The Price Glenn Burke Paid For Coming Out

Glenn Burke was an outfielder with the LA Dodgers in the 1970s. He was also gay — something that many of his teammates knew at the time though the general public did not. Documentary filmmaker Doug Harris discusses how Burke's sexuality sat with his teammates and the Dodgers' front office.

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

And you're listening to WEEKENDS on ALL THING CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Kelly McEvers.

This past week, Jason Collins became the first athlete who's active in major American team sports to announce that he's gay. His story reminded us of the story of Glenn Burke. Burke was an outfielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1970s when his teammates discovered he was gay.

He didn't come out publicly until after he retired. It was a different time. Baseball and society were not ready for someone like Glenn Burke. He eventually paid a heavy price for being gay. His full story was told in the documentary "Out: The Glenn Burke Story."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "OUT: THE GLENN BURKE STORY")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Because you'd look over in his locker, you know, and he had his red jock in his locker. You know, nobody wore a red jock, you know? And Glenn wore a red jock and, you know, he'd be dancing around in the clubhouse.

MCEVERS: The producer of that documentary is Doug Harris.

DOUG HARRIS: Glenn Burke was said by many of the coaches and people within the Dodger organization that this kid is going to be the next Willie Mays. And so he was a very high candidate for stardom early in his career.

MCEVERS: And for a long time, Glenn Burke's teammates had no idea that he was gay. And then, you know, the news kind of started to trickle out. Let's hear a scene from your film.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "OUT: THE GLENN BURKE STORY")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: But I remember in spring training that the Latinos started calling Glenn names, you know? One of them called him a maricon.

HARRIS: There were rumblings about Glenn's lifestyle, because you have to remember Glenn was open with his lifestyle. And this is at a time when Glenn was making the jump between the minor leagues to the major leagues, OK? So the people in the minor leagues, like the Latino players, they knew because Glenn was open about it. But now he's coming into the major leagues, but it had no bearing on their friendship with him. They supported him.

MCEVERS: What happened when the management of the Dodgers found out that Glenn was gay?

HARRIS: They approached him with this special meeting and proposed to him to get married.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "OUT: THE GLENN BURKE STORY")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: And they talked to him and offered him $75,000 to get married. And Glenn's - first thing he told me, he said to them, with his comedy self was, I guess you mean to a woman. And he started laughing.

MCEVERS: And then, eventually, he was traded. In 1978, Glenn Burke was traded from the Dodgers to the Oakland A's. You know, Oakland was just across the bay from San Francisco, which back then was, you know, one of the few places where the gay community could live openly at the time. What was Glenn Burke's life like back then?

HARRIS: Glenn was a part of a management change after his first year with the A's. And Billy Martin, a renowned manager, came over from the Yankees, and Billy Martin was a staunch bigot. You know, word travels in baseball. And during spring training, Billy Martin...

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "OUT: THE GLENN BURKE STORY")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: ...was introducing all the players to the new players that were coming in. And then he got to Glenn, and he say, oh, by the way. This is Glenn Burke, and he's a faggot.

HARRIS: Wow, what a welcoming for the new manager to give you to your teammates. And I think everything really went downhill from there.

MCEVERS: Can you tell us what his last years were like?

HARRIS: Glenn Burke's last years were horrible. Glenn was in a terrible car accident. He got - actually got hit by a car walking across the street in San Francisco, and the injury made him immobile where he couldn't, you know, no longer participate in sports. And that was really tough for Glenn. And then his life resorted to drugs, and Glenn contracted the AIDS virus, I believe it was like in 1992.

MCEVERS: And then he died three years later.

HARRIS: Yes.

MCEVERS: In light of the Jason Collins announcement this week, how do you want Glenn Burke to be remembered?

HARRIS: Well, for me, I'd like for people to remember Glenn Burke as the kind, the warm, the fun-loving. You know, the best memory that I have in producing the film about Glenn Burke was a comment that one of his teammates made about him, that he was the heart and soul of the great Los Angeles Dodgers championship teams of the late '70s. And all of his teammates will always remember him as such.

(SOUNDBITE OF BASEBALL GAME)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Glenn Burke, playing centerfield tonight. His first World Series appearance, he takes the first pitch.

MCEVERS: That's Doug Harris. He's the producer behind the 2010 documentary, "Out: The Glenn Burke Story." Mr. Harris, thank you so much.

HARRIS: Always a pleasure.

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