Save for occasional articles crediting the late Dodgers/A’s outfielder with the innovation of the high-five, Glenn Burke — whose career numbers are pretty modest — has gone mostly unrecognized by Major League Baseball, a situation that trouble’s Slate’s Tyler Lopez who proposes MLB “designate a single day in June to honor Burke’s legacy”. That legacy, of course, being baseball’s own precursor to Michael Sam or Jason Collins.
Numbers can’t possibly begin to explain how a tremendously talented athlete would eventually be sidelined by vicious institutional homophobia. After coming out to his teammates and managers in 1978, Burke was reportedly offered $75,000 by Dodgers Vice President Al Campanis to enter into a sham marriage. When turning down the offer—more than $312,000 in today’s money—Burke wittily replied, “I guess you mean to a woman.” Unfortunately, Glenn Burke’s fearlessness would lead to his exile from Los Angeles: That same year, he was traded to Oakland.
According to former Athletics teammate Claudell Washington, manager Billy Martin was cruelly homophobic from Day 1, introducing Burke in the locker room by saying, “Oh, by the way, this is Glenn Burke, and he’s a faggot.” Much as Jackie Robinson endured unfathomable racism from fans and fellow players alike, Burke too faced the injustice of bigotry in sports. Yet as an out gay, black man in professional sports—in the 1970s—Burke was light years ahead of his time. “Being black and gay made me tougher. You had to be tough to make it. Yeah, I’m proud of what I did,” Burke recalled later in life. In a Philadelphia Inquirer interview just before his death from AIDS-related illness in 1995, Burke was defiant, declaring, “They can’t ever say now that a gay man can’t play in the majors, because I’m a gay man and I made it.”
MLB’s most significant tribute to Glenn Burke is a puff piece from 2013, which details the creation of the high five. (Burke is widely credited as the inventor of the gesture, which he later used as a greeting with fellow gay residents of San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood.) Despite his ebullient life as an openly gay man, the piece paints Burke in the victimization language AIDS activists fought so hard to combat during the height of the health crisis: “He became a tragic figure, succumbing to AIDS,” says the article, never once mentioning Burke’s sexual orientation