The 1977 National League Championship Series was loaded with controversy. Dodgers starting pitcher Burt Hooton, rattled and intimidated by the deafening roar of Phillies fans, melted down and lost control. There was a blown call at first base. Phillies manager Danny Ozark didn’t insert left fielder Jerry Martin as a late-inning defensive replacement.
And all of that happened during the Dodgers’ 6-5 victory during Game 3, better known to Phillies fans as Black Friday. There was also the controversial decision to play Game 4 in a cold, steady rain. The infamous image from Game 4 is Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn sitting in the stands without a raincoat, refusing to acknowledge the rain that many thought should have prevented the game from being played.
None of the controversy, however, centered around Glenn Burke. The Dodgers’ rookie outfielder, who batted .254 during 83 regular-season games that year, went 0 for 7 with three strikeouts during the NLCS. He was barely a footnote.
More than three decades later, however, Burke is more than a footnote in baseball history. He is known as the first major league player to reveal he is a homosexual, which he did in 1982, two years after his playing career ended.
Burke is back in the news these days because of the documentary “Out. The Glenn Burke Story,” which made its national debut Tuesday on Versus. The documentary, which originally aired last November on Comcast SportsNet Bay Area (San Francisco/Oakland), will be shown on Versus again on Saturday night and Wed., Aug. 17 (at 11 p.m. on both nights).
The documentary explores Burke’s life during and after his baseball career, both of which, according to many of those who knew him, were shortened by the failure of others to accept his homosexuality. There are many interesting elements to Burke’s career and the complications caused by his sexual orientation. But the element I found most interesting is that most of his teammates knew he was gay.
But it wasn’t simply that most of his teammates knew he was gay that drew my attention. What was most striking was that they didn’t care.
The documentary includes interviews with Burke’s Dodger teammates from the 1977 team that defeated the Phillies in the NLCS. Second baseman Davey Lopes, later a Phillies coach, and outfielders Dusty Baker, Reggie Smith and Rick Monday are among the former Dodgers interviewed for the documentary. None seems uncomfortable with having a gay teammate. If their opinions are a case of revisionist history, they’re all pretty good actors.
And if this group of players didn’t seem to care about their teammate being gay in 1977, why is there still a widespread belief that a gay player wouldn’t be accepted by his teammates today?
Sports is one of the final frontiers for acceptance of homosexuals in the workplace. To be more specific, we’re talking about team sports. To narrow it down even further, we’re talking about male team sports.
Homosexuality isn’t a major issue in individual sports because there aren’t teammates. Maybe it was a big deal when Greg Louganis, the world’s top diver, came out after his Olympic career was over, but it wasn’t a huge surprise to many people. And certainly nobody would be all that surprised to learn today that there are homosexual figure skaters or tennis players.
Women’s team sports have also been more accepting of lesbian players. The WNBA has recognized and, in some instances, embraced lesbian fans who make up a segment of its audience. WNBA teams have had “Pride” nights and even done promotions with lesbian organizations.
In male sports, however, this subject is still taboo. With estimates of homosexuality generally ranging from 3-6% of the population, it’s likely that almost every NFL team has at least one gay player. Most NHL and Major League Baseball teams probably have a gay player as well.
There have been plenty of names run through the rumor mill. I’m not going to dignify those rumors here. If a player doesn’t want his sexual orientation known, I don’t believe it’s right to speculate upon or reveal that personal information.
But I’m sure there have been players besides Burke whose teammates know they are gay. In fact, we know that former Villanova forward Will Sheridan’s teammates knew he was gay.
In a revealing interview with ESPN’s Dana O’Neil that was published in May, Sheridan said he told freshman roommate and teammate Mike Nardi that he was gay. Sheridan subsequently told other teammates. The end result was … no problem. The Wildcats achieved the No. 1 ranking in the country and reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament. Sheridan’s homosexuality was a non-issue.
I’m sure there are exceptions, but most players’ primary concern seems to be whether or not their teammates can play. If the player can help the team, other players want him on the team, regardless of his sexual preference. So why does the unwritten “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy still exist in men’s team sports?
When Burke played, acceptance was more of a factor. In the documentary, Burke’s teammates state that his homosexuality was a problem for Dodgers management, especially once Burke starting spending more time with manager Tommy Lasorda’s son. Tommy Lasorda, Jr., known as Spunky, later died of AIDS, but Lasorda denied his son was gay – even after his death.
General manager Al Campanis allegedly even suggested to Burke that he get married. According to one of Burke’s former classmates, Campanis and Walter O’Malley offered Burke $75,000 to get married. Burke, according to his classmate, coyly responded, “I guess you mean to a woman?”
Regardless of the veracity of those stories, his Dodgers teammates believe Burke was traded to the Oakland A’s in 1978 because he was gay. Former Dodgers beat writer Lyle Spencer says Burke’s teammates were “visibly distraught” over his trade to Oakland, with some of them in tears. That doesn’t sound as if they objected to having a gay teammate.
In Oakland, the situation with management wasn’t any better. Former A’s teammate Claudell Washington said manager Billy Martin introduced Burke to the team as a “faggot.”
It’s difficult to imagine Martin’s behavior being tolerated today. The NBA fined Kobe Bryant $100,000 this year for using that same slur toward a referee. Furthermore, Rick Welts, the CEO and president of the Phoenix Suns, is openly gay. Like Welts, more and more homosexuals have stopped hiding their sexual orientation. So, if acceptance by teammates and an organization is less of a problem than in the past, why do so many male athletes still pretend to be something they’re not?
Fan reaction could be a major factor. There were stories of Burke being taunted from the stands, even before he revealed his homosexuality. Sheridan, who didn’t advertise his sexual preference, but didn’t hide it, either, says that he was taunted for his homosexuality by opposing fans, specifically mentioning Saint Joseph’s fans during the “Holy War” between the two schools.
Another school of opinion says that opposing fans aren’t the only problem. Hometown fans may be reluctant to support a gay athlete or even a team that employs a gay athlete. And some parents might not approve of their children rooting for a gay player.
Will we ever reach the point where fans will comfortably root for a gay athlete? The answer is that they already do. They just don’t know it.
I hope the realization that we already root for gay athletes will help us reach a point where gay athletes will no longer have to conceal their sexual orientation.
When that happens, I predict homosexuality in sports will become a non-story within a few years.
Then the only controversial outs will be the ones made on the field.