“A High Five for Glenn Burke”
The publishing info:
Farrah, Straus and Giroux/MacMillian
For ages 10-13/Grades 5-7
Released February, 2020
The review in 90 feet or less
My two kids are a couple decades removed from this early-teen age range, yet I never stop wondering how a middle-schooler purposefully navigates today’s world with everything thrown at them.
We remember some of our own experiences in the 1970s. We saw our own son and daughter work through the trial-and-error stages at their own pace, with school as a foundation and sports/dance/clubs/music as an extension of finding path to what interested them. This is on top of having divorced parents. They might not have realized how they were figuring out lessons about becoming more independent while realizing the benefits of teamwork, how individual achievement can be enjoyed when looking back at the ways hurdles were overcome in the process. There’s self esteem and empathy and all those esoteric things that later would have far more defined labels, but at this point, were just concepts to wrestle with.
In 2020, how might a kid process such adult-based media concept about the increasing acceptance amidst the stigmas that continue to push back about an LGBTQ “authentic” existence? What do kids in this age range stumble upon watching YouTube or social media that affects their thinking and image?
The way author Phil Bildner finds an entry point into this topic for this age group, having done noteworthy work with his baseball-based “Sluggers Book” series (2009-’10) for age 8-12, is through a multi-layered baseball story.
Dodgers followers who may know various elements of the Glenn Burke story — the athletic center fielder with star potential who was on the 1977 NL pennant-winning roster, but then oddly traded to his hometown of Oakland in the middle of the ’78 season to his teammates disappointment. He was out of the game after four MLB seasons. Burke’s sexuality was acknowledged and accepted by many of his Dodgers teammates, but not by management.
In 1995, Burke was able to work with writer Erik Sherman to author his autobiography, “Out At Home: The True Story of Glenn Burke, Baseball’s First Openly Gay Player.” Burke died that year, in May, at age 42. More about Burke’s life and times can be found in OutSports.com, a 2010 documentary, “OUT: The Glenn Burke Story” produced by Doug Harris, and a marvelous 2014 story in the New York Times by John Branch. An ESPN “30 For 30” film “The High Five” directed by Michael Jacobs is also in circulation.
In Bildner’s novel, sixth-grader Silas Wade is already navigating the rapid-paced life of a mom who just started a coffee house but practices “self care” and a dad with tight schedule as a CPA. His two younger sisters also demand attention – especially one with special needs. He find comfort in the friendship of a classmate, Zoey, a member of the school’s robotics team, as they juggle schedules, share rides to practices and events, and become intertwined in their successes and failures.
Introducing Burke into Silas’ world as the subject of a school presentation – who invented the high five? – also gives Silas a starting point to see how he feels about what Burke endured as a baseball player, and afterward. Silas wears No. 3 on his baseball team – like Burke (but also as a nod to Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez from the movie “The Sandlot,” who, in the sweet ending to the flick, also ends up playing for the Dodgers).
Bildner doesn’t sugar-coat any of the Burke facts – pointing out how Dodgers general manager Al Campanis tried to pay him to get married, and how managers Tommy Lasorda and Billy Martin dealt with it in their own insecure ways. In pulling from stories and books done about Burke, Bildner builds the story.
By chapter 8, Silas is already struggling with how to tell Zoey about his feelings.
“I think I might be gay.”
Zoey stares but doesn’t say anything.
I stare back and wait, wait for her to say something, wait for her to stay anything.
“Oh,” she says.
I swallow and nod.
“Like … like Glenn Burke,” she says. “Really?”
I nod again.
“Are you sure?”
“Kinda … I mean, yeah. Yeah, yes.”
The book ramps us on as Silas struggles to learn who he can trust with these feelings – his coach, Webb, becomes an important ally – yet he often worries about his team accepting him as he fumbles with the process by making up a story that hurts his friend, and he has to own up to it.
The emotions that affect his performance on the field might likely mirror what Burke himself was going through.
There are several important lessons to absorb as well from his parents, his friends’ siblings and one especially from a teacher, Ms. Washington, who uses a myth about how the high-five came into being to a teachable moment about what to believe about yourself as well as the world around you:
“We live in a time when the difference between fact and fiction, the difference between truth and untruth, is more difficult to discern than ever. Far too many are far too quick to believe anything and everything they hear. We can no longer allow that to happen. Because it’s dangerous, harmful and unfair. It’s up to you – it’s up to us – to seek out truth, to spread truth and to fight for the truth … Our truths matter. Just ask Glenn Burke.”
How it goes in the scorebook
How many high-fives can one deliver?
Poignant modern-day dialogue without being cheeky, real-life navigation in a fast-moving society, a lesson for parents as well to give your kids a chance to talk about what they’re feeling and process it without all the distractions we put into place.
In chapter 28, when Silas goes further into the Burke story and realizes he played in a gay softball league because “he couldn’t play the sport he loved because of who he was,” he turned to drinking and drugs, couldn’t hold down a job, became homeless, went to jail and was 42 when he died, Silas realizes: “That’s how old Dad is. Glenn Burke died of AIDS. That’s what happened to most people when they got AIDS back then. I learned all about it on YouTube. I had no idea what’s what it was like back then, and I’m pretty sure most kids have no idea that’s what it was like. I’ve been checking out some movie trailers because I want to know more and saw one for this documentary called ‘How to Survive a Plague,’ but I’m not sure I’m ready for it.”
As adults, we probably aren’t either.
But in finding a way to bring Burke back to life, not so much as a tragic figure but as a way to honor his legacy and bring it into a new generation, Bildner has gone far beyond the confines of an outfield wall to make this relevant again.
Another quote from the book sticks with us as we recommend passing this on. As Silas is talking about his sadness in watching how Burke wasn’t accepted, his coach gives him a reality check about modern times.
“Your coming out … you’re coming out is going to be extraordinary, Silas. It’s not going to be easy, but it will be extraordinary. And it’s a process. You already know that. … It’s going to be exciting and embarrassing and frustrating and hilarious and tragic and empowering, and .. .it’s going to be a lot like life.”
As we then see in the acknowledgements, we hope kids see how Bildner, a former New York City public school teacher who lives Newburgh, N.Y., thanks Billy Bean, Jason Collins, Wade Davis, Greg Louganis, Martina Navratilova, Megan Rapino, Robbie Rogers, Sheryl Swoopes “and all the other out gay athletes who paved the way and showed the world that everyone can play.” And that Bildner also gives a shout out to “Kevin, my husband. My husband. Words a previous, self-hating version of me would’ve never been able to process, comprehend or accept.”
From Outsports.com writer Ken Schultz: “In the world of middle grade novels, there are a lot of books written about coming out. And there are just as many books written about baseball. But it’s rare to find one that effectively mixes the two — and throws in a look at the sport’s troubled history with the LGBTQ community to boot. So perhaps the highest praise I can give Phil Bildner’s new book …. is that it deftly straddles the line between all of these middle grade subgenres and emerges with a very heartwarming and compelling story. Bildner gives just due to both the coming out and baseball stories and doesn’t come across at any point like he was skimping or paying lip service to either one.”
From the New York Times: “Bildner’s novel is both a cleareyed assessment of historical progress and, one hopes, an accelerant to it. Society changes, Silas’ coach tells him, ‘because of people like you.’ High-five to that.”
From the first two chapters, provided by the publisher’s website.
More by the author
So many more baseball-themed childrens’ books are in the Bildner library, including “Shoeless Joe and Black Betsy” in 2002 (age 4-8); “The Shot Heard ‘Round The World” in 2005 (age 4-8); “The Unforgettable Season” in 2011 (age 4-8) and “Night at the Stadium” in 2016 (age 4-7);
Also find the 2017 title, “Martina & Chrissie: The Greatest Rivalry in The History of Sports” (Candlewood Press, $16.99, illustrated by Brett Helquist, age 7-to-10) about how Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert maintained a respect for each other during a Cold War-era of edginess and uncertainty in global sports.
While we’re on this genre
Adam MacKinnon discusses his new children’s book, Baseball for Kids, with Eric Nusbaum, author of Stealing Home and father of young children, for the Pandemic Baseball Book Club (www.pbbclub.com):
While we’re on this subject
In 2011, Jon Mooallem did a piece for ESPN The Magazine about the “History of the High Five,” ending up in the year-end Best American Sports Writing anthology. There’s an Alexander Cartwright/Abner Doubleday discovery about who really “invented” it versus who was given credit for it.
Go back to Dodger Stadium, Oct. 2, 1977, after Dusty Baker homers off J.R. Richard to add himself to the Dodgers’ 30-homer club that included Steve Garvey, Ron Cey and Reggie Smith. When Baker comes back to the dugout there’s Glenn Burke in the on-deck circle with “his hand enthusiastically over his head to greet his friend. … Baker, not knowing what to do, smacked it.” Burke followed it with his own home run – the first of his big-league career — and upon coming back to the dugout, Baker gave him that same high-five.
A Los Angeles Magazine short piece in 2017 lamely acknowledges National High Five Day (it’s the third Thursday of every April, for some reason) and puts forth that based on Mooallem’s story, “L.A. might be responsible for one of the most universal greetings in history. … We may never know.”
Yeah, we kinda know.
More to know
A plaque honoring Burke in San Francisco on Market Street east of Castro Street is part of the Rainbow Honor Walk.