“Oh Burkey. I tell you. It’s a sad, sad story. He was just ostracized, you know? I was the only one he could hang with. It was probably the only comfort or enjoyment he had, as far as being with his team.”
He pauses for a moment.
“From greatness to just…that’s the epitome of both ends of the spectrum.”
Shifting his gaze toward me, he asks:
“Why did I get to play with Glenn Burke? Why was he one of my best friends on the team?”
He shakes his head, then says,
The sun is setting in Oakland, and the shadows in Mike Norris’ third floor apartment are stretching out on the beige carpeting. It’s a Thursday, and both of us are sitting here, as we’ve been most weeks for the past six months, talking about baseball. (I’ve written about some of those conversations here and here.) About what it feels like to pitch a 14-inning complete game. About breaking a calcium deposit off of a pitching elbow mid-inning. About memories of a gay ballplayer, Glenn Burke.
We often speak about Mike’s big question:
If you believe in a certain randomness in the universe, the answer is luck, or, if you’re a godly person, the answer is fate. Mike’s views trend toward the latter, and he believes that he was given certain gifts and experiences to use for good. After an up and down career — highlighted by the cruel duality of almost winning the Cy Young Award and being out of baseball four years later — the use of those gifts has now taken on a different tack.
Facing a degenerative nerve disorder that makes it difficult for him to walk, Mike is being tested; by the universe, by God, by society, or all three. He even goes so far as to say that this is his punishment for wasting his youth and talent on drugs and diversion. His focus now, if asked about it, is helping the at-risk youth of Oakland. For that reason and many others, Mike and I often find ourselves discussing issues of inequality and discrimination. Inevitably, those issues feed back into baseball, and topics like Glenn Burke.
“Being gay was just what Glenn did. That was just his thing. And who’s to judge him for it?”
He pauses for a sip of tea.
“He could make everything look easy on the field. Very nonchalant. He ran effortlessly. Didn’t look like he exerted himself when he was out there. I actually played basketball against him at Berkeley High — it was a nightmare. You would get on him, and he’d go by you; you’d step off him, and he’d shoot the jumper.”
I ask him if he kept in touch with Burke after he left the A’s.
“Billy Martin got rid of his ass real quick. He didn’t even make the team in 1980. The last time I saw him was in the late ’80s, when I was driving down Castro Street in San Francisco. I’m coming down the hill from Twin Peaks, and who do I see? He (Burke) had overalls on and not a stitch underneath. I asked him, ‘what have you been doing!’ He looked into the car, and said, ‘Look at me, I’m six-foot-two, 190 pounds, and still slammin’!’ He was on the softball team in the Castro (district). He could still play.”
Mike’s stories of Burke all have a common theme: a distant camaraderie. They highlight the silent struggles of a gay ballplayer in a system not ready to accept him. First out of the showers and clubhouse after a game, Burke would later find his only friend on the team in Mike.
“I would always get to my room first after a game, and Glenn would go upstairs, and he would get his boombox. He loved his music — George Clinton, Funkadelic. We’d smoke a joint, and then my girl would usually call — the phone would ring — to let me know she’s on the way, and he’d know that. And I’d be on the phone, and I’d turn around and hear the sound of the door closing. Like clockwork. He would get high, and he would have his boyfriends in town, and we wouldn’t see Glenn until the next day at the ballpark.”
Mike reclines in his chair and searches for one particular story. He finds it:
“One night, two girls are in to my hotel room. Glenn knocks on the door, and he comes in, and he stops when he sees them; he can’t just turn around and walk back out. I said, ‘Hey Burkey! Come sit down, have a seat, let me introduce you to my friends.’ And I introduced him, and he spoke to them for a minute, and then he pulled out his music,” he says.
He starts laughing.
“I don’t even think the whole song finished before he goes, ‘oh I forgot! I gotta go call my momma, I’ll be back!’ And I said, ‘Burkey, I’m not gonna hold my breath, I’ll see you tomorrow.’”
The stories Mike tells of Burke are, at once, heartwarming and sad; there is an uneasy juxtaposition between hearing about the person Glenn Burke was — funny, warm, and preternaturally athletic — and the disconnect he must have felt from his team and sport on a daily basis. An outfielder newly traded from Los Angeles in 1978 (by many accounts because of his sexual orientation, and his relationship with Tommy Lasorda’s gay son), Burke struggled through a year and a half with the A’s. Coming into spring training in 1980, he had almost no chance to make the A’s major league team under new manager Billy Martin.
“Billy came in 1980, and he couldn’t put up with that (Burke’s homosexuality). Billy had my former roommate in A-ball (Derek Bryant) sent home from spring training. Derek spent eight years in the minor leagues, and he finally gets a shot in ’80 to come to spring training. He’s playing out in left field, and Billy looks out there, and he says, ‘Get that m—–f—— homosexual out of there.’ He comes out of the game, and it’s the wrong guy. He thought Bryant was Burke, and it ruined Derek’s career. Sent him out of camp, and he never came back to the big leagues.”
By this account, Burke’s knee injury early in spring training of 1980, along with his falling production, gave Martin the excuse he needed to send Burke to the minors full-time once the injury healed. After just 25 games in Ogden, Utah at the start of the 1980 season, Burke was done with baseball. Derek Bryant batted .342 and .303 in 1980 and 1981 in Triple A, but he never did get another call to the big leagues.
All of this, of course, leads to a conversation Mike and I have had countless times: is baseball now ready for an openly gay player, after what Burke went through?
With LGBTQ issues trending in a distinct direction nationwide, most major league teams have hosted Pride Nights, including Mike’s hometown Oakland A’s a few weeks ago. At surface level, baseball teams have trended in the same direction as their respective communities with respect to LGBT issues: this isn’t surprising, as Pride Nights are usually the culmination of work between a team and a local independent group.
There is a notable difference between most Pride events and other themed/heritage nights at ballparks, however. Most Pride nights are treated like a group ticket sale event and not a team-led initiative, leaving most of the organization of the actual night to the outside independent group instead of the team. There are exceptions, such as in the case of the San Francisco Giants, but for the most part this is not a case of teams even coming up with the idea for the event; an outside group approaches a franchise, and the process moves forward from there — the way a corporation that was interested in bulk tickets would be treated.
In the case of those teams for which I couldn’t find any evidence of previous Pride nights or other LGBTQ outreach, I called each front office individually to verify no such event had occurred. In almost all cases, I was routed through multiple individuals, and finally to a marketing or media relations point of contact. One team said it was actively discussing the possibility of a Pride night. Another said the team would like to hold such an event, but was certain season ticket holders simply would not accept it. Most calls went to voicemail, with no return call to messages.
This brings us to the final question of whether baseball is ready internally for a gay player. In an oft-cited ESPN the Magazine survey from March of 2014 — which canvassed about 20 percent of major league players — 81 percent said baseball was ready for a gay player. Whether that figure represents the sort of atmosphere conducive to a player being comfortable coming out is another story. The situation, as it has been in other sports, seems to be one in which a singular player is going to have to break the ice, shouldering the full brunt of the media reaction and testing the waters of clubhouse dynamics.
Glenn Burke tried, as much as he could, to be that pioneer. Baseball and society weren’t ready for him, and in the end he was more or less driven from baseball because of it. His story is made all the more sad to the baseball community because of his immense promise as an athlete, but his experience in the margins of society as a LGBTQ person of color is not unique.
Burke didn’t help his own image after he left baseball, engaging in a spiraling drug habit in the years after he left the Athletics. While walking in San Francisco during 1987, a car hit him, severely injuring his leg and precipitating a downward spiral from which he never fully recovered. His body sapped of its former athleticism, he turned increasingly toward drugs, and his relationships failed as his problems escalated. He spent multiple stints in jail, growing sicker with AIDS, until he found himself homeless and dying on the streets of the Castro district in the early 1990s.
Mike didn’t witness this final turn for Burke, last encountering him on the streets of San Francisco many years before his death. There is a beauty in that just as there is a sadness, a memory colored by what was and not what culminated. His legacy is framed similarly, as a story of what could have been, not what actually was: that framing is a failure to Burke and his community.
On top of a wooded hill, just at the end of a street lined with single-story cafes and shops, is Mountain View Cemetery. Looking west from its elevated upper reaches, the city of Oakland unfolds onto San Francisco Bay, and on clear days, the bright peak of the TransAmerica building can be seen above its famous city. It’s here, just a 15-minute walk from Mike’s neighborhood, that Glenn Burke lies.
It’s the afternoon of a brilliantly sunny Friday when I visit his grave. By simple coincidence, it is also the day of the Supreme Court ruling in favor of gay marriage. Nearly 20 years have passed since Burke died at 42 from AIDS-related complications, and it’s been almost 30 since he was homeless on the streets of San Francisco, an afterthought in the minds of the professional baseball community.
I leave the car on the road, and walk slowly between the neatly-kept plots on a small hill above the crypts and tombs of the original families of Oakland. With so many graves, it takes me some time to find him; I make my way from row to row, my only companion the faraway sounds of children playing at a nearby school. When I do find him, his headstone is an unassuming yet strong small piece of black granite, sunk into the tidy grass.
About a hundred feet away toward the road, an American flag flies atop a flagpole that looks out over the Oakland hills. I imagine how Glenn Burke would’ve felt about the events of this particular day. Would he be proud of how far we’ve come? Would he remind us of how far we still have to go?
Later, sitting in the car, I think about the stories Mike has told me about Burke: the jokes, the nights on the road listening to Funkadelic, the turn of a head to hear the sound of a door closing — like clockwork. I look over to the hillside with Burke’s grave, remembering Mike’s words from the week before as the last light died in his apartment.
“I wish you could have met him,” he said to me.
“The guy was special.”