Last week, we had an excerpt of Singled Out, and I promised its author, Andrew Maraniss, would return. Now he’s back, and he’s joined by Phil Bildner, author of the Lambda finalist Middle Grade novel, A High Five for Glenn Burke! Since they’ve written an intro in addition to their conversation, I’m just gonna let them take it away!
Authors Phil Bildner and Andrew Maraniss have both written books for young readers involving Glenn Burke, the first openly gay Major League Baseball player and the inventor of the high five. Burke played for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Oakland A’s in the late 1970s but was driven from the game due to the homophobia of officials with both organizations. Bildner’s middle grade novel, A HIGH FIVE FOR GLENN BURKE, tells the story of a gay sixth grade boy who prepares a school presentation on Burke. Maraniss has written a biography of Burke for teens and adults, SINGLED OUT. Bildner and Maraniss spoke with each other for LGBTQ Reads about their shared interests in baseball, books, and Burke.
Andrew Maraniss: You’re a Mets fan. Why the Mets over the Yankees, and how do Mets fans perceive themselves and their team in contrast to the Yankees and their fans?
Phil Bildner: Well, my dad grew up in Flatbush and was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan. He used to tell me stories about Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, and Jackie Robinson and how he would go to Elsie Day Games at old Ebbets Field. So there was no way I was going to be a Yankees fan. The team from the Bronx was the evil empire. I grew up on Long Island and could drive to Shea Stadium or take the Long Island Railroad to Woodside and change to the 7 Train to Flushing. I still remember my very first Mets game, Saturday afternoon April 20, 1974. We sat in the mezzanine, and the Mets won 5-2. Jerry Koosman tossed a complete game five-hitter.
PB: So you’re a Brewers fan from way, way back in the day. I’m old enough to remember the Harvey’s Wallbangers teams from the early 80s. I used to love Cecil Cooper because having 1980 Cecil Cooper on your Strat-O-Matic baseball team was like having a cheat code in your line-up. Who were your favorite players from those teams?
AM: I was born in Madison, Wisconsin, but we moved to the East Coast when I was four. My grandparents were still in Madison and Milwaukee, however, and they made sure I grew up a Brewers fan. We lived in Washington, D.C. when I was in first grade through ninth grade, and every time the Brewers came to Baltimore to play the Orioles, my Dad and I would go see the Brew Crew. I think it shaped my character being a fan of the road team, going against the grain and being happy when everyone else was sad, sad when 30,000 people were cheering. In 1981, we took the train up to New York to see the Brewers play the Yankees in the playoffs. I was 11 and it was my first trip to New York. Yankee fans were burning Brewers caps in the row behind us. It was an eye-opening experience. My favorite players back then were Paul Molitor and Robin Yount, but I loved all those guys — Cooper, Gorman Thomas, Ben Oglivie, Pete Vuckovich. My Twitter handle @trublu24 is a nod to the True Blue Brew Crew and Oglivie, who wore #24.
AM: When did you first learn of Glenn Burke’s story?
PB: Baseball cards! I started collecting Topps baseball cards in kindergarten, and of course, I had to have the complete sets. Each season, I knew every player on every team and even memorized many of their year-to-year statistics. That’s when I first learned about Glenn Burke. But I didn’t know about Glenn Burke. That didn’t happen until I was a teenager — when Inside Sports, a magazine I subscribed to published, The Double Life Of a Gay Dodger.
My origin story for A High Five for Glenn Burke is pretty cool. The first seeds were planted back in 2014 when I watched “High Five,” a short film that was part of ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentary series. I remember watching and thinking there’s a picture book in here somewhere, but I was working on a middle grade series at the time and didn’t have the bandwidth for a deep dive.
A few years later I did and wrote that picture book biography, but my editor, Wes Adams didn’t see it as a picture book. That’s exactly what he told me, “I don’t see it.” He didn’t think it was the right way to explore Glenn’s story. Wes was the one who suggested we try to weave Glenn Burke’s story into a contemporary realistic fiction middle grade novel. As soon as he said it, I was all in!
PB: And you? When did you first learn about Glenn Burke? What prompted you to write a biography for teens about him?
AM: Very similar stories involving conversations and baseball cards. My first book, Strong Inside, is a biography of Perry Wallace, the first Black basketball player in the SEC. My second, Games of Deception, is the story of the first U.S. men’s Olympic basketball team at the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany. As soon as I submitted Games of Deception to my editor, I started thinking about another narrative nonfiction story combining sports and social justice. I was speaking with my agent, Alec Shane, about various ideas and he mentioned that there had never been a biography of Glenn Burke. As soon as he said that, my mind flashed to Glenn’s 1978 Topps baseball card, where he’s swinging a bat in the Dodger road gray uniform. I’m grateful to Alec for suggesting Glenn as the subject of a biography. It was a no-brainer — a chance to write about my favorite sport, a tremendously interesting person and the gay rights movement of the 70s.
PB: What’s your connection to sports? Did you play ball as a kid? Were you a fan of teams other than the Brew Crew? Did you read sports books?
AM: Baseball was my favorite sport growing up. I played through high school in Austin, Texas, and if I hadn’t received a full-tuition sportswriting scholarship to Vanderbilt, I would have gone to school and played ball at Macalester College in Minnesota. They didn’t offer any scholarships but they did play once a year at the Metrodome, which was a ridiculous reason to be interested in a college. But what can I say?! As far as other teams, I’ve always been a big Green Bay Packers fan. My favorite college basketball team as a kid was Georgetown. We had season tickets in the Patrick Ewing era. I loved collecting baseball cards, and those same grandparents who brainwashed me into being a Brewers fan subscribed me to newsletters such as What’s Brewing and Packer Report. I ended up working in sports after college, first as the Sports Information Director for the Vanderbilt men’s basketball team and then as media relations manager for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays during their inaugural season of 1998. I was with a public relations firm in Nashville for nearly 20 years after that. Writing sports-related books has been a bit of a return to what I loved as a younger person. I also now manage the Sports & Society Initiative at Vanderbilt.
AM: How about you?
PB: As a kid, I played baseball, basketball, soccer, and tennis. I started playing little league baseball in second grade, basketball in third, and soccer in fourth.
I was a huge sports fan, too. Of course, I loved the Mets. I was also a Knicks fan — had season tickets in Section 324 of Madison Square Garden and went to all the Reggie Miller and Michael Jordan games and was even there for the OJ game against the Rockets during the NBA Finals in 1994. And I was an Islanders fan – they used to practice at a rink that was biking distance from my house. But I didn’t read many sports books. I read the newspaper, the sports section. That’s how I was able to keep track of my teams.
AM: When it comes to openly gay athletes in sports, we’ve seen many more high-profile women than men here in the U.S. Glenn Burke said on his deathbed that he hoped his experience would make it easier for gay ballplayers in the future. Obviously, there are many reasons why anyone, athlete or not, may or may not choose to come out at any particular time, but are you surprised there aren’t more out gay men in American sports? What would it mean to gay kids to see a pro baseball, basketball or football star in the prime of their career come out today?
PB: It would literally and figuratively be a game changer and have immeasurable value to queer kids.
But am I surprised there aren’t more out gay men in American sports? Unfortunately, no. While we’ve made tremendous strides towards acceptance in recent years, we now live in an era where a disturbingly large segment of our society proudly flaunts their hate and inhumanity. It’s become their brand like the alligator on their shirt or the Swoosh on their sneakers. So it’s understandable, sadly, why a gay male athlete in the prime of his career wouldn’t want to add fighting off fascists to his plate.
PB: What about you? Are you surprised there aren’t any openly gay professional baseball, basketball, or football players?
AM: When I interviewed Billy Bean, the gay vice president at Major League Baseball, he talked about how short the typical pro sports career is, how brief a window to make a life-changing amount of money. A closeted athlete has to make a calculation of whether it’s worth it to risk all that by coming out, not knowing what the reaction will be from teammates, coaches, team management and ownership, fans and the media. As you said, this is one of so many areas of American life where we see polarization between truth and lies. One thing I tried to do in Singled Out is to show the absurdity of the standard arguments against the viability of an out player. They’ll say it would be a “distraction,” as if teams don’t welcome distractions all the time. When Glenn Burke was with the Dodgers, manager Tommy Lasorda was literally inviting actors, comedians, and singers into the team’s clubhouse minutes before games. When Burke was with the A’s, the owner, Charlie Finley, was calling his manager in the middle of games to suggest changes in strategy and had a teenaged MC Hammer serving as his vice president. People say a gay player would be unpopular with teammates. Glenn Burke was the most popular player on the Dodgers. His teammates cried when was traded to the A’s. It was the straight player with the All-American image, Steve Garvey, who was disliked by many of his teammates. I think that while an out male player would be unpopular with many fans, he’d be wildly popular with others, and probably would have the best-selling jersey in the game pretty quickly.
PB: One of the things I loved most about Singled Out was that it was so much more than a biography. It captured a moment in time. As an example, I love how you wove Disco Demolition Night into the narrative. Can you explain what that was and why you decided to include it in the book?
AM: That was a fun chapter to write! On July 12, 1979, the Chicago White Sox encouraged fans to bring disco records to the stadium so they could be placed in a big pile on the field and blown up between games of a doubleheader against the Tigers. Fifty thousand people showed up, twice as many as the team expected, and the night turned chaotic, with fans throwing records on the field like frisbees during the first game, running onto the field and ripping up handfuls of grass. Glenn Burke had nothing to do with this game in a literal sense, but I felt like this event, which has been characterized as representing the symbolic end of the disco era, illustrated a cultural backlash to some of the gains made by gay, Black and Latino people in the 1970s — all of whom had played such a big part in the rise of disco. So, when thousands of mostly white fans showed up chanting “disco sucks,” it was all part of the same backlash that fueled the anti-gay rights rhetoric of Anita Bryant and inspired the fans who taunted Glenn Burke. When the 1979 season began, Glenn was a starting center fielder in the major leagues. By June, he was driven from the game. In July ‘79, the top six albums on the pop charts were all disco. By late September, there were none in the top 10.
PB: Another thing I loved about your book was how you created context for the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. Obviously, when you first sat down to write Singled Out, you didn’t know it would be published while we were living through another global pandemic Do you think the fact that we are helps young readers to better understand what it was like during that time?
AM: In some ways, yes, I think the experience of having lived through COVID will help young people better understand what it might have felt like in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, particularly the initial uncertainty and confusion about what causes the virus and how to prevent its spread. There is also the parallel of a Republican administration not taking the virus seriously — even mocking it — and treating the lost lives as unimportant because of who was most at risk — gay men with AIDS and Black and brown Americans with COVID.
PB: My book came out last winter at the start of the pandemic, and there’s a cruel irony in publishing a book celebrating the high five at the very moment in which we were being urged to physically distance ourselves from one another.
AM: What have been some of the most meaningful reactions to the book from middle schoolers, teachers and librarians?
PB: There have been so many, but by far the most meaningful ones have been from elementary and middle school readers who’ve taken the time to let me know they saw themselves or their experiences in Silas, the main character in the book. In a lot of ways, I wrote A High Five for Glenn Burke for middle school me. It’s the book I wish I had when I was twelve. Unlike Silas, I didn’t have the internet. I didn’t have his access to information, language, words, and ideas. All I knew is that as much as I loved playing ball, kids like me didn’t. I didn’t know queer kids played sports. I didn’t know queer kids could play sports. A book like this would’ve given middle school me hope. Visibility matters. Representation matters. Our truths matter.
For more information on Phil Bildner and his books, visit philbildner.com and follow him on Twitter @philbildner.
For more information on Andrew Maraniss and his books, visit andrewmaraniss.com and follow him on Twitter @trublu24.
Andrew Maraniss is a New York Times-bestselling author of narrative nonfiction. His latest book, SINGLED OUT, is a biography of Glenn Burke, the first openly gay Major League Baseball player.
His first book, STRONG INSIDE, was the recipient of the 2015 Lillian Smith Book Award and the lone Special Recognition honor at the 2015 RFK Book Awards. The Young Reader edition was named one of the Top 10 Biographies and Top 10 Sports Books of 2017 by the American Library Association and was selected as a Notable Social Studies Book for 2019 by the National Council for the Social Studies.
His second book, GAMES OF DECEPTION, is the story of the first U.S. Olympic basketball team, which competed at the 1936 Summer Games in Nazi Germany. It received the 2020 Sydney Taylor Honor Award and was named one of Amazon’s Best Books of 2019. Both the National Council for the Social Studies and the American Library Association honored it as a Notable Book of 2019.
Andrew is a Visiting Author at Vanderbilt University Athletics and a contributor to ESPN’s TheUndefeated.com.
Andrew was born in Madison, Wis., grew up in Washington, D.C. and Austin, Texas and now lives in Brentwood, Tenn., with his wife Alison, and their two young children. Follow Andrew on Twitter @trublu24 and visit his website at andrewmaraniss.com.