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.
ToppsBaseball cards are notably lacking a “preferred genitalia” stat.
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. Two years later, the media finally acknowledged his struggles when Inside Sports magazine published a lengthy tell-all of his experience.
AP via Huffington Post“So you like dudes, huh? What, uh … what’s that all about, then?”
Sadly, it was too little too late, and Burke passed away in 1995, known not as the man who kickstarted tolerance in pro sports, but as the man who invented the high five … which, wow, is almost better. Damn, dude, leave some revolutionizing for the rest of us.
PART TWO: THE HIGH FIVE OF LIFE
Burke often high fived Dodgers teammate Dusty Baker.
Glenn Burke, a young outfielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the late 1970s whose astonishing physique and 17-inch biceps earned him the nickname King Kong.
For at least a generation before the Sleets story surfaced, the conventional wisdom had been that Burke invented the high five on Oct. 2, 1977, in front of 46,000 screaming fans at Dodger Stadium.
Lamont Sleets says the high five came from his dad, who served in the 5th Infantry.
It was the last day of the regular season, and Dodgers leftfielder Dusty Baker had just gone deep off the Astros’ J.R. Richard. It was Baker’s 30th home run, making the Dodgers the first team in history to have four sluggers — Baker, Ron Cey, Steve Garvey and Reggie Smith — with at least 30 homers each. It was a wild, triumphant moment and a good omen as the Dodgers headed to the playoffs. Burke, waiting on deck, thrust his hand enthusiastically over his head to greet his friend at the plate. Baker, not knowing what to do, smacked it. “His hand was up in the air, and he was arching way back,” says Baker, now 62 and managing the Reds. “So I reached up and hit his hand. It seemed like the thing to do.”
Burke then stepped up and launched his first major league home run. And as he returned to the dugout, Baker high-fived him. From there, the story goes, the high five went ricocheting around the world. (According to Dodgers team historian Mark Langill, the game was not televised, and no footage survives.)
The high five was a natural outgrowth of Burke’s personality. The Oakland native was an irrepressibly charismatic man who, even as a 24-year-old rookie that season, had become the soul of the Dodgers’ clubhouse. He did Richard Pryor standup from memory and would stuff towels under his shirt and waddle bowlegged around the dugout, imitating Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda. “He was a joyous, gregarious person,” sports agent Abdul-Jalil al-Hakim says of Burke, a friend since childhood. “He could high-five you without necessarily going through the motion with his hand.”