Archive for the ‘Los Angeles Dodgers’ Category


Glenn Burke

June 6, 2022

One of the many things I learned in Singled Out, Andrew Maraniss’s excellent recent biography of Glenn Burke, was that Burke was a much bigger part of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ winning the 1977 National League pennant than I had thought. He reached the majors in the middle of a pennant race, and he seemed to be able to transform the tension of that situation into something much lighter, much closer to joy. He had a gift for making people laugh, for making them feel good and connected. It’s no accident that the high five, the very embodiment everywhere of person-to-person celebration, was invented and given to the world by Glenn Burke. As Davey Lopes, the team’s star second baseman put it, Burke was during that championship season a “catalyst for promoting unity on the ball club.”

In my experiment to try to hold on to something like joy (which I started writing about here), I’m imagining Burke playing a similar role for my simulated team. As you can see by the game notes at the bottom of this post, it seems to be working out at the moment: he’s sparked the team’s climb back up into a precarious perch atop its division, and he’s also helped Mark Fidrych record his 13th and 14th wins of the year.  

Before reading Singled Out, all I really had to go on about Glenn Burke, as with most of the players I’ve written about on this site over the years, were the numbers on the back of a baseball card. The numbers on the card at the top of this page, the only Burke card in my collection, told me he was decent but nothing special in 1977, a part-time player with a .254 average. His 1978 numbers are about the same, if not a little more underwhelming, as they show that in what seems to have been a better chance with the A’s to prove his worth as an everyday player, he maintained a similarly mediocre level of batting, posting a .257 average in 319 at-bats with his new team.

This 1979 card also shows the minor league numbers from Burke that preceded his 1977 promotion to the majors, and those numbers, along with a single line of descriptive text at the bottom of the card (“Led P.C.L. with 63 Stolen Bases, 1976”), tell a story that runs counter to his major league numbers: here was, at one point, a star in the making. Burke hit .300 in several of his minor league stops and did so with some power (reaching double digits in home runs in two of his minor league seasons) and world-class speed. But when he reached the majors his numbers fell off. Burke played one more season the year this card reached me in my little town in Vermont, and his numbers sank even lower that year, to a .219 average, and after that he was done. It happens, and sometimes it’s nobody’s fault, just a mystery in the numbers. Right?

Well, Burke was never really given a chance, and on top of that (and probably in connection with that), he had to try to get his footing as a major leaguer while absorbing the hostility of two demonstrably homophobic managers: renowned two-faced asshole Tommy Lasorda (who never accepted that his own son was gay), and renowned one-faced asshole Billy Martin (who used a homophobic slur when introducing Burke to the A’s). And Burke’s trade away from the Dodgers occurred soon after Burke’s refusal to take up general manager Al Campanis on an offer to pay for Burke’s honeymoon if he agreed, “for appearances,” to marry a woman.  

The denial of Lasorda, the cruelty of Martin, and the corporate whitewashing of Campanis were not unusual for their time, or for this time, for that matter. (The hatred and dehumanization inflicted on Burke is very much alive right now. For example, a 2020 UCLA study showed that LGBTQ+ people are “nearly four times more likely than non-LGBT people to experience violent victimization, including rape, sexual assault, and aggravated or simple assault.”) 

When I got this card in 1979, I was 11 years old, and baseball provided a way for me to enter the world, to be a happy and “normal” boy. I was just beginning to understand at that time that of all the ways I might stumble off that path of appearing to be a normal boy, the worst stumble would be to be perceived to be gay. I was afraid of this happening. This fear fed into my own homophobia. Turns out I was a lot like Mark Fidrych in this regard. Like me Fidrych grew up in a small New England town. I don’t think I knew we had that in common when I first saw him, when I first (I hesitated at first to put it this way, even to this day having the same worries I had as a kid about how I might be perceived, and even now I feel the need to add the word “platonically”) fell in love with him. But he was me, in full, curly-haired, goofy, weird, full of love for baseball and the world, and so in later years it only made more sense that he grew up among the same trees and cow pastures and people and thinking that surrounded me. The same ignorance, the same fears. In the 1977 book No Big Deal, Fidrych explains to his co-author, Tom Clark, how on the brink of his second year in the minor leagues he lobbied Tigers management for permission to bring his own car to spring training. The first year, he’d had to hitchhike home (or “thumb,” as he puts it, using the same term that I would use when I started hitchhiking around New England) at night after going out drinking, and he felt scared about the people who stopped to give him a ride, or the version of these people that Fidrych created in his mind. He thought he would be victimized, even killed, by homosexuals picking him up as he was hitchhiking. I had similar fears when I was thumbing around New England. For Fidrych, for me, for the other boys growing up in our little New England towns, there was at work the awful alchemy of fear that flipped, in our minds, the people most likely at risk into being the people most likely to put us at risk. As Fidrych recounts in No Big Deal: “I said [to Tigers management], Just think, someday you’re going to be minus one ballplayer. And it’ll be me. And I put it back in quotes—Because of fa****s.”

I want to be careful not to immediately exonerate Fidrych or myself for our homophobia. But in Fidrych’s case at least, I think it’s probably pretty likely that the more he moved out into the broader world beyond his sheltered New England town, the more the generosity of spirit at his core would allow him to grow beyond any lingering pockets of ignorance. Growing up in a small New England town, he surely grew up surrounded almost entirely by white people, and yet when he reached the Tigers he was able to become such close friends with Willie Horton, an African American man, that Horton would speak at Fidrych’s funeral, explaining afterward, “I told everyone that Mark was a beautiful young man, a special human being who loved life and people.”

These words seem from all accounts like they could also have been used to describe Glenn Burke.

I am imagining that in my make-believe season an alchemy of joy is allowing for these two beautiful young men, the Bird and Glenn Burke, to connect, and for the former to lay down his fears, and for the latter to be able to be who he is in full. I am hoping there’s some way for us all to keep coming closer together, rather than staying separate and alone in our violent fears.                         

In the real world, Glenn Burke was given a long-overdue honor this past Friday by Dodgers. Here’s hoping the tribute is a step closer to a world in which joy wins. That’s the world I think about when I imagine Glenn Burke.

An early high five with the inventor of the celebration, Glenn Burke, and Dusty Baker

Worcester Birds game notes (in each win, the names of the two biggest stars of the game are in bold):

  • G103: L 9-8
    • Singleton continues to produce, homering and driving in three, but Dave Johnson and Bill Lee struggle mightily.     
  • G104: L 5-1
    • Geronimo home run is the only offense mustered against Dave Goltz.
  • G105 W 8-2
    • Singleton is injured, but Munson (3 hits) and Campbell (3.1 scoreless innings) help salvage a series win.
  • G106: W 7-4 (Fidrych 13-6)
    • Munson (3 hits) and Glenn Burke (2 hits) key rallies that allow the Bird to stay in the league top ten in victories and winning percentage. (Fidrych has not been dominant this season but is showing a nose for the win; he’s the only pitcher in the league leaders in victories who is pitching on 5 days’ rest, not 4, and only one pitcher (Figuroa) has recorded wins in a higher percentage of his starts.       
  • G107: W 8-6
    • Munson and Burke again lead the way, each homering.
  • G108: W 7-5
    • Singleton returns from injury and picks up where he left off, collecting 2 hits; Kranepool also has 2 hits and adds 2 RBI. Burke plays in his fourth straight game, all wins, and as in each of the previous games he scores a run, this time crossing home plate what turns out to be the decisive run after entering the game for the injured Geronimo. It’s the run that puts the team back into a tie for first place.
  • G109: W 3-1
    • Singleton (2 hits, HR) backs a good start by mop-up man Dave Johnson (7.1 innings, 1 run), who leaves with the scored tied. (Munson unties it with a home run in the bottom of the 8th).
  • G110: L 8-0
    • For the first time in 6 games: A) Glenn Burke does not play; B) the team loses.
  • G112: W 4-3 (Fidrych 14-6)
    • Bostock (2 hits, HR) helps propel Fidrych (7 innings, 1 ER) to his 14th win. The Bird falls behind early, but Glenn Burke, back in the lineup, starts the comeback by tying the game with a double, and the Birds are back in sole possession of first place for the first time in 47 games.