Tag Archives: Baseball

Authors in Conversation: Andrew Maraniss and Phil Bildner

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. 

Phil Bildner is the New York Times–bestselling author of numerous books for kids. His latest is the 2021 Charlotte Huck Award Honor-winning A High Five for Glenn Burke. His many picture books include the Margaret Wise Brown Prize winning Marvelous Cornelius, the Texas Bluebonnet Award winning Shoeless Joe & Black Betsy, Martina & Chrissie, Twenty-One Elephants, and The Soccer Fence. He is also the author of A Whole New Ballgame, Rookie of the Year, Tournament of Champions, and Most Valuable Players in the critically acclaimed middle grade Rip & Red series. In 2017, Phil established The Author Village, a children’s book author booking business.

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.

Excerpt: Singled Out: The True Story of Glenn Burke by Andrew Maraniss

Today on the site, we welcome New York Times-bestselling author Andrew Maraniss, author of the newly released Singled Out: The True Story of Glenn Burke, published by Philomel Books, to share an excerpt! Here’s some more info on the book:

On October 2nd, 1977, Glenn Burke, outfielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers, made history without even swinging a bat. When his teammate Dusty Baker hit a historic home run, Glenn enthusiastically congratulated him with the first ever high five.

But Glenn also made history in another way–he was the first openly gay MLB player. While he did not come out publicly until after his playing days were over, Glenn’s sexuality was known to his teammates, family, and friends. His MLB career would be cut short after only three years, but his legacy and impact on the athletic and LGBTQIA+ community would resonate for years to come.

New York Times bestselling author Andrew Maraniss tells the story of Glenn Burke: from his childhood growing up in Oakland, his journey to the MLB and the World Series, the joy in discovering who he really was, to more difficult times: facing injury, addiction, and the AIDS epidemic.

Packed with black-and-white photographs and thoroughly researched, never-before-seen details about Glenn’s life, Singled Out is the fascinating story of a trailblazer in sports–and the history and culture that shaped the world around him.

Buy it: Amazon | B&N | IndieBound

(Blogger’s Note: if you, like me, first heard of Glenn Burke thanks to Phil Bildner’s excellent MG novel, A High Five for Glenn Burke, stay tuned for that to take on some more relevance on the site in April.)

And now, here’s an excerpt!

***

In 1975, The Advocate magazine ran national advertisements in main­stream publications showing straight readers that gay people were a part of their lives even if they didn’t realize it. Depicting a group of ordinary-looking men and women standing side by side, the ad was simple but provocative for the time: “Meet the chairman of the board, your clergyman, the mechanic, your favorite actress and maybe your son or daughter. They all live in a closet.”

Even The Advocate, a gay magazine founded in 1967, didn’t go so far as to suggest that someone’s favorite Major League ballplayer might be gay.

Which is not to say the thought hadn’t crossed the editors’ minds. A year earlier, the magazine had mailed letters to Major League teams requesting interviews with players “living a gay lifestyle.” The request was meant to jolt the baseball establishment into acknowledging that there were indeed gay men playing the game. Editors were stunned by the hostility of the few replies they received, especially one from long­time Minnesota Twins public relations director Tom Mee.

“The cop-out, immoral lifestyle of the tragic misfits espoused by your publication,” Mee wrote, “has no place in organized athletics at any level. Your colossal gall in attempting to extend your perversion to an area of total manhood is just simply unthinkable.”

Mee’s rant was featured in a landmark 1975 series of articles, “Homosexuals in Sports” by Lynn Rosellini of the Washington Star. “Mee is not the only one who loathes any suggestion of homosexuality in sports,” she wrote. “For hundreds like him in the image-conscious athletic establishment, homosexuality remains a fearsome, hateful aberration.”

This was the context in which Glenn Burke returned to the Dodgers’ Class AA team in Waterbury, Conn. for the 1975 season. All that separated him from the major leagues was the Dodgers’ Triple-A team in Albuquerque. But while his teammates understood that it was their ability to hit the curve­ball or to throw strikes consistently that would determine their fates, Glenn Burke knew that as a closeted gay man, his challenges extended well beyond the basepaths. In the spring and summer of 1975, he’d be a gay man in baseball, living a double life, keeping a secret from the profession that provided a livelihood while at the same time discover­ing a new world where he could be himself, fully and without shame.

As a twenty-two-year-old big fish in a small, decaying town, this would not be easy.

Waterbury had a long baseball history, with more than a dozen Minor League teams—the Spuds, the Authors, the Invincibles—entertaining fans there dating back to the late 1800s. But the stadium where Burke and the Dodgers played was a joke. Some ballpark quirks add character: the towering Green Monster at Fenway, the ivy-covered walls at Wrigley, the fountains in Kansas City. But the unusual feature in Waterbury added nothing but danger. A running track extended through foul ter­ritory along the first base line before cutting across the outfield grass behind second base and shortstop. The fact that a track dissected the field was bad enough; what made it worse were the elevated curbs on either side of the running lanes, posing a threat to ground balls and infielders alike.

Dodger farmhands considered Waterbury cold, wet, and boring; for John Snider and his wife, Jane, fun consisted of driving out into the country to admire old rock walls. In this environment, whatever enjoyment was to be had came when the players hung out together at the apartments they shared, in the clubhouse, or at bars. And while Burke remained the most outgoing player in the clubhouse, keeping everyone loose with his jokes and music, he began to carefully remove himself from social situations with his teammates, and instead sought clandestine relationships with gay men in town. Most important, and most confusing to his teammates, he decided not to share a house with any of them in ’75, renting a small room at the Waterbury YMCA.

Three years before the Village People released their hit song extol­ling the virtues of gay life at the Y (“They have everything for young men to enjoy / You can hang out with all the boys”), Burke was already onto the notion. When his friends on the team questioned the decision, Burke told them he loved to play basketball, and living at the Y allowed him to shoot hoops every morning before he went to the ballpark.

His teammates thought this was odd, but Burke was a different kind of dude, so they didn’t make too much of it. But one day, Marvin Webb came to the Y to play basketball with Glenn. After they shot around for a while, Burke invited him to check out his room. Webb was surprised by how small it was, maybe six feet across and twelve feet deep, and dumbfounded when Burke introduced him to an out-of-town guest, his lover from California.

Webb looked around the room and saw just one small cot. “Where,” Webb asked, “is he going to stay?”

Glenn didn’t respond, but the answer was obvious.

An unspoken drama was unfolding in this small room at the Waterbury Y, at once simple and profound. Burke was in love and wanted to share this most basic of human emotions with his buddy, Webb. But disclosing his sexuality to his teammate required enormous courage. If Webb reacted with hostility or even whispered nonjudgmen­tally in the clubhouse, Burke’s career could be over. And though Webb walked out of the YMCA uncertain about how he felt about the revela­tion, within days he affirmed Burke’s trust, telling Burke not to worry; they’d always be friends.

When Burke’s partner returned home to the Bay Area, Glenn ven­tured into nearby New Haven, home of Yale University. There, he met a white professor, a man who was fully his type—older and scholarly. Burke and the professor established a routine, with Glenn riding a bus twenty-three miles every morning so they could meet for a leisurely lunch on the fabled New Haven Green, an expansive and historic down­town park.

At night after home games, Burke made up various excuses when his teammates invited him out to chase women, sometimes having one quick drink and leaving, other times saying he needed to get back to the Y for a late game of basketball. Instead, he’d go to the town’s gay bar, the Road House Café, always looking over his shoulder to be sure no one saw him walking in. But one night, Burke walked out of the bar just as a member of the team’s administrative staff walked in. Neither man said a word, but Burke gave him a knowing look, as if to say, Neither one of us will speak a word about this. And neither did.

The encounter caused Burke to think more seriously about the implications of being found out by other members of the baseball establishment. The best protection from his bosses’ likely homophobia, Burke decided, was his performance on the field. “I’m just going to have to hit .300 and lead the league in steals,” he concluded. “Then nobody can say shit to me.”

Burke fell short on batting average, hitting .270 in 1975, but he slugged a career-high 12 homers and set an Eastern League record with 48 stolen bases.

At season’s end, Burke couldn’t wait to get back to San Francisco, where he could surround himself with other gay men and not have to put on an act every day. Ever since his appearance on The King Norman Show as a kid, he had enjoyed the spotlight and relished being the center of attention in any gathering of people. But increasingly, he found it dif­ficult to reconcile his sexuality with the hetero culture of professional baseball. No longer did he want to provide the spark at his teammates’ gatherings. Now, he told a friend, he wanted to “leave his teammates behind and slip away to his own party.” Fortunately for him, in the mid-seventies Black people and gay men were changing the way Americans partied in an exhilarating new way.

Disco Fever was spreading, and Glenn Burke caught it.

Buy it: Amazon | B&N | IndieBound

Excerpted from SINGLED OUT: The True Story of Glenn Burke by Andrew Maraniss. © 2021. Follow Andrew on Twitter @trublu24 and learn more about the book at andrewmaraniss.com.

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.