Before Jason Collins
The world is throwing a parade for Jason Collins, the 7-foot free-agent NBA center who came out last month. He was hugged by Oprah, celebrated by “Good Morning America,” and congratulated by President Obama.
But nobody seems to remember baseball’s Glenn Burke, who tried to come out nearly 40 years ago and was stuffed back in.
“How’s Jason Collins going to talk about being the first?” says Burke’s agent, Abdul-Jalil al-Hakim. “Glenn Burke was the first. And he wasn’t any free agent, either. He was in the lineup.”
Glenn Burke was a barrel-chested jokester, a singing, dancing, one-man cabaret. His teammates called him King Kong. In high school, the 6-foot Burke could dunk two basketballs at once, in street shoes. He roamed center field for the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Oakland A’s in the late 1970s.
Burke was the pulse of the clubhouse. He wore a red jock. He’d jump in the backs of pink Rolls-Royces after games. He invented the high-five (with Dusty Baker). Oh, yes, he did.
He was as out as an athlete could be in the mid-1970s. It wasn’t that he was flaunting it. It was that he couldn’t keep it in.
“When we’d land at airports,” remembers Davey Lopes, the Dodgers’ second baseman. “There’d always be guys waiting for Glenn. We’d go our way and he’d go off on his merry way. We’d go to clubs and women would hand him their numbers. But he’d never call ’em. Didn’t matter to us. We loved him.”
In the famous 1977 Dodgers-Yankees World Series — starring Reggie Jackson, Thurman Munson, Steve Garvey, and Ron Cey — only one rookie cracked either starting lineup: Glenn Burke.
“Nobody tripped that he was gay,” says Burke’s longtime pal, Doug Harris, who produced the documentary “Out” about Burke in 2010. “The people who tripped off it were the Dodgers [management]. They didn’t want to talk about it. He was trying to tell the reporters, but they said they couldn’t write that stuff.”