[30 November 2010]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“You were concerned of being stereotyped or typecast, that to know him must mean that you’re one. So you kept your distance.” A former Dodgers outfielder and coach, Reggie Smith remembers Glenn Burke as a player and friend. But still, he “kept his distance,” as Smith puts it, because Burke was out.
Smith’s concern was typical during the 1970s, when Burke played for the Dodgers, a time recounted in Out. The Glenn Burke Story. The documentary, produced by Doug Harris and Sean Madison, re-airs 1 December on Comcast SportsNet Bay Area, and is available as well on DirecTV’s sports pack channel 696 and Dish Network’s multi-sports package channel 419. It tells a story that is remarkable for a number of reasons, not least being Burke’s courage and determination: to this day, he remains the only Major League Baseball player to come out during his professional career.
The only one.
Out makes clear that Burke’s decision to come out was costly: as teammates struggled with their own feelings (Smith: “At that time, we were a little homophobic about people that were gay”), management was less ambivalent. The Dodgers dealt him to the As in 1977, where manager Billy Martin notoriously called him a “faggot” in front of his teammates. That same year, the As sent him down to the minors. Burke retired then, at age 27, despite good stats and an unfinished career.
As the film remembers, Burke didn’t talk about the trade or his retirement until 1982, in an interview with Inside Sports magazine (“The Double Life of a Gay Dodger”) and then an interview with Bryant Gumble on Today. The film includes a clip, with Gumble asking, “Were you traded from the Dodgers to the As because you were gay?” Burke shifts in his seat, tries not to answer, and then, prodded again (“What do you think?”), he nods, “Yeah.”
Out is compelling not only because of Burke’s story, but also because it is still such a difficult story to tell. The images of Burke, once a basketball and baseball star at Berkeley High School, are culled from archival game footage and stills (as well as headlines and baseball cards), and the narrative is structured mostly through new interviews with former teammates, associates, and Burke’s sisters. Repeatedly, the film offers nearly abstract shots of fences, the camera panning low or peering through chain-link obstructions. Sometimes the fences show blurred traffic behind them, sometimes road signs or baseball facilities, and sometimes they’re adorned with a photo of Burke, flapping in a breeze. Always, the fences serve as poignant, ominous emblems of his experience, ever outside.
The scanty information on his post-MLB life isn’t helped by the fact that Burke died of AIDS at 42, following a broken leg (when he was hit by a car in the Castro), drug use, jail time, and homelessness. And, if the film doesn’t narrate the point specifically, it does reveal in interviews the raced split in his life: the majority of his MLB teammates here are black, while his post-professional associates, say, softball teammates he met in San Francisco, are white.
The film’s visual structure—rudimentary, sometimes awkward—is likely dictated by a lack of available images. But it also makes a compelling point regarding the agonizing, persistent invisibility of gay athletes in the MLB (and the NFL and the NBA: in each professional league, players only come out after they’ve retired). How is it, the film asks implicitly, that homophobia can remain so standard in 2010?
Explanations are familiar. In the ‘70s, Oakland As right fielder Claudell Washington says, “Being ballplayers, we all had that macho thing going on.” Dusty Baker notes that he considered Burke a friend, but recalls, “Some of the guys on the team, especially some of the Latin guys, would act funny in the shower.” Pondering Burke’s fate in 1977, Davy Lopes observes, “If everybody knows the story, I think, there were other reasons why he was traded.” Smith adds, “I certainly didn’t want to accuse him of that, because one thing’s for sure, at that time period, it was a kiss of death for a ballplayer. He would’ve been excused from the game, so to say.”
So to say. Such lack of language shapes Out. Interview subjects share stories of their suspicions or their sympathies, mostly by innuendo: Washington remembers, “Glenn had some guys picking him up in pink Cadillacs” and Oakland Athletics infielder Shooty Babitt reports, “He had a red jock.” Smith says he wondered when he heard Burke “cooing” on a phone call with a man (“I didn’t know if this person had put a woman on the phone, I didn’t know what was going on”). Not everyone is so elusive. Abdul-Jalil al-Hakim remembers a story Burke told in his autobiography, Out at Home: The Glenn Burke Story, when Dodgers management offered him $75,000 to get married. The story is that Burke responded with a question: “I guess you mean to a woman.” Jalil adds, “Glenn took exception to that, refused to do it, and openly dated Tommy LaSorda’s son.”
It’s a funny story, and telling. As the film goes on to underscore LaSorda’s terrible homophobia (he insisted even after his son Spunky’s death that he was not gay), it also marks this moment of resistance as a point of no return for Burke. He lost his job and a certain, important sense of achievement, even as he found another sort of community in San Francisco. Billy Bean, an MLB player who came out after he retired, in 1999 (and is the only other player to be out at all), notes the fear that defines “male team sports.” He also makes clear the price Burke paid. “The closet hurts people forever,” Bean says now. Being forced to leave the game “because you don’t feel like you belong there when you’ve proven that you do, is damaging. And it affects everything.”
As U.S. official bodies rethink Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and gay marriage, individual bodies, bodies living real lives, are still feeling the effects of oppression, prejudice, and fear. Glenn Burke’s story helps to expose those effects.