Burke Looks Beyond The Bitterness

GLENN BURKE, a former player for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Oakland A's, is gay. He's also dying of AIDS. Bedridden and dependent on the charity of others, Burke says he has no regrets. `I had a nice life. I can't complain.' -----------------------------------------------------------------

OAKLAND, Calif. - Glenn Burke had been talking an hour, the conversation drifting from AIDS to homosexuality to baseball. He began to doze in his bed, worn out by disease and drugs, not sure which was worse.

Suddenly, he opened his eyes, made an effort to smile for the camera, and raised two fingers in a peace sign.

"I had a nice life," he said. "I can't complain. I don't have no regrets. Maybe one. I'd have played basketball. Would've made it, too."

Peace comes at a steep price for Burke, once an outfielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Oakland Athletics, a starter in a 1977 World Series game, the man who invented the high-five that season, "stuff they can never take away."

He had the whispered voice of a dying man, purple Kaposi's sarcoma lesions on grotesquely swollen feet burning into his body, "worse than a sharp pain . . . it's a killing pain."

He had been thinking about suicide lately, not much caring whether he reached 42 on Nov. 16. "I'm ready," he said. "I'm ready. I'd rather go than to go through this pain much longer." He still snorted cocaine, he said, still did the drug that sent him to San Quentin prison a few years ago, that reduced him to panhandling and wandering the streets of San Francisco, mooching off friends, turning them against him when he couldn't pay them back.

He figured it didn't matter about the coke now, he'd been doing it so long. It got him high and helped deaden the pain a little along with the pharmacy of prescription pills and potions on the night table in the small room of his sister Lutha's house.

"I'm gonna die anyway," he said. "I'm gonna do what I want to do."

He lay curled on the bed without a blanket, autumn sunlight slanting through a window in the hot room. The only strength he seemed to have left was in his arms and his bearded face, hollowed but still handsome.

His feet were lumpy and useless, riddled with tumors, and he had to drag himself on aluminum crutches to get out of bed. His weight was down from 220 as a player to 145. Soon he would begin radiation treatment, soon he would need a walker, soon a wheelchair, soon . . .

At least six other gay ballplayers were in the majors during the four years Burke played, he said, "and there's more than that today." None except Burke ever admitted it publicly.

Burke came out in 1982, two years after he quit baseball when the A's didn't sign him again. Billy Martin was the manager at the time, and one day he stood in front of the team in the dugout, looked straight at Burke, and told them, "I don't want no faggot on my team." Burke took it in silence. "I heard the name before," he said now. "It was his stupidity."

Burke discovered his homosexuality at 23 in a liaison with a former junior-high-school teacher, a man twice his age, and came away feeling awful at first, then utterly relieved. "I found out what I was really about and I went home and cried and cried and cried in the bathroom. After that I knew what I wanted."

Once Burke realized he was gay, he understood that it was taboo to talk about it in the clubhouse.

He wasn't the gay movement's Jackie Robinson, he wasn't baseball's Martina Navratilova, a star playing on his own terms.

Burke was a good prospect, a .300 or higher hitter five times in the minors, an excellent center fielder.

When Burke reached the majors, he couldn't break into the outfield of Rick Monday, Reggie Smith and Dusty Baker.

"He was built like a young Willie Mays," said Baker, now the San Francisco Giants manager. "He would have been real good if he had the opportunity."

At first, none of the Dodgers knew Burke was gay. He roomed with Smith one spring, and Smith didn't know. Burke went to nightclubs with his teammates, dined with them, and never let on.

"He never made any passes," Baker said. "He was a fun-loving guy, a good guy. He could dance. He could hoop as good as anybody. And he could fight as good as anybody. The girls loved him. He'd dance with all the girls, but then he'd always come home by himself."

A few players eventually found out Burke's secret. Cleo Smith, a minor leaguer with the Dodgers who grew up near Burke, knew about his gay lifestyle and mentioned it to several others.

A honeymoon deal

Burke's other misfortunes were in playing for two "prejudiced and homophobic" managers, as he referred to Tom Lasorda on the Dodgers and Martin on the A's. Burke knew Lasorda's gay son, Tommy Jr., who died in 1991 of pneumonia that friends said was associated with AIDS.

"Lasorda would have shot both of us if we showed up at his house," Burke said. "He had no relationship with his son. He told him to stay away." Lasorda, who was at his son's bedside when he died, has denied that the pneumonia was related to AIDS. He has steadfastly declined additional comment about his son or Burke.

"Being black and gay made me tougher," Burke said. "I had to be tough to make it. Yeah, I'm proud of what I did. I knew one day they would find out and it was going to be a shock to them. I didn't act the way they thought gay people act."

Burke claimed that the Dodgers' former general manager, Al Campanis, offered to have the team pay for a honeymoon if Burke got married. Burke turned down the offer and was traded in 1978 to Oakland for Billy North.

Players, including Smith, Baker and Davey Lopes, were convinced that it was Burke's sexual orientation that provoked the deal. Burke took the trade hard, but he thought it also might be a chance to find happiness inside and outside baseball since he would be closer to his home in Berkeley.

Across the bay in San Francisco's Castro district, he flaunted his gay lifestyle, continuing a relationship with a lover named Michael Smith, a Harvard graduate who invested in real estate, wrote music and opened up another world for Burke during their five years together.

"He was the one who gave me the incentive to play baseball, to say, `No matter what, you are what you are, and don't let nobody put you down for it if you want to play baseball,' " Burke said. Smith died of AIDS a few years ago.

"But it got to the point where prejudice just won out," Burke said. "The Dodgers got rid of me, and everyone on the team knew why. Billy Martin didn't want no part of me, and no one else would sign me. I just got blackballed. They didn't want nothing to do with me. A gay man in baseball? Uh, uh. No way."

Burke quit the A's in frustration in the middle of the 1979 season, then changed his mind about retirement and reported to spring training in 1980. When he hurt his knee, the A's assigned him to Ogden, Utah. Feeling as if he'd been banished, he retired for good later that season.

Invented high-five

Burke's major league stats didn't amount to much, a .237 batting average and 35 stolen bases over four years. But he made a little history - he enthusiastically greeted Baker with the first high-five after Baker's 30th homer in 1977. Baseball was over for Burke, his promise unfulfilled, and he settled into life in the Castro district.

For a while, the Castro was "heaven," Burke said, an endless party where thousands of gays treated him as a hero, admired him for his athleticism, the opposite of the effeminate stereotype. He joined a gay softball team, played basketball, inspired other good gay athletes to come out, and together they regularly beat teams from the sheriff's and police departments.

"That was satisfying because I got some people to come together and they realized how good athletes they were," Burke said. "We used to hammer the straights. They wouldn't play us no more. Anywhere in the streets, the cops would see me and they knew me, say, `How ya doing, Glenn.' I feel like I helped a little bit. They saw us as men and it shocked them. We woke them up. That's all I wanted to do. I accomplished that."

From a distance some of his old teammates kept up with him.

"I followed Glenn big time," Baker said. "Glenn still has a lot of people who care for him. Glenn was one of the best dudes, gay or not, that I played ball with. It puts you in sort of an awkward situation once you know he's gay, but if you can see past that you know what kind of man he really is."

Burke might have accomplished more, might have found a lasting happiness, if it weren't for cocaine wiping him out physically and financially.

"You could see the way he was headed a long time ago," said Mike Gray, an accountant, softball teammate and friend of Burke's for nearly 15 years. "Glenn was so popular, so much fun to be around. But he also had this self-destructive part of him and a need to be taken care of by someone."

Burke was crossing a street in 1987 when a speeding car hit him, breaking his right leg in four places and effectively ending the remnants of the athletic career he cherished. An iron rod and pins were inserted into the leg and he spent months recovering. Years later, it would be in that most vulnerable part of his body that the symptoms of AIDS would first take hold.

His dependency on cocaine intensified after the accident, going beyond snorting to smoking the more potent crack cocaine from time to time.

Three years ago, records show, Burke pleaded guilty to grand theft and possession of a controlled substance in San Francisco.

Sentenced to 16 months at San Quentin, he was paroled after six months, then spent another month in the prison the following year for violating terms of his parole.

Burke had skidded to the bottom, unwelcome even in the Castro. He would hang around the clubs, asking for money, intimidating people, belligerent one moment, friendly the next, the hero turned nuisance. .

"I didn't know I had AIDS until last January," he said, "but I knew something was wrong with me. No way of telling when I got the (HIV) virus. Maybe a year or two ago, maybe more. I didn't know it was gonna be this tough on me. But I was prepared for it if I had it. I knew 100 guys, at least, who died of AIDS. I kind of figured somewhere along the line I would get it. It's a plague."

He lies in bed now waiting to die, calling out to Lutha for food or help.

The A's, the team that once cast Burke aside, also have been trying to help. Pam Pitts, the A's director of baseball administration, calls almost daily, channeling support to him from the Association of Professional Baseball Players of America and the Baseball Assistance Team, two groups financed by past and current major leaguers.

For all of Burke's lost opportunities, perhaps nothing has changed to this day about the game's attitudes toward gay players.

Even Baker said he doesn't know how he would deal with a gay player today. Nor does Baker know if baseball is ready to accept one.

"I really don't know," Baker said. "I can't say that I agree with it. I also can't say that I understand, either. I'm not saying it's OK to be gay or that it's out-and-out wrong. I don't know what I would do if I had a player on my team who was gay because I haven't been there before."

In San Francisco, Baker is certainly sensitive to the gay community. He's helped raise funds for AIDS through Project Open Hand and "Until There's A Cure Day" at Candlestick Park, making the point that "AIDS is not a gay disease."

If a gay ballplayer came along, would Baker give him a chance?

"I guess it depends on how good a player he is," Baker said.