When NBA center Jason Collins came out as gay in 2013, it sent rainbow-hued shock waves throughout professional sports. The floodgates of acceptance open, it was just two years after Collins that David Denson followed suit and became “the first openly gay active player on a team affiliated with Major League Baseball.” Except Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Glenn Burke beat them both to the punch by a good 40 years.
According to both scouts and his coaches, Burke possessed the skills to be the next Willie Mays. But those same coaches – as well as his teammates, and even the press – simply weren’t ready to accept an openly gay athlete in the late ‘70s. Though Burke was never secretive about it, sportswriters straight-up refused to acknowledge his sexuality, and coach Tommy Lasorda and team VP Al Campanis even went so far as to attempt to buy Burke straight, offering him $75,000 to engage in a phony marriage. Burke refused, and after only two years with the Dodgers, he was traded to the Oakland A’s, where manager Billy Martin introduced him to his new teammates by saying, “Oh, by the way, this is Glenn Burke and he’s a faggot.”
In Oakland, Burke featured in the starting lineup by day and frequented San Francisco’s many fine gay establishments by night. Still, neither the media nor the MLB were willing to recognize his sexuality, and in 1980, a highly conflicted Burke walked away from the sport he loved.