the first openly gay player in the majors. Although he didn't officially come out until two years after he retired, his true sexuality was common knowledge among other players when he played. He was in the majors for only four seasons, with the Dodgers and the A's, and some say he walked away. But many of his friends and teammates say he was driven out of the game because of his sexual orientation. That was in 1979. By 1995 he was dead, a victim of AIDS.
Several sources say that Burke carried on a relationship with Tommy Lasorda's son, that Dodgers GM Al Campanis advised him to get married for the good of the team, and that following retirement he became a hero in the Castro District of San Francisco. It's even said that he invented the high five, in 1977, with Dodgers teammate Dusty Baker. His is a story seemingly made for Hollywood -- it has all the tragic elements that made a film like "Philadelphia" truly great. But when it comes to our national pastime? Nope, we're still not ready for that.
That's why the Versus documentary "Out. The Glenn Burke Story," which has its national premiere on Tuesday (10 p.m. ET), is so important. The film, which premiered in the San Francisco Bay Area on Comcast SportsNet Bay Area this past November, will be shown again Saturday, Aug. 13, at 11 p.m. ET and Wednesday, Aug. 17, at 11 p.m. ET.
Dodgers coach Jim Gilliam dubbed him "The next Willie Mays," due in equal parts to his blazing speed and his hitting ability (he hit over .300 five times in the minors) and overall athletic prowess (Burke was a multi-sport star at Berkeley High School in California). The NorCal Basketball Payer of the Year as a senior, Burke played basketball at University of Nevada, Reno then was drafted by the Dodgers in 1975. From Versus:
Early in his career, Burke felt he had to hide his true self from his teammates. Later, when he began to reveal glimpses into his sexuality, the baseball establishment began to shut him out.
“Out. The Glenn Burke Story” tells the dramatic tale of Burke’s Major League career as an outfielder for the Dodgers and as a starter in Game One of the 1977 World Series, to being traded to the Oakland Athletics the following season, and then walking away in 1980 from the game that he deeply loved. Many of Burke’s teammates were aware of his homosexuality during his playing career, as were members of management. Many of those teammates believe that Burke's sexuality led to the premature derailment of his baseball career.
The documentary includes interviews with teammates and friends such as including Dusty Baker, Davey Lopes, Reggie Smith, Rick Monday, Manny Mota, Rickey Henderson, Claudell Washington, Mike Norris, Shooty Babitt, Tito Fuentes, and Billy Bean. No, not the "Moneyball" Billy Beane -- the former ballplayer who became the second major leaguer to declare his homosexuality (again, following his retirement).
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Little know fact: After an attempted comeback in 1980 that ended in the minors, Burke became an athlete-for-hire in Bay Area recreational softball and basketball leagues, with bar owners paying him to play for their softball teams. That ended in 1987 when he was hit by a car while crossing the street.
He life quickly spiraled downward after that, and he came involved with drugs, serving seven months in San Quentin for theft and possession in 1991.
"My mission as a gay ballplayer was to break a stereotype. I think it worked," Burke told People magazine in 1994. But did it? Even though it's almost a certainty that there are other gay athletes in professional American sports, none are rushing to come out. It's still as taboo as it gets, and each time we hear the unenlightened such as Kobe Bryant (minor offender) or Tim Hardaway (major) we're reminded that, despite the popular videos, it's not really getting any better.
So here's to a more enlightened age, I guess, and to a time when the next Glenn Burke won't feel the need to hide his sexual orientation from the world. We're not there, yet, but perhaps Burke can still help us light the way.
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