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.
(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.
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.