Glenn Burke, 1952-1995
Story by The AIDS Memorial and Irwin M. Rappaport
Read by Sterling K. Brown
Glenn Burke (November 16, 1952 – May 30, 1995) was a Major League Baseball player who died of AIDS in San Leandro, California. He was 42 years old.
Burke, who played for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Oakland Athletics, was the first and only Major League player to come out as gay to teammates and owners during his career and the first to acknowledge his sexuality publicly.
In 1978, having been open about his homosexuality with his Dodgers teammates and management, Burke was traded to the A’s for the veteran Bill North.
Al Campanis, the Dodgers’ vice president, even offered him bonus money if he married. “I guess you mean to a woman?” Burke replied.
Burke had a strained relationship with Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, allegedly because Lasorda’s son, Tom Lasorda Jr., was gay and became friendly with Burke. Lasorda Jr. died of AIDS in 1991.
Although Burke started regularly in the outfield for the A’s, a pinched nerve kept him off the field. Refusing to take cortisone shots, he quit the team. However, he returned the next spring.
Former Burke teammate Claudell Washington has said that when A’s manager Billy Martin introduced the new players to the team, Martin said, ‘Oh, by the way, this is Glenn Burke and he’s a faggot.”
A knee injury led Burke to the minor leagues. Living as a gay man, he believed that his dream of starring in the major leagues was unlikely, so he walked away. In The New York Times, Burke was quoted saying, “Prejudice drove me out of baseball sooner than I should have. But I wasn’t changing.”
In his autobiography Burke said, “Prejudice just won out.”
Burke would later star in gay baseball and softball leagues and won medals at the Gay Games. In 1987, he was hit by a car, leading to a downward spiral of drugs, homelessness and crime. In 1991, he pleaded guilty to theft and possession of a controlled substance and served time in prison. By 1994, he had discovered that he was HIV positive.
Burke’s sister Lutha, knowing he would die soon, searched for him on the streets of San Francisco. After finding her brother, she brought him home to Oakland to care for him in his final days. In December 2020, 25 years after his death, Burke was honored with the opening of the Glenn Burke Wellness Clinic at the Oakland LGBTQ Community Center.