Glenn Burke’s Potential Still Haunts Mike Norris

Glenn Burke was one of Mike Norris' best friends on the A's. (photo courtesy of The Baseball Reliquary)

Glenn Burke was one of Mike Norris’ best friends on the A’s. (photo courtesy of The Baseball Reliquary)

“They said Glenn Burke weighed 100 pounds when he died,” he says, his eyes narrowing on the floor.

“Oh Burkey. I tell you. It’s a sad, sad story. He was just ostracized, you know? I was the only one he could hang with. It was probably the only comfort or enjoyment he had, as far as being with his team.”

He pauses for a moment.

“From greatness to just…that’s the epitome of both ends of the spectrum.”

Shifting his gaze toward me, he asks:

“Why did I get to play with Glenn Burke? Why was he one of my best friends on the team?”

He shakes his head, then says,

Why me?

The sun is setting in Oakland, and the shadows in Mike Norris’ third floor apartment are stretching out on the beige carpeting. It’s a Thursday, and both of us are sitting here, as we’ve been most weeks for the past six months, talking about baseball. (I’ve written about some of those conversations here and here.) About what it feels like to pitch a 14-inning complete game. About breaking a calcium deposit off of a pitching elbow mid-inning. About memories of a gay ballplayer, Glenn Burke.

We often speak about Mike’s big question:

Why him? Why did Mike Norris come along during the time of some of the most pressing issues in baseball, and get to play alongside names like Henderson, Fingers, La Russa and Burke?

If you believe in a certain randomness in the universe, the answer is luck, or, if you’re a godly person, the answer is fate. Mike’s views trend toward the latter, and he believes that he was given certain gifts and experiences to use for good. After an up and down career — highlighted by the cruel duality of almost winning the Cy Young Award and being out of baseball four years later — the use of those gifts has now taken on a different tack.

Facing a degenerative nerve disorder that makes it difficult for him to walk, Mike is being tested; by the universe, by God, by society, or all three. He even goes so far as to say that this is his punishment for wasting his youth and talent on drugs and diversion. His focus now, if asked about it, is helping the at-risk youth of Oakland. For that reason and many others, Mike and I often find ourselves discussing issues of inequality and discrimination. Inevitably, those issues feed back into baseball, and topics like Glenn Burke.

“Being gay was just what Glenn did. That was just his thing. And who’s to judge him for it?”

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

He pauses for a sip of tea.

“He could make everything look easy on the field. Very nonchalant. He ran effortlessly. Didn’t look like he exerted himself when he was out there. I actually played basketball against him at Berkeley High — it was a nightmare. You would get on him, and he’d go by you; you’d step off him, and he’d shoot the jumper.”

I ask him if he kept in touch with Burke after he left the A’s.

Billy Martin got rid of his ass real quick. He didn’t even make the team in 1980. The last time I saw him was in the late ’80s, when I was driving down Castro Street in San Francisco. I’m coming down the hill from Twin Peaks, and who do I see? He (Burke) had overalls on and not a stitch underneath. I asked him, ‘what have you been doing!’ He looked into the car, and said, ‘Look at me, I’m six-foot-two, 190 pounds, and still slammin’!’ He was on the softball team in the Castro (district). He could still play.”

Mike’s stories of Burke all have a common theme: a distant camaraderie. They highlight the silent struggles of a gay ballplayer in a system not ready to accept him. First out of the showers and clubhouse after a game, Burke would later find his only friend on the team in Mike.

“I would always get to my room first after a game, and Glenn would go upstairs, and he would get his boombox. He loved his music — George Clinton, Funkadelic. We’d smoke a joint, and then my girl would usually call — the phone would ring — to let me know she’s on the way, and he’d know that. And I’d be on the phone, and I’d turn around and hear the sound of the door closing. Like clockwork. He would get high, and he would have his boyfriends in town, and we wouldn’t see Glenn until the next day at the ballpark.”

Mike reclines in his chair and searches for one particular story. He finds it:

“One night, two girls are in to my hotel room. Glenn knocks on the door, and he comes in, and he stops when he sees them; he can’t just turn around and walk back out. I said, ‘Hey Burkey! Come sit down, have a seat, let me introduce you to my friends.’ And I introduced him, and he spoke to them for a minute, and then he pulled out his music,” he says.

He starts laughing.

“I don’t even think the whole song finished before he goes, ‘oh I forgot! I gotta go call my momma, I’ll be back!’ And I said, ‘Burkey, I’m not gonna hold my breath, I’ll see you tomorrow.’”

The stories Mike tells of Burke are, at once, heartwarming and sad; there is an uneasy juxtaposition between hearing about the person Glenn Burke was — funny, warm, and preternaturally athletic — and the disconnect he must have felt from his team and sport on a daily basis. An outfielder newly traded from Los Angeles in 1978 (by many accounts because of his sexual orientation, and his relationship with Tommy Lasorda’s gay son), Burke struggled through a year and a half with the A’s. Coming into spring training in 1980, he had almost no chance to make the A’s major league team under new manager Billy Martin.

“Billy came in 1980, and he couldn’t put up with that (Burke’s homosexuality). Billy had my former roommate in A-ball (Derek Bryant) sent home from spring training. Derek spent eight years in the minor leagues, and he finally gets a shot in ’80 to come to spring training. He’s playing out in left field, and Billy looks out there, and he says, ‘Get that m—–f—— homosexual out of there.’ He comes out of the game, and it’s the wrong guy. He thought Bryant was Burke, and it ruined Derek’s career. Sent him out of camp, and he never came back to the big leagues.”

By this account, Burke’s knee injury early in spring training of 1980, along with his falling production, gave Martin the excuse he needed to send Burke to the minors full-time once the injury healed. After just 25 games in Ogden, Utah at the start of the 1980 season, Burke was done with baseball. Derek Bryant batted .342 and .303 in 1980 and 1981 in Triple A, but he never did get another call to the big leagues.

All of this, of course, leads to a conversation Mike and I have had countless times: is baseball now ready for an openly gay player, after what Burke went through?

With LGBTQ issues trending in a distinct direction nationwide, most major league teams have hosted Pride Nights, including Mike’s hometown Oakland A’s a few weeks ago. At surface level, baseball teams have trended in the same direction as their respective communities with respect to LGBT issues: this isn’t surprising, as Pride Nights are usually the culmination of work between a team and a local independent group.

There is a notable difference between most Pride events and other themed/heritage nights at ballparks, however. Most Pride nights are treated like a group ticket sale event and not a team-led initiative, leaving most of the organization of the actual night to the outside independent group instead of the team. There are exceptions, such as in the case of the San Francisco Giants, but for the most part this is not a case of teams even coming up with the idea for the event; an outside group approaches a franchise, and the process moves forward from there — the way a corporation that was interested in bulk tickets would be treated.

In the case of those teams for which I couldn’t find any evidence of previous Pride nights or other LGBTQ outreach, I called each front office individually to verify no such event had occurred. In almost all cases, I was routed through multiple individuals, and finally to a marketing or media relations point of contact. One team said it was actively discussing the possibility of a Pride night. Another said the team would like to hold such an event, but was certain season ticket holders simply would not accept it. Most calls went to voicemail, with no return call to messages.

This brings us to the final question of whether baseball is ready internally for a gay player. In an oft-cited ESPN the Magazine survey from March of 2014 — which canvassed about 20 percent of major league players — 81 percent said baseball was ready for a gay player. Whether that figure represents the sort of atmosphere conducive to a player being comfortable coming out is another story. The situation, as it has been in other sports, seems to be one in which a singular player is going to have to break the ice, shouldering the full brunt of the media reaction and testing the waters of clubhouse dynamics.

Glenn Burke tried, as much as he could, to be that pioneer. Baseball and society weren’t ready for him, and in the end he was more or less driven from baseball because of it. His story is made all the more sad to the baseball community because of his immense promise as an athlete, but his experience in the margins of society as a LGBTQ person of color is not unique.

Burke didn’t help his own image after he left baseball, engaging in a spiraling drug habit in the years after he left the Athletics. While walking in San Francisco during 1987, a car hit him, severely injuring his leg and precipitating a downward spiral from which he never fully recovered. His body sapped of its former athleticism, he turned increasingly toward drugs, and his relationships failed as his problems escalated. He spent multiple stints in jail, growing sicker with AIDS, until he found himself homeless and dying on the streets of the Castro district in the early 1990s.

Mike didn’t witness this final turn for Burke, last encountering him on the streets of San Francisco many years before his death. There is a beauty in that just as there is a sadness, a memory colored by what was and not what culminated. His legacy is framed similarly, as a story of what could have been, not what actually was: that framing is a failure to Burke and his community.

On top of a wooded hill, just at the end of a street lined with single-story cafes and shops, is Mountain View Cemetery. Looking west from its elevated upper reaches, the city of Oakland unfolds onto San Francisco Bay, and on clear days, the bright peak of the TransAmerica building can be seen above its famous city. It’s here, just a 15-minute walk from Mike’s neighborhood, that Glenn Burke lies.

It’s the afternoon of a brilliantly sunny Friday when I visit his grave. By simple coincidence, it is also the day of the Supreme Court ruling in favor of gay marriage. Nearly 20 years have passed since Burke died at 42 from AIDS-related complications, and it’s been almost 30 since he was homeless on the streets of San Francisco, an afterthought in the minds of the professional baseball community.

I leave the car on the road, and walk slowly between the neatly-kept plots on a small hill above the crypts and tombs of the original families of Oakland. With so many graves, it takes me some time to find him; I make my way from row to row, my only companion the faraway sounds of children playing at a nearby school. When I do find him, his headstone is an unassuming yet strong small piece of black granite, sunk into the tidy grass.

About a hundred feet away toward the road, an American flag flies atop a flagpole that looks out over the Oakland hills. I imagine how Glenn Burke would’ve felt about the events of this particular day. Would he be proud of how far we’ve come? Would he remind us of how far we still have to go?

Later, sitting in the car, I think about the stories Mike has told me about Burke: the jokes, the nights on the road listening to Funkadelic, the turn of a head to hear the sound of a door closing — like clockwork. I look over to the hillside with Burke’s grave, remembering Mike’s words from the week before as the last light died in his apartment.

“I wish you could have met him,” he said to me.

“The guy was special.”

Owen Watson writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @ohwatson.
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Michael Caragliano
7 years ago

ESPN’s 30 for 30 series had a great short film about Burke, about ten minutes long, a little while back. The first third or so of the film dealt with his outgoing personality on the ’77 Dodgers, and how he was the one who started high-fiving players after a home run. Dusty Baker popped throughout the film about how Burke was the one who made it commonplace, and, IIRC, didn’t take too kindly to how Burke was ostracized by the Dodgers when they traded him to Oakland in ’78.

Michael Caragliano
7 years ago

ESPN’s 30 for 20 short film series had a short film a little while ago, about ten minutes, about Burke, and spent the first third of the film or so about how he brought the high-five to MLB after a player would hit a home run. Dusty Baker popped up throughout the film and, IIRC, didn’t like how the Dodgers ostracized Burke when he was traded to the A’s.

87 Cards
7 years ago

I am inclined to agree with Norris about Billy Martin’s politics and also that Burke and Bryant got bad deals. Growing up in Pacific Coast League country in the 1970s, I watched Burke score a lot of runs of for the ’76 Albuquerque team and Bryant hit over .300 three times for the A’s AAA teams in Vancouver and Ogden, Utah.

My acknowledgement of misanthropy and appreciation of Burke and Bryant done, I have to side with A’s management on cutting them loose.
1.The Oakland outfield started to crowd in 1979.
Rickey Henderson, Dwayne Murphy and Tony Armas raised the A’s outfield from worst WAR ( -11) in ’79 to the best WAR +14) in ’80.
2. At DH, Mitchell Page et. al. raised the DH WAR from -2.7 (last in AL) to -1 (9th in AL).
3. The A’s improved 17.9% in winning percentage (+29 wins) in that span; rose up from last in the AL West to 2nd in ’80 then 1st & 2nd in the split season of ’81 (overall the winning-est AL team in ’81). The ’79 to ’80 improvement is the 12th best team percentage improvement in MLB history.

I acknowledge the change of ownership from Charlie Finley to Haas family in August ’80, the brilliant but overused 1980 A’s starting pitchers and the short-term gains of Billy Martin led teams were in the push from the cellar to the top. Still, I do not see room for 27-year outfielders like Bryant and Burke pulling the oar better than the younger Henderson, Murphy and Armas or swing the designated club better than Page.

During Burke’s time in Dodger system, LA kept trading for the likes of Rick Monday, Dusty Baker, Joe Ferguson and Reggie Smith for their OF needs; they kept Joe Simpson in Albuquerque for four seasons averaging .311.

Burke was a good-player with major-league ability; he was trapped in the talented outfields. Had he been a year or two older and was promoted to LA in ’75 or ’76, he might have been exposed to the Seattle/Toronto expansion draft in ’76 and got his legit shot. The power of the conditional “if’ is maddening.

Rob Harris
7 years ago

Thanks for the piece. Glenn Burke gave us all the high-five, which is a pretty remarkable legacy, when you think about it. I told the story here:

7 years ago

I’m sure the interview was conducted earlier in the year, but May 30 was the 20th anniversary of Glenn Burke’s passing. RIP to an incredible athletic and social pioneer.

jerry pritikin aka The Bleacher Preacher
7 years ago

Thanks for this story, I first met Glenn going back to when he was with the Dodgers. I was a reporter/ photographer for a S.F. gay newspaper, and they asked me to take some photos of a practice of an all-gay basketball team. It was during the off-season and they were going to play a charity game against a team made up of S.F. Firemen. Glenn asked me not to photograph him, and I respected his wishes and we became friends. No doubt about it, he was extremely vivacious.

After his playing days were over in MLB, he became a fixture in the Castro district, usually sitting on a parked car near 18th & Castro, giving hi-5s to passer byes. In 1981, I got to play against Glenn in a Play-Off game in the Gay Softball League. I was a pitcher and my claim to fame was striking Glenn out on a knuckle ball that danced in the bay winds.

A few years later, Glenn was hurt in an auto accident, and he became addicted to pain killer… to start. He then got hooked on hard drugs and began hanging around with the wrong group. Sadly, his life went down hill and that is when he got AIDS. I attended his funeral in Oakland in 1995. Towards the end… the A’s did help him.

There is a fine documentary called “OUT- The Glenn Burke Story”. I had a brief cameo as well as some of his former teammates. I recommend it to all jocks,gay or straight.

Painfully Obvious
7 years ago

I recall either SI or the defunct Sport magazine doing a cover story called “The Gay Dodger”. Burke bragged in that article that he could whip anyone on the team if they dared to confront him about his orientation.

Everyone would do well to note the improvement of Oakland’s in the WAR of outfield sans Burke..he didn’t make it as a starter at least in part because of the depth of the talent pool. He was a terrific athlete, but not everything that didn’t go his way was caused by his orientation. Let’s keep it at least a little bit real. If he was Aaron or Mays–one of the MLB teams would have rostered him.

In baseball you’re at close quarters with your team mates for 6-7 months pretty much every day. Not so in other major sports. If 90-95% of people are oriented one way and 5-10% are another–guess what? There will be sides chosen…if Glen Burke came back today, there would still be a boat load of discomfort in the locker room. MLB is still “not ready” for Mr. Burke.

Painfully Obvious
7 years ago

Posted w/o proof reading–sorry–it’s Glenn not Glen. I apologize to the late Mr Burke for that. And–was trying to say note the improvement of the WAR in Oakland’s OF as posted in a comment above mine.

And to clarify–if a Mays or Aaron talent came along–they would be rostered, but the awkwardness would not be much different than back in the late 70’s–just less overt. Even Obama found that out in his triumphant return to Kenya when they more or less told. him to keep his LGBT opinions to himself. If those statements make me un enlightened–well–ok.