Glenn Burke, the first gay man to play Major League Baseball, was a pioneer. In Andrew Maraniss’ new biography, Singled Out, Burke’s story is told in full.
Glenn Burke made history on April 9, 1976, when, in a losing effort against the San Francisco Giants, he pinch-hit for the Los Angeles Dodgers. That day, Burke, a tremendously talented prospect, after years of fighting his way through the minor leagues, became the first gay player in Major League Baseball history, though no one knew it at the time. He was a vivacious character, beloved by teammates for his energy and humor. He was also the man who invented the high-five. In spite of his vital role in athletic and cultural history, a full biography of him has never before been written. Thankfully, Andrew Maraniss has rectified this with his new book, Singled Out.
Glenn Burke was born in Oakland, California, and in his youth, he quickly became one of the area’s best high school athletes. His greatest success as a teenager came when he led his basketball team to the Northern California Championship in 1970. Despite his early success as a basketball player, after being drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers, he decided to pursue baseball instead. After a few years hopping around the country in the Dodgers’ farm system, he made it to the major leagues in 1976. Despite looking like a potential star in the minors, he struggled to find his footing in Los Angeles, and never played more than 83 games in a single season.
Burke never officially came out as gay during his career, but his sexuality was an open secret. The longer he played, the more evident it became to his teammates that he was gay. Every time they would introduce him to a woman, he would demur and find something wrong with her. As teammate Dusty Baker recalled, “The girls would flock to him and ask him to dance. But at the end of the night, he’d go home by himself every time.” For Baker, the decisive moment was when Burke lied about staying with his mother on a road trip to San Francisco where, instead of spending time with family in Oakland, he was hanging out with gay friends across the Bay.
When his teammates discovered that Burke was gay, most claimed to not be bothered. But actual support never materialized. Teammates “started wearing towels around the clubhouse more frequently and made offensive jokes out of earshot.” As speculation increased, Dodgers GM Al Campanis met with Burke, offering him a $75,000 bonus if he would agree to get married. After he refused, he was quickly traded to the Oakland Athletics. It may have been a coincidence, but believing this requires more than a cursory suspension of belief.
Glenn Burke was an MLB trailblazer in more ways than one
While playing for the Dodgers, Burke also invented the high-five. After successfully hitting a home run during a late-season game against the Astros, Dusty Baker was greeted by an exultant Burke at home plate who was shouting “Way to go!” and holding his right hand up. He was “inviting Baker to slap it, which he did, with gusto.” Burke was also one of the first baseball players to wear Nikes in a major league game. He had struck up a friendship with a vendor named Bill Frishette who managed a shoe store owned by Phil Knight, Nike’s founder. After Frishette gave him some shoes, he then dyed a pair of Astrograbbers Dodger blue, hoping that they would give him and his teammates better traction on artificial playing surfaces. Frishette eventually became Nike’s director of baseball business and the company became MLB’s uniform supplier in 2020, “a development that traces its roots back to Glenn Burke’s 1977 conversation with a frozen malt vendor at Dodger Stadium.”
Living a double life eventually became untenable for Burke, leading him to play his last major league game at 26. He was tired, perpetually in fear of being blackballed due to his sexuality in addition to feeling stymied by having to hide his true self. Upon retiring, he felt liberated, finally able to live life as an out gay man. However, this sense of freedom was coupled with a sense of confusion. Once the glory of being a former Major Leaguer faded, he struggled. He was able to find athletic success again through participation in the San Francisco Gay Softball League and the Gay Games, though the final years of his life would prove tragic. He would go on to struggle with cocaine addiction and homelessness in his final years, ultimately dying of complications from AIDS at 42.
Maraniss does a great job at evoking each of these periods in Burke’s life. He interviewed over 50 people for this book and it is filled with their stories and memories. Seemingly every page contains a wonderful anecdote about Burke, ranging from the hilarious to the heartbreaking. Readers who read Singled Out will put it down, not only with a knowledge about the details of his life but with a sense of his personality. The book is also well-written, drawing the reader in and making for a compelling read.
Throughout the book, Maraniss interweaves information about the struggle for LGBTQ equality providing further context and texture to Burke’s story. He writes about the Stonewall Riots, Harvey Milk’s election, and San Francisco’s burgeoning gay subculture. Also captured is the backlash to this progress as epitomized by the diatribes of bigots such as Anita Bryant. For many sports fans who are not otherwise informed on these topics, Singled Out will also function as a primer on the intersection between sports and LGBTQ history. The appendices further this aim as Maraniss includes both a timeline chronicling the history of gay rights in the United States and a list of LGBTQ Black Americans that interested readers can research themselves.
Singled Out is an engaging and informative read that, while written primarily for high schoolers, never condescends or over-simplifies to accommodate an audience of young adults. Burke’s story is a celebration of a gay man’s achievements in a homophobic world, an elegy for a man whose life, desires, and ambitions were hampered due to attitudes towards his sexuality. This book is more than just a biography, it is a chronicle of the life of one great LGBTQ athlete and how it relates to the wider fight for justice. Glenn Burke is a man who has long deserved a well-written and thoughtful book that honors his achievements, struggles, and legacy — Andrew Maraniss has given him one.