Pioneering Gay Baseball Player Profiled in New Documentary

Photo: Out of the park. 'Out. The Glenn Burke Story' recounts the tale of the titular player, who tested the boundaries of MLB homophobia, but the film fails to tackle his life in depth.
Comcast Sportsnet Bay Area/Courtesy
Out of the park. 'Out. The Glenn Burke Story' recounts the tale of the titular player, who tested the boundaries of MLB homophobia, but the film fails to tackle his life in depth.

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Glenn Burke was well on his way to having a successful athletic career. In the 1970s, he wowed audiences at Berkeley High School with his agility on the basketball court. He matched his talent with an outrageous personality that, as many former teammates recall in the documentary "Out. The Glenn Burke Story," made him the life of the party. "He was built like a Greek god," one journalist recalls. "And he knew it." But Burke was also a gay man in a team-based culture that was - and largely still is - homophobic.

"Out," which was produced by Comcast SportsNet Bay Area, premiered at the Castro Theatre last Wednesday - an apt location, given that Burke settled in the Castro District after retiring early from baseball at age 27. Stylistically, the documentary is standard fare, crammed with many talking heads speaking their minds. At times it is frustratingly generic, to the point of coming across as lazy. Burke probably didn't abandon basketball for baseball simply because he was "drawn to the allure of the baseball diamond."

But what "Out" lacks in finesse, it makes up for as a platform for discussing sports teams' wariness of gay players. The film pointedly refers to a depressing statistic: Out of the 552 players who have played in Major League Baseball since Burke's retirement, not one has come out during his career. Although Burke's homosexuality wasn't a total secret, he didn't publicly come out till two years after he retired.

To be sure, these are important discussions to have. They do, however, come at the cost of gaining a clear picture of Glenn Burke himself. "Out" narrows in on Burke's career in Major League Baseball, but almost completely ignores his upbringing, and the way his family reacted to his being gay. Such important events in his life would probably help to account for his erratic behavior. Sometimes Burke was extremely engaging; at other times, he closed himself off and hid from others.

"Out" is more successful at exposing the pressure a gay person experiences in the locker room. Players were on the lookout for any behavior they deemed excessively feminine; Burke kept a red jockstrap in his locker and danced in the clubhouse. Dodgers management wanted to project a family-oriented image, and offered Burke a bonus if he got married. Instead, Burke began dating "Spunky," the young son of Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, which quite swiftly got him kicked off the team.

Things quickly went downhill for Burke. After an unpleasant stint with the A's, Burke settled in the Castro. Though he felt more free there, he became addicted to drugs. It got so bad that a friend saw his World Series Championship ring on sale at a local thrift shop. Burke was diagnosed with AIDS soon after posters, warning of a "gay cancer," began cropping up. In one of its more poignant sections, "Out" shows snapshots of Burke in his dying days, looking gaunt - a striking contrast to his athletic self 10 years earlier.

"Out" presents Burke's death in 1995 in an awkwardly upbeat light, noting that, "In losing his final battle, Glenn Burke won the prize he always wanted: the freedom to be himself. ... freedom without consequences, perhaps for the very first time." It's a bland, disingenuous comment, in part because it falsely proclaims that someone overcame extreme difficulties by dying. And in part because in the last 30-odd years, only one other MLB player - Billy Bean, who gives a revealing interview - has come out. Burke may have been comfortable with himself, but much more work needs to be done before gay players feel at home on sports teams.

Max Siegel is the lead film critic. Contact him at [email protected]

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