Books

New book tells the story of Glenn Burke, the first openly gay player in MLB

His Dodgers teammates were slow to recognize signs that were obvious to others

Dusty Baker loved road trips to Houston. The Astros were a talented team, but it wasn’t the rivalry that made the Dodgers’ star left fielder look forward to Texas. It was the food. Several of his wife’s friends and relatives lived in the area, and the “aunties” loved to cook. Whenever the Dodgers came to town, Baker rounded up a few teammates and took them out for home-cooked meals before games at the Astrodome. The soul food always hit the spot.

On one trip to Houston in 1977, Baker invited Glenn Burke to come to a friend’s house for lunch. As the group sat down to eat, Glenn excused himself to use the bathroom. One of Baker’s wife’s best friends, a lesbian, turned to Dusty.

“Do you have any gays in baseball?” she asked.

“No, not that I know of,” Baker replied.

“You got any on your team?” she inquired.

Baker gave her a look. “If there aren’t any in baseball that I know of, how are there going to be any on my team?”

“That boy in the bathroom is gay,” she said matter-of-factly.

Baker was skeptical. The woman had just met Glenn a few minutes earlier.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about!”

“Yes, I do,” she insisted.

Baker thought back to a similar conversation, when a woman in Los Angeles saw a photo of Glenn in the newspaper and told him she thought Burke was gay.

The more Baker thought about it, the more it added up. When the team came back to Los Angeles late at night after road trips, Glenn would always say he had a friend picking him up. He’d walk way down to the end of the airport terminal and never let a teammate give him a ride home.

Baker thought about the times he’d tried to set up Glenn with one of his wife’s cousins. “They were fine, and they all liked Glenn,” Baker recalled. “Glenn would say, ‘She’s too fat’ or, ‘She’s too ugly.’ Something was always wrong with them. I was like, ‘Come on, man. You can tell me something else.’ I know what cute is. And I know what pretty is. And I know what fine is. And they were fine, cute and pretty.”

He thought back to the nights the Dodger players went out partying at discos in National League cities. The ballplayers who were single, Baker said, “had their choice of girls,” one of the perks of being fit, famous and well-paid. And the Dodger the women wanted most was Glenn Burke. “He was the life of the party,” Baker recalled. “He was the most fun-loving dude, and he could dance like James Brown or Michael Jackson. He was so light on his feet. 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.”

In retrospect, the signs were obvious. But the notion of a gay teammate was initially unfathomable to most of the Dodgers. Gay men, they believed, simply did not play major league baseball. But as the Dodgers inched closer to the 1977 National League West title, guys started to figure out Glenn Burke’s secret. Second baseman Davey Lopes remembered hearing about it from another player over dinner. “My fork dropped out of my mouth,” Lopes recalled. “I said, ‘You shouldn’t be saying things like that unless you’re 100% sure. You’ve got to be careful. A rumor like that could end a guy’s career.’ He said, ‘Davey, I’m telling you, Glenn is gay.’ I started thinking about it, and I said, ‘You know what? If he is, I don’t give a s—.’ He was an integral part of the ballclub as far as I was concerned. He added a lot to the chemistry of the team, the way he could make you laugh.”

The secretive routine was stressful and tiresome for Glenn Burke, adding another layer of anxiety for a young player already dealing with the pressures of a rookie season in the middle of a high-stakes pennant race.

Los Angeles Dodgers

Late in the season, the Dodgers traveled to San Francisco for a series against the Giants. “I bet you’re glad to be home to eat some of Mama’s cooking,” Baker said to Burke. “Oh, yeah, Johnnie B.,” Burke replied, “I’m loving seeing Mama.” After the game, Baker ran into Burke’s mom outside the Dodger locker room. “I bet you you’re glad to have Glenn home,” he said. Alice’s reply shocked him. “I haven’t seen Glenn,” she said. “He’s been hanging with his friends in San Francisco.”

Glenn’s lie about seeing his mother was the tipping point for Baker. He knew that two of Glenn’s old friends from the Bay Area and the minor leagues, Marvin Webb and Cleo Smith, were staying in Glenn’s vacant room at the Hyatt Regency, the Dodgers’ hotel. Baker had assumed Glenn didn’t need the room because he was staying at his mom’s house. Baker and Dodgers right fielder Reggie Smith knocked on the hotel room door; Webb answered.

“Is Glenn gay?” Baker asked.

“I’ll tell you what,” Webb replied. “You probably need to ask him. All I can say is I ain’t never seen him with no women all the years I’ve been with him.”

For Burke, the facade he’d created, the double life he’d been living, was beginning to fall apart. He knew of other gay players in the major leagues, men who married women and started families and lived miserable lives, unwilling to risk their reputations and careers by being honest with themselves. Burke had never been willing to deny his sexuality to that degree. Yes, he’d try to keep it a secret, but he was still going to go out, have fun and pursue relationships, just like every other Dodger.

So he had developed little tricks, ways to escape social situations that made him uncomfortable, to break free from his teammates, to avoid being caught. If someone asked him to meet a woman, he’d show up, meet the woman and leave. Hey, you asked me to meet her. I met her. After games, when all the other guys went out one door to waiting girlfriends and wives, Burke left through another exit on the other side of the stadium. After road games, when players returned to the team hotel briefly before heading out to a disco, Burke would often say he was just going to stay in his room or go for a walk alone. He’d look in the phone book for gay bars, or call a gay friend and ask for recommendations. Then he’d take a cab to a bar, getting out a couple of blocks beyond it so it wouldn’t be obvious where he was headed, walking back to his destination with his face turned away from passersby. Once inside, he kept one eye on the action and the other on the door, always watching to make sure nobody he recognized walked in.

Glenn Burke (left) with a high-five for teammate Dusty Baker (right) after Baker hit a home run in 1977.

Los Angeles Times

Even with the precautions, Burke sensed that the Dodgers had someone following him, tracking his whereabouts. And he was probably right. “Back in those days, we know for a fact that we were being followed when we’d go out because there were rumors flying around about guys using drugs,” Baker recalled. “There were times when I’d come into the clubhouse and Tommy [Lasorda] would tell me, ‘I heard you were at the Red Onion’ [a popular Mexican restaurant with a lively bar scene]. So, if they were following me, they were following Glenn.”

The whole secretive routine was stressful and tiresome for Burke, adding another layer of anxiety for a young player already dealing with the pressures of a rookie season in the middle of a high-stakes pennant race. “Straight people,” Burke said, “cannot know what it’s like to feel one way and pretend to be another. To watch what you say, how you act and who you’re checking out.” And yet, being human, Burke complicated the situation even further — by becoming friends with another young gay man associated with the team: manager Tommy Lasorda’s 19-year-old son.

Everybody had called Tommy Lasorda Jr. “Spunky” since before he was even born; he earned the nickname by constantly kicking while he was in his mother Jo’s womb. As a kid, the only time he saw his father was when he hung around the ballpark. Jo placed a photo of her husband on the dinner table so the family could pretend to eat together every night.

Spunky was a left-hander like his dad, and while he had some skill as a teenage ballplayer, baseball was never his passion. Instead, he lived for fashion, photography, modeling and being seen. While his dad waddled around ballparks in Dodger polyester, Spunky strutted down the streets of West Hollywood in designer clothes, his long blond hair so full and bouncy he looked like a walking shampoo commercial. He spent hours in front of mirrors applying makeup. One night, he showed up at a gay club wearing a cape, his hair pulled back in a ponytail, his slender, tan fingers clutching a long cigarette holder. As a student at Sunny Hills High School in Fullerton, California, his friends weren’t the jocks but the most beautiful, fashionable girls in school. One classmate later described Spunky’s startling good looks, saying, “Tommy’s bones were carved, gently, from glass.”

All the Dodger players knew Spunky — they saw him at Vero Beach, and in the clubhouse at Dodger Stadium. One time Lasorda Sr. showed players a home movie in Dodgertown — some guys were amused by a shot of Spunky lounging around in tiny jean shorts. Spunky knew clothes, working variously at a shoe store and a tailor shop, and he knew music. When Spunky accompanied his dad on road trips, he’d often sit next to Dusty Baker, another music aficionado, and the two would talk disco. Spunky loved Diana Ross, Thelma Houston, Linda Clifford and Patti LaBelle.

Most players assumed Spunky was gay, but out of deference to their manager, they never made an issue of it. Lasorda Sr., for his part, maintained a relationship with his son throughout his life, and by all accounts it was a loving bond. They met for an Italian dinner every Sunday night when the Dodgers were in town. But Lasorda never acknowledged his son’s sexuality. When journalist Peter Richmond asked him about it for a feature in GQ magazine, Lasorda vehemently, and profanely, denied it. When Spunky died of AIDS in 1991, Lasorda refused to publicly acknowledge the disease as the cause of death, insisting that his son had died of an unrelated case of pneumonia.

Burke admired Spunky’s flair for fashion, and asked him to tailor his suits. They enjoyed visiting clubs around Los Angeles together, developing a close and carefree relationship that Burke later described as like two “teasing sisters.” Whether Burke and Spunky were ever more than friends is unknown. Burke was asked about it numerous times after his playing days and always maintained it was none of anyone’s business. Some friends and teammates insist they were lovers; others claim Burke told them he wasn’t interested in someone as “flamboyant” as Spunky.

Regardless of the extent of their relationship, Spunky and Glenn both understood that Lasorda Sr. wouldn’t approve if he knew about it. Glenn confessed to Spunky that he thought he was being treated differently; he wondered if Spunky’s dad knew he was gay. One night, they decided to give the manager the shock of his life. The plan called for Glenn and Spunky to show up at Lasorda’s house for dinner as if on a date, Spunky dressed in pigtails and women’s clothing. They chickened out and didn’t follow through on the prank, but Burke relished the very thought of it. “Tommy would have shot us in the head,” he recalled. “Then he would have had a heart attack and died.”

An irony of Glenn Burke’s semicloseted existence in such a homophobic environment as Major League Baseball was the amount of everyday behavior that might have been considered homoerotic in different circumstances. Yes, Burke’s teammates made jokes with slurs that Glenn chose to ignore. But they often did so while walking around naked in the clubhouse. Men showered together, dressed and undressed in close confines. They slapped one another on the butt, hugged after homers, shared rooms and went out together nearly every night. They laughed, cried, fought and bonded on long cross-country flights. All this touching, nudity and emotion was considered acceptable because of the unspoken assumption that everyone was straight. The dynamic changed as rumors about Burke began to spread. Guys started wearing towels around the clubhouse more frequently and made offensive jokes out of earshot: “Don’t bend over in the shower. Here comes Glenn.”

Still, for all the presumed resistance to a gay teammate, nobody directly confronted Glenn about it. Much of the tone was set by the reaction of team leaders such as Lopes and Baker. Baker saw a lot of his younger self in Burke; they were both from California, both loved basketball, music, nice clothes and laughter. Baker considered it his responsibility to look after the team’s young Black players, just as legendary slugger Henry Aaron had done for him as a rookie in Atlanta. He took the young guys out for drinks, taught some of them how to fish, cooked them dinner. In Baker’s mind, there were two kinds of rookies: the obnoxious punk the veterans hated, and the fun kid who gave everyone a good laugh. That was Burke. As a ballplayer, Burke had plenty of potential, Baker believed. He could run, he could throw and he was improving as a hitter. He had trouble with breaking balls and high fastballs, but he was a quick learner. He was determined, and he didn’t appear to let a lot bother him, which Baker considered rare for a rookie. For Lopes, Burke’s contributions on the field were secondary; he considered him an essential member of the team, “a catalyst for promoting unity on the ballclub,” regardless of how well or how much he played. Where others thought only of themselves, Lopes admired the way Burke cheered on his teammates, always the first player to congratulate another on a good play. That sort of togetherness was going to be important in the playoffs.

But first, there was one more series to play against the Astros at Dodger Stadium to close out the regular season. And this is when so many of the undercurrents in Glenn Burke’s life converged. His uncommon enthusiasm, his support for his teammates, his African American East Bay hip factor, his appreciation for a supportive mentor, his spot in the Dodger lineup, his willingness to share joy with another man — it all came together in one glorious moment in time that echoes to this day.

In a spontaneous moment of exhilaration, Glenn Burke was about to invent the high-five.

Liner Notes

Excerpted from Singled Out: The True Story of Glenn Burke, the new biography by New York Times bestselling author Andrew Maraniss. © Philomel Books, 2021. Follow Andrew on Twitter @trublu24.

Andrew Maraniss is the New York Times bestselling author of “Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South.” His most recent book, “Games of Deception,” on the first U.S. Olympic basketball team at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, was published in 2019.