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Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Glenn Burke, baseball’s first openly gay player, to be subject of Netflix series produced by Jamie Lee Curtis, Ryan Murphy

Glenn Burke only played four seasons in Major League Baseball. But the outfielder made an impact during his short career with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Oakland Athletics and lived a fascinating life.

Perhaps the most defining aspect of Burke’s biography is that he was the first major-league player to come out as gay to teammates, coaches, and team ownership. He talked about it with reporters, though none were willing to write about it in the late 1970s. In his 1995 autobiography, Out at Home, Burke revealed that the Dodgers offered him $75,000 to go through with a fake marriage to a woman to dispel rumors of his homosexuality.

By 1980, at the age of 27, Burke was no longer in baseball, believing that he was shunned because of prejudice. As Allen Barra detailed in The Atlantic, Burke came out publicly in a 1982 article for Inside Sports magazine and subsequently discussed his decision on the Today show with Bryant Gumbel. At 42 years old, he died in 1995 from AIDS-related complications.

Actor Jamie Lee Curtis revealed on Deadline’s Hero Nation podcast that she is producing a Netflix series on Burke with writer-producer Ryan Murphy (Glee, American Horror Story), with whom she collaborated on the Fox TV series Scream Queens. Curtis said she’s been trying to get Burke’s story made for over 10 years. The dramatic limited series has the working title of Outfielder, though Netflix has not yet officially announced the project.

RoyalsRetro (AG#1F) Posted: October 19, 2021 at 10:48 AM | 13 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
  Tags: documentary, glenn burke

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   1. Walt Davis Posted: October 19, 2021 at 05:44 PM (#6047543)
I can't even imagine the pressures he faced but his performance in the majors was beyond terrible -- 52 OPS+, -2.4 WAR spread over several partial seasons. His minor-league numbers suggested a guy who'd be better than that -- maybe around 280/320/380 with speed which, ca the late 70s, would have been a league-average OPS for a Dodger. But he didn't hit and TZ rates him as poor defensively too. It's obviously possible that he got less coaching and less of a chance due to prejudice ... CF was about the only spot those Dodger teams struggled so arguably he should have been given a couple of months starting to see if he could adjust. The closest thing I see in the game logs is a stretch of 9 starts in 15 games in which he hit 267/333/367 which wasn't bad for the era but is only 33 PA.

He got traded to Oakland who did give him a brief run starting in 1978. When he first got there, they stuck him in the lineup for 11 games, he hit 250/267/364 then got hurt (I assume). When he came back he got 10 starts in 14 games, hitting 235/316/294, but he had lost the starting CF job to Joe Wallis who had a well-timed hot streak.

Coincidentally enough, Joe Wallis (a former Cub "prospect") was also out of baseball after 1979 at the age of 28 (except for a brief stint in Mexico 3 years later). They make a somewhat interesting comp:

GB minors: 293/339/421
JW minors: 256/351/436

GB majors: 556 PA, 237/270/291, 52 OPS+, -2.4 WAR
JW majors: 996 PA, 244/317/359, 88 OPS+, -1 WAR

The main difference is that the not-good 76 Cubs gave Wallis a couple of months to prove himself (moving Rick Monday to 1B) while the division-winning 77 Dodgers did not give Burke 2 months of starting (coincidentally sticking with Rick Monday in CF).

Sort of fascinating how connected these careers are. Monday had been the A's CF through 1971. He was traded to the Cubs for Ken Holtzman. After the 1972 season, the Cubs traded prospect Bill North (who they never really gave a chance) to the A's. The Cubs shifted Monday to first so they could play Wallis in 1976. That offseason the Cubs traded Monday to the Dodgers where he "blocked" Burke in 1977. Early in 1978, the Dodgers traded Burke to the A's for Bill North. In Oakland, Burke starts for a couple of weeks then gets hurt. Shortly after that, the Cubs trade Wallis (who'd gotten off to a hot start) to the A's where he takes over CF and stays reasonably hot while Burke is out. Burke doesn't do much in his first 2 weeks back (mostly in LF and RF while Wallis was in CF) and goes to the bench. Burke and Wallis both do terribly for the 79 A's in limited time and never play again. Burke is 26, Wallis 27.
   2. CFBF is Obsessed with Art Deco Posted: October 19, 2021 at 05:58 PM (#6047546)
If it's a Ryan Murphy production, Burke will spend the first two episodes being chased around the outfield by vampire werewolves from Mars, only to have that plot point completely dropped as Burke then begins an explicitly sexual relationship with another Dodger played by Cheyenne Jackson.
   3. Howie Menckel Posted: October 19, 2021 at 06:12 PM (#6047550)
good stuff, Walt.

"Perhaps the most defining aspect of Burke’s biography is that he was the first major-league player to come out as gay to teammates, coaches, and team ownership. He talked about it with reporters, though none were willing to write about it in the late 1970s."

apropos here, perhaps: the British tabloids went gaga in the mid-1990s over what they speculated could be the "first all-lesbian Wimbledon semifinal matches."

but in the U.S., only Martina was gay - if you base it on what appeared in print and on TV, at least. I don't even think some of her peers would have minded talking about the topic, but the American press was squeamish. of course, Martina was just too big a star to be locked into a closet unless she wanted to be (and she could have been, here).
   4. NaOH Posted: October 19, 2021 at 08:12 PM (#6047576)
Always worth a re-read:

The Double Life of a Gay Dodger, Inside Sports, October 1982
   5. Never Give an Inge (Dave) Posted: October 19, 2021 at 11:54 PM (#6047701)
#3 is the idea that Burke wanted the public to know he was gay but the press refused to report it? That wasn’t my impression, but I’ve only read articles about him, not the book.

Re: tennis, I think it’s better when the press doesn’t speculate about a person’s sexuality, to be honest.
   6. Howie Menckel Posted: October 20, 2021 at 01:13 AM (#6047726)
well, the idea was that even decades ago, European and American press sentiment was decidedly different on reporting on sexuality.

I took neither to be intentionally hostile approaches.

not sure what Burke preferred, but even if he was eager to make his background known, it might have been difficult to find a taker in the mainstream media in that era and there was no internet of course.

side note: the top 100 or so media members in NJ all knew that Gov. McGreevey was gay almost two decades ago, but there was no sentiment of "wow, this will sell some papers, let's get the word out!" so it didn't happen.

it only got complicated when he hired a, well, overnight traveling companion male to a top security post in the wake of 9-11 for which he was unqualified. the ethics challenge was of outing him in the course of an investigation, or keeping that private.

much of the push was that if the traveling companion hired to a top security post back then was female, traditional media would have felt compelled to report on how odd the hire was based on credentials. but if male, then no reporting?

ultimately McGreevey realized that the dam was going to break at some point, hence the "I am a gay American" press conference gambit - which in retrospect worked rather well as a misdirection.

(postscript: McGreevey has since spent much of his life working with incarcerated people trying to transition back to regular life. there's a time period of wondering if it's just a PR stunt - but he exceeded that by a number of years. I believe it to be a legit transformation.)
   7. Rally Posted: October 20, 2021 at 08:37 AM (#6047733)
Did get shunned because of prejudice? Can’t totally rule it out, but his MLB performance was so bad that if he had been allowed to stick around a few more years you’d really have to scratch your head and wonder what the team was thinking. I’m a little more pessimistic than Walt on his minor league numbers. Dodgers played in extreme hitter’s parks in that era, especially AAA Albuquerque. Plenty of sillyball numbers happened there. Burke’s numbers don’t really suggest a guy who ever looked like a big league hitter.

Over a couple years he hit 294/330/437 in AAA. A few years later in that park Mike Marshall (not the pitcher) hit .373 with 34 homers, then Greg Brock hit .310 with 44.
   8. Charles S. is pretty fast for an old guy Posted: October 20, 2021 at 10:45 AM (#6047742)
Sort of fascinating how connected these careers are. Monday had been the A's CF through 1971. He was traded to the Cubs for Ken Holtzman. After the 1972 season, the Cubs traded prospect Bill North (who they never really gave a chance) to the A's. The Cubs shifted Monday to first so they could play Wallis in 1976. That offseason the Cubs traded Monday to the Dodgers where he "blocked" Burke in 1977. Early in 1978, the Dodgers traded Burke to the A's for Bill North. In Oakland, Burke starts for a couple of weeks then gets hurt. Shortly after that, the Cubs trade Wallis (who'd gotten off to a hot start) to the A's where he takes over CF and stays reasonably hot while Burke is out. Burke doesn't do much in his first 2 weeks back (mostly in LF and RF while Wallis was in CF) and goes to the bench. Burke and Wallis both do terribly for the 79 A's in limited time and never play again. Burke is 26, Wallis 27.
Inspiring the greatest headline in baseball history "North Goes South".
   9. . Posted: October 20, 2021 at 02:02 PM (#6047810)
though none were willing to write about it in the late 1970s."


But Inside Sports did a big long article on it in 1982? There's nothing about 1982 that would have made people "more willing" to write about it than they were in 1978 or 1979. That's silly and ahistorical. Fake history.
   10. Rally Posted: October 20, 2021 at 02:12 PM (#6047812)
Obviously you didn’t live through the times. In 1978-79 we were all ex hippies, high on dope, trying out threesomes while wearing leisure suits. When the calendar rolled over to 1980 we decided to vote for Reagan, lower taxes, get jobs on wall street, and switch to cocaine. Yes, everyone in the country, all at the same time. Totally different world.
   11. we all water; we all 57i66135 Posted: October 20, 2021 at 08:01 PM (#6047933)
Did get shunned because of prejudice? Can’t totally rule it out, but his MLB performance was so bad that if he had been allowed to stick around a few more years you’d really have to scratch your head and wonder what the team was thinking. I’m a little more pessimistic than Walt on his minor league numbers. Dodgers played in extreme hitter’s parks in that era, especially AAA Albuquerque. Plenty of sillyball numbers happened there. Burke’s numbers don’t really suggest a guy who ever looked like a big league hitter.
burke "dated" tommy lasorda's son while he was on the dodgers, with lasorda managing the team. lasorda was not a fan of that arrangement, nor was he a fan of his son's homosexuality in general.
side note: the top 100 or so media members in NJ all knew that Gov. McGreevey was gay almost two decades ago, but there was no sentiment of "wow, this will sell some papers, let's get the word out!" so it didn't happen.
lindsay graham says 'oh, my'.
ultimately McGreevey realized that the dam was going to break at some point, hence the "I am a gay American" press conference gambit - which in retrospect worked rather well as a misdirection.
it worked about as well as kevin spacey's "coming out"
   12. Starring Bradley Scotchman as RMc Posted: October 21, 2021 at 09:19 AM (#6048041)
trying out threesomes while wearing leisure suits

Which was awkward, at best.
   13. Tony S Posted: October 21, 2021 at 09:51 AM (#6048054)

If Glenn Burke was indeed open about his sexuality in 1978, that was extremely courageous of him. Even today, gay pro athletes coming out is still very much the exception -- and the cultural atmosphere is far less repressive today.

The fact that Burke was a marginal prospect who didn't do well when he got a chance to play made it easy to dismiss him, but I wonder what the story would have been if he'd been a solid/not-great player, like, say, Bill North.

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