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Glenn Burke, baseball’s first openly gay player, helped create high five

Today is National High Five Day, but do you know that a former Los Angeles Dodgers player — and first Major League Baseball player to come out as gay — is credited with helping invent the celebratory slap?

MEET GLENN BURKE

Glenn Burke, a former Dodgers outfielder, had a major league career that only lasted part of four seasons, but he left a lasting impression on the sport.

On October 2, 1977, Burke ran onto the field to congratulate his Dodgers teammate Dusty Baker after Baker hit his 30th home run in the last game of the regular season. Instead of offering a hug or handshake, Burke raised his hand over his head as Baker jogged home from third base.

Not knowing what to do about the upraised hand, Baker slapped it. They have been credited with inventing the high five, according to ESPN.

When Burke stepped into the batter’s box and hit his own home run — his first in the major leagues — minutes later, Baker was waiting at home plate to greet him with a high five of his own.

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That excitement didn’t last long.

NO GAYS IN LOCKER ROOM

The Dodgers and team management knew Burke was gay, and management wasn’t uncomfortable with it. At one point, according to Burke, the team’s vice president offered to pay for his honeymoon if he would only get married (“to a woman,” it went without saying).

Former L.A. Dodgers outfielder Glenn Burke is credited with helping create the high five. Burke also is the first Major League Baseball player to publicly come out as gay. Photo: Los Angeles Dodgers.

In May 1978, just two months into the season, the 25-year-old ballplayer was traded to the Oakland Athletics for the much older Billy North.

Burke and his teammates were shocked.

“I was talking with our trainer, Bill Buhler. I said, ‘Bill, why’d they trade Glenn? He was one of our top prospects,’” Baker recalled to Inside Sports. “He said, ‘They don’t want any gays on the team.’ I said, ‘The organization knows?’ He said, ‘Everybody knows’.”

Burke injured his neck and was off the field in 1979, but returned the following year to the Athletics. Billy Martin was the team manager.

‘HE’S A FAGGOT’

In the 2010 documentary “Out: The Glenn Burke story,” Athletics teammate Claudell Washington recalled how Martin introduce the new teammates that year: “Then he got to Glenn and said, ‘Oh, by the way, this is Glenn Burke, and he’s a faggot.’”

Eventually, Burke’s sense of isolation, compounded by a knee injury, drove Burke to retire from major league baseball in 1980. He was 27 years old.

Two years later, Burke was the first player, retired or on the roster, in baseball history to publicly come out.

Billy Bean, a former Dodgers and San Diego Padres’ outfielder, is the only other baseball player to come out. Bean also made his announcement after he retired in 1999. Bean is MLB’s Ambassador for Inclusion.

FINALLY RECOGNIZED

In 1995, just before his death from AIDS complications, Burke published a memoir on his experiences as an openly gay baseball player. During the press tour, he lamented that his coming out never made the waves he had hoped for. The sports world seemed unwilling to acknowledge what he had tried to make so obvious.

“I think everyone just pretended not to hear me. It just wasn’t a story they were ready to hear,” he told People Magazine that year.

In 2014, almost 20 years after his death Burke was recognized by Major League Baseball for his pioneering achievements.

About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBTQ community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBTQ students.

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