Day 1 of (at least) 30 baseball book reviews for 2021: Leading off, Glenn Burke, unadulterated

“Singled Out: The True Story of Glenn Burke:
The first Openly Gay MLB Player and Inventor of the High Five”

The author:
Andrew Maraniss

The publishing info:
Penguin/Random House/
Philomel Books
320 pages
$18.99
Released March 2, 2021

The links:
At the publisher’s website
At the author’s website
At Powells.com
At Vromans.com
At The Last Book Store in LA
At PagesABookstore.com
At Amazon.com
At BarnesAndNoble.com
At Indiebound.org
At Bookshop.org


The review in 90 feet or less

Glenn Burke, through the unassuming prism of a Young Adult story-telling format, can become living history for adults who might have been too young to know what was really going on when they once were aware of his existence.

Consider being of the age where you actually saw and experienced Burke play Major League Baseball. You had some of his Topps cards. Watched him run or throw or chase down a ball in the Dodger Stadium setting. Thought it was curious how he made it onto the Dodgers’ star-studded 1977 World Series roster and then ended up in the starting lineup.

In the grand scheme of the Dodgers’ mid-to-late ’70s NL dominance, Burke’s trade to Oakland actually made sense when presented to the public through the team’s publicity department, no matter that teammates were telling the newspaper reporters that something wasn’t right. We captured this from a distance, going through our own high school experience, paying attention but unaware.

Dance forward a few years. As we’re in college processing the art and craft of journalism, there’s the salacious teaser on the October 1982 issue of Inside Sports that read: “The Dodger Who Was Gay.” Is this what they do to sell magazines? If this was so groundbreaking, why wasn’t he named, or his photo on the cover? Was it just something far more curious, and far less serious?

When that issue landed, there was a subsequent media-made coming-out party. A somewhat less-than-revealing Burke sit-down interview with Bryant Gumbel on NBC’s “Today” show (which apparently made Gumbel nervous, we now read). There was also an L.A. Times piece Randy Harvey did on Burke headlined “Tired of Torment, Burke Searches for Inner Peace.”

Burke was outspoken during his career, but never revealed the fact he was a homosexual, the story explained. Within the context of our life and times, it still wasn’t registering an awful lot of anything mainstream.

But in the last 10 years, things changed. Evolved is a better word. Better understood is more spot on.

In 2014, Major League Baseball used its July All-Star Game as a time to recognize Burke as a “gay pioneer” and launched its own department of inclusion, eventually headed up by another former Dodgers outfielder, Billy Bean. To frame the event, a New York Times piece by John Branch headlined “Posthumous Recognition” helped explain things better. Aside from that, an ESPN “30 For 30 Short” 10-minute piece, “The High Five” directed by Michael Jacobs, was another entry point.

A year later, Penguin Books discovered the 1995 self-published book by Erik Sherman that captured Burke in his final days, “Out at Home: The True Story of Glenn Burke, Baseball’s First Openly Gay Player,” and it saw a new cycle of attention. And what ever happened to the plan right about then for Jamie Lee Curtis to produce a biopix on Burke’s life?

Last year, a YA novel called “A High Five For Glenn Burke” crossed our radar for a review, taking a story we were familiar with but turned it into a narrative from a kid who was questioning his own true self in the setting of his Little League team.

We had not thought much about the context of Burke’s life or any cause and effect that it could still have. Not until this work by Maraniss, which could be one of the most important sports bios to come along in a very long time, framed in the beauty of a YA genre.

If we started to process the Glenn Burke story from scratch — and not just scratching the surface – Maraniss’ way of honoring Burke’s life and baseball career in far greater scope and context, and presented in a time and place in Maraniss’ writing career that focuses on what can make the most impact, we are somehow able to think differently, better process it, and relate it to where people seemingly younger and younger are trying to better self-identify, fit into to society that says it is more acceptable to change. This can also educate them as to whose shoulders they are standing on.

There are no restraints of a 12-to-17 year-old targeted demographic for this storytelling. It resonates perfectly well for anyone who not only lived during the time of Burke’s rise and tragic fall, but more importantly never took the time to connect the dots of what was going on between the ’60s and ’90s and how that would affected a gay man — a gay professional athlete in a somewhat neanderthal locker room setting — in his quest to stay true to himself.

Again, we’re all the more grateful for what is presented here and how it can fix the misconceptions of our own inner narrative.

Go back to that Inside Sports story, authored by Michael J. Smith. We had no idea Smith was Burke’s toxic life partner at the time and had been pressing Burke to come out of the closet for years prior to this story. This became Smith’s way to press the issue, perhaps even profit from it, that was far more about Smith’s motives than giving Burke the bravery he needed to get it done.

Then there’s the photo we’ve seen so many times — Burke rearing back to deliver an impromptu, historic high-five to Dodgers teammate Dusty Baker. We could all assume that occurred after Baker’s noteworthy 30th home on the last day of the 1977 regular season (Burke, in on the on-deck circle, followed with his one and only homer of that season). As Maraniss points out, that photo actually originated from Game 2 of the 1977 NLCS after Baker hit a grand slam and Burke came off the bench to celebrate with him again.

Let’s back-peddle a bit.

Maraniss comes a family of writers — his father, Pulitzer Prize winner David Maraniss, has monumental works in the sports field that include “Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero” in 2006 and “When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi” in 1999.

Andrew Maraniss’ choice to work on history and sports is more of a social justice bent and also figure out how to adapt them as teachable history to those impressionable readers. It’s a format we wish more bios could be constructed — without dialing down the language. The story is a very adult subject, but one in this YA age range can grasp with the right information and explanation.

So we see how “God’s Gift To Baseball,” as Chapter 7 starts, was hardly the model citizen to perform “The Dodgers’ Way.” His outbursts of machismo as he was confused by challenges to his flamboyant, extroverted style, his stubborn indifference to authority, his unrefined nature, Burke was indeed “a different kind of dude” according to one former teammate.

Here, there’s no sidestepping the curious things Burke did from birth to youth, to finding his way in the Dodgers’ farm system and acting so very erratically that despite his run-ins with managers and teammates (and opponents, i.e., Chapter 9 titled “Bad Blood”), we can better see how a path was there for him paved by Dodgers GM Al Campanis over some more worthy candidates — until Campanis himself derailed it, with the input from why he was treated likely based on his relationship with manager Tommy Lasorda and Tommy Jr. that was among the forbidden things in the dugout and beyond.

The key here is having the correct context of the day’s events as it affected Burke’s journey — whether it be disco’s self-expressive freedom of the ’70s, a sports culture of drugs use in the ’70s and ’80s, national anti-gay campaigns and laws being passed at that time, and finally the crushing blow of the AIDS epidemic. All them, and more, couldn’t help but shape Burke and how we perceived him.

And one more note of appreciation for this book: The extra effort to include not just extensive chapter notes, a list of interviews (54, including Davey Lopes, Fred Claire, Joe Simpson and writer Lyle Spencer, who covered the Dodgers at the time), and index and a bibliography, but also Burke’s career stats (and the Dodgers’ 1977 roster), a U.S. gay rights timeline (including the last reference to the 1964 Civil Rights Act update in June, 2020), a list of significant Black American LGBTQIA+ figures for further study, and a great list of resources involving LGBTQIA+ sports, HVI/AIDS, homelessness and baseball.

It’s a complete-game, life-confirming victory.

How it goes in the scorebook

A humbling YA high-five for Maraniss from many old-timers.

If you’ve already read Sherman’s “Out At Home,” the journey isn’t over. In fact, Sherman becomes a key character in Maraniss’ re-examination and in a very cool way honors his contribution to the Burke life story.

We hear the Brian Wilson song in our head: “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times.” Image how Burke could have been accepted, appreciated and celebrated if he was just born 40 years later, at a time when society was better prepared for someone like him. Billie Jean King can live to see how this all came to happen. Even Billy Bean. Burke couldn’t. And if you’re still paying attention, we are at another point in our nation’s history when H.R. 5 is moving through the system — the Equality Act – that amends the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Again, which makes Glenn Burke relevant. A story that needs to re-tell in a giant way, without dodging obvious potholes.

Again, it should have also dawned on us that Burke, growing up in the Bay Area as a Giants fan, would have absolutely no interest in ever playing for the Dodgers – which he didn’t – and would have likely choose basketball over baseball if he was at all engaged in school work generally required at colleges. The fact he actually did play college basketball while he was a Dodgers minor-leaguer remains head-spinning.

Our primary take away is a paragraph where Maraniss describes Burke: “(He) appeared to be the realist of the real …(but) in truth, Burke was as concerned about his image as the rest of them, cultivating a macho and fun-loving façade to distract attention from the kind of self scrutiny that might reveal his true self.”

What a way to try to exist, let alone thrive, as an athlete in a public forum, amidst a locker room of teammates who loved him, and upper management who couldn’t handle the truth.

Our author Q&A

We were fortunate to have a recent exchange via email with Maraniss that went this way:

What was your ultimate takeaway from telling this story?

A: I think the best way to answer this question is to share a passage from toward the end of the book. At Glenn’s funeral, the pastor says that Glenn “died in truth. He told the truth. He didn’t live a lie, and I believe the truth sets people free.” And then I write that “in that proclamation resides the paradox of Glenn Burke’s life, and the lesson to us all. Allowed to be his authentic self, Glenn embodied achievement, innovation, love, humor, friendship, freedom, and compassion. But when powerful elements of society told him that was unacceptable, that he must somehow instead deny a fundamental aspect of his being, his life devolved into one of confusion, lies, ambiva­lence, anxiety, seclusion, and self-destruction. What clearer evidence do we need that homophobia, like other hatreds, not only deprives indi­viduals the ability to become their very best selves, but also robs the world of their gifts?”

To me, this doesn’t read at all like a “young adult” story, especially for many who’d never known about Glenn Burke. It is more like a Sports Illustrated feature, with chapters and a flow and a beginning and a way to process the end. Does having to categorize it as “young adult” perhaps too narrowly pigeonhole it?

A: I interviewed dozens of people for this book and did essentially the same type of research that I would have done for an “adult” book. The biggest difference is that the chapters are a bit shorter and fast-paced. But what adult doesn’t appreciate that? I feel that there is room for more good narrative non-fiction aimed at teens, particularly that involve sports. So that’s the niche I’m looking to fill. I love visiting schools and telling these stories about sports and social justice. It means a ton to me when a teacher or librarian comes up and says “this student doesn’t ordinarily read much, but he or she loved your book.” I feel that given the state of the world right now it’s important to reach young people with stories that shine a light on injustice and encourage them to use their voices to make change. And, as you say, this is a good book for adults, too. So my hope is that the audience for this book is actually expanded, rather than limited, by aiming it at both high school students and adults. 

You’ve taken a lot of effort in matching up Burke’s life journey with the cultural events going around him. Anita Bryant and her anti-gay speech leading to laws in Florida (and also California) where the Dodgers trained and played, Harvey Milk and the Dan White shootings (“law and order” and “stop the deviants” seem like slogans still echoed today for various causes). For us, an especially enlightening reference to what Steve Dahl’s “Disco Demolition Night” in Chicago was really saying about the music and anti-gay lifestyle. Can you explain the importance of adding context for all those important moments really does shape and define a person, especially like Burke who had so many more reasons not to come out but then eventually did when it was the “right” time for him? How have you experienced the importance of historical mapping on a biography in other writing?

A: Placing my stories into the context of the place and times is something I enjoy doing in all of my books. When writing “Strong Inside,” a biography of the SEC’s first Black basketball player, Perry Wallace (released in 2014, with a young readers’ edition in 2016), I wrote about Nashville and the South during the time of the civil rights movement. To understand what it was like to be the only Black player in the SEC at that time, the reader had to know what else was happening in places like Mississippi and Alabama at the time.

When I wrote “Games of Deception” (in Sept., 2020, with a paperback version released today, March 2) about the first U.S. men’s Olympic basketball team at the 1936 Olympics, it was important not only to write about the state of Nazi Germany at that moment in time, but also about antisemitism and racism in the U.S. at that time and how that shaped public opinion about possibly boycotting those games. I’m writing a book now about the first U.S. women’s Olympic basketball team (in 1976) in the context of the women’s rights movement and the impact of Title IX. Adding this historical context is what lifts an ordinary sports story into something more significant. It can’t feel like a stretch, though. And as you noted in your question, these pivotal moments in the gay rights movement all had very direct impacts on Glenn Burke’s life, and many of them happened in the places he was living or playing ball.

There is another new angle to this: A Bill Frishette/Nike connection that is something we’d never heard. How did that come about?

A: I was speaking with Steve Vucinich, the longtime clubhouse manager for the Oakland A’s, before a game during the 2019 season. He was telling me stories about Glenn all the way back to their youth baseball league days in the Bay Area. Toward the end of the interview, he mentioned something about Glenn being the first Major League player to wear Nikes in a game. My ears perked up. Steve gave me Bill’s number and I texted him right away. Bill was one of Nike’s first employees back in the 70s while he was also a vendor at Dodger Stadium. He had great stories about how Glenn’s initial interest in wearing soccer shoes made for artificial turf was essentially Nike’s foot in the door with Major League Baseball.

For many years, having seen the famous photo of Baker and Burke doing what is accepted as the first high five in ’77, it never occurred to us to doubt its time stamp. But really, how it couldn’t have been the final game of the ’77 season but really in the ’77 NLCS? It was so easy to pick that out by looking closer. Did you ever hear of any photos of the first one in that regular-season finale? No video? What made you clue in about the photo’s actual date?

A: I never found any photos or video of the first high five, which came after Dusty Baker’s record-setting home run in the 1977 season finale. The photo that is often cited as being of that first high five actually is from a playoff game a week later. The photo appears in a Los Angeles Times game story about Game 2 of the 1977 NLCS against the Phillies. Glenn Burke is wearing a backwards cap – not a batting helmet – and Davey Lopes jacket, so it’s clear he wasn’t the on-deck hitter in the playoff game, as he was in the regular-season game when they did the first high-five. It was the hat and jacket that first made me question it.

Who would you have liked to interview for this but never could connect with? Was talking to Tommy Lasorda even much of a consideration?

A: Based on everything I had heard about Tommy Lasorda’s relationship with Glenn and even his son, Tommy Jr., I figured he would not speak to me for the book. I was able to get in touch with his daughter, and she asked if I would not even mention her brother in the book. Of course, the friendship between Tommy Jr. and Glenn has been written about before, so it wasn’t something I was going to leave out of the book. It’s important to Glenn’s story and the reasons why he was traded to the A’s. There were several of Glenn’s Dodger teammates who did not respond to requests for interviews. That was disappointing, but the guys who were willing to talk – notably Dusty Baker, Davey Lopes, Joe Simpson and several minor league teammates, more than made up for it.

What added value do you find in having your book include so many other compelling material like chapter notes, timelines, glossaries of names and other resources? Don’t you wish more books did that?

A: I agree – as a reader, I love those extra details. Sometimes some of the most interesting nuggets are in the chapter notes. I love telling side stories there. You asked earlier about this being marketed as a Young Adult book. The back-matter you’re talking about is probably the most significant aspect geared toward high school or college readers. I put together a timeline of the gay rights movement, thumbnail sketches of other Black LGBTQ figures readers might be interested in learning more about, and resources for more information on everything from baseball to homelessness to AIDS, all important parts of Glenn’s life.

Do you expect having any sort of website related to this, with other “outtakes” or things you came across that could help tell this even deeper as young adults and their cyber savvy may want to dig deeper?

A: I have a book trailer on my website, and I also recorded interviews with Tony Kemp of the Oakland A’s and Vanderbilt baseball coach Tim Corbin to talk about social justice and baseball. I think people will find their comments really interesting. They both gave me hope that if a gay player came along on either of their teams, they would be supported.

More Q&A

Maraniss is one of the new authors who’ve joined Year 2 of The Pandemic Baseball Book Club, which interviewed him as well about his book. If you’ve not connected with the PBBC, do so ASAP. With that, we also wanted to pass on these excerpts:

Why write for Young Adults?
A: It’s important to me that these stories encourage young people to use their voices when they see injustice— something that has become more important than ever in the current political climate. … The main difference is that YA chapters are a bit shorter, to keep the story moving, and include more explanation of certain historical moments that younger readers may not be familiar with.
 
What’s a noteworthy thing you learned during the research of your book?
A: Here are two interesting tidbits: In addition to inventing the high-five, Glenn was the first major league player to wear Nikes in a game. He was also one of the first professional athletes to simultaneously play college sports, after the NCAA changed its rules in 1974 to allow pros in one sport to play collegiately in another. For Glenn, that meant he could play basketball at the University of Nevada Reno while he was a Dodgers minor leaguer. Many of his friends and teammates said he was at least as good at basketball player as he was at baseball. He was a phenomenal athlete.
 
What’s the most memorable interview you conducted for the book?
A: I really wanted to interview Dusty Baker in person, since he was such an important part of the story. I live in Nashville, and he lives in California. This was before he became manager of the Astros, and before COVID. One day he texted and said that he was in Asheville, N.C., scouting a minor league game for the Giants. That’s a four-and-a-half-hour drive from Nashville. I met him there the next day. He said he’d have only an hour, but we ended up talking in his hotel lobby for close to three hours. He was just as funny, real and kind as everybody told me. He had great stories about Glenn, about the Dodger teams of the ’70s, and about the fraternity of Black ballplayers from those days. I also found a social worker who discovered Glenn living in a cheap Tenderloin hotel in San Francisco, homeless and dying of AIDS. The description of that encounter was chilling, and became the first chapter of the book.
 
Are you a Dodgers fan?
A: I’m a Milwaukee Brewers fan. I was born in Wisconsin, and though I only lived there until I was four, my grandparents stayed, and my parents did a good job brainwashing me even after we moved to Washington D.C. In 1981, my dad and I took Amtrak to New York to watch the final three games of the split-season playoff series between the Brewers and the Yankees. I was 11, and the only thing I packed for the trip was my collection of mini ice cream helmets. The next year, I cried with happiness when Cecil Cooper delivered a game-winning hit to send the Brewers to the World Series. (I cried again when St. Louis closer Bruce Sutter struck out Gorman Thomas to end it.) I must have doodled the Brewers’ ball-in-glove logo every day in middle school. I had a pen-pal relationship with one of the minority owners of the team, Ben Barkin, who would send me media guides and Christmas cards every year. In return, I sent him statistics and recommended lineups in which I consistently predicted every Brewer to hit .350 with more than 30 homers. 
In 1998 I became the media relations manager for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, during their inaugural season. Manager Larry Rothschild let me take batting practice at Yankee Stadium during the last road trip of the season, which is a thrill that I’ll never forget. Wade Boggs was leaning on the cage, which was a little intimidating. Big Frank Howard, the team’s bench coach, was pitching. I squared to bunt the first pitch like all the players had done. He pulled up mid-pitch and yelled, “Just swing the bat, son!”

Has your work routine been affected by the pandemic?
A: Like many authors, I have a day job — I am special projects coordinator in the office of the athletic director at Vanderbilt University — so finding the time to research and write is a challenge. Also, my wife and I have a daughter in fourth grade and a son in first grade, so our house is a circus, especially with all four of us at home doing work or virtual school. I sometimes work while my son sits on my head, which he loves to do.

More on Glenn Burke related to today’s world:

== Maraniss’ piece on Burke for TheUndefeated.com

== An enlightening post by MLB historian John Thorn for OurGame MLB blog about what “a level playing field” means, from 2014.
== Outsports.com remembers Burke on the 25th anniversary of his death in June, 2020

== Episode 262 of “The Hall of Very Good” podcast features Maraniss in a Dec., 2020 interview

== A 2015 piece from the Cooperstown (N.Y.) Crier on Erik Sherman speaking at the Baseball Hall of Fame in August of that year about his book
== Copies of Sherman’s original “Out At Home” remain in limited circulation
== “A High Five for Glenn Burke, A Baseball Pioneer,” by Pete Drier for BeyondChron.org
== “The wild, mysterious history of sports’ most enduring gesture: the high five” by Jon Mooallem for ESPN The Magazine in 2011
== An October, 1994 piece for the New York Times by Jennifer Frey headlined: “A Boy of Summer’s Long, Chilly Winter; Once a Promising Ballplayer, Glenn Burke is Dying of AIDS”
== An Aug., 1994 piece for the L.A. Times by Jerry Crowe titled “When Glory Has Soured: Former Dodger Glenn Burke Battles AIDS as He Struggles to Survive Life on the Streets” and in 2013, by Diane Pucin, an L.A. Times piece titled “Glenn Burke was idea Dodger teammate whose sexuality wasn’t an issue”

== Maraniss will have a conversation with David Zirin on Wednesday, March 3 at 4 p.m. (PDT) hosted by Politics And Prose bookstore in Washington D.C. More information here.

More new YA/Kids books about baseball

If we’re blessed to have YA titles lead us back into what baseball means and what could pull is back, all the better to spread the word as well about these:

== Two titles from James Buckley Jr.:  “The National Baseball Hall of Fame Collection: Celebrating the Game’s Greatest Players,” released in September, 2020, 192 pages, officially licensed by the Hall of Fame, updated through the 2020 elections, and “It’s a Numbers Game!” for National Geographic Kids (released Feb. 2), for reading age 8-12 years. Buckley has been at this young-adult genre for more than 25 years, with more than 20 titles, and these two target that market expertly.
== “Baseball’s Leading Lady: Effa Manley and the Rise and Fall of the Negro Leagues,” by Andrea Williams for Roaring Book Press (released Jan. 5), for reading age 10-14 years. A story about this book from the Chicago Sun-Times.
== “Baseball Card Adventures: The Complete Collection” (12 book set) by Dan Gutman for HarperCollins (released Sept. 15, 2020) for reading ages 8-12 years. $95.

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