His career curtailed by prejudice, his life by AIDS, Glenn Burke hit just two home runs in four seasons of part-time play with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Oakland A’s, but the circumstances of his first big-league homer made it significant, decades before the major leagues recognized him as the first openly gay player. As Burke’s playoff-bound Dodgers closed out 1977’s regular season with a 6-3 loss to the Houston Astros on October 2, he greeted a milestone-making Dusty Baker home run with what is recognized as history’s first high-five – then followed with his own homer.
A celebrated high-school basketball player in Berkeley, California, Glenn Lawrence Burke tried his hand at basketball and baseball at four different colleges before the Dodgers drafted him in June 1972.1 He climbed Los Angeles’ system steadily, demonstrating power, speed, and a strong arm.2
Burke made it to the majors in 1976 as an injury replacement and September call-up.3 At Triple A to open the 1977 season, he was recalled in June and remained with Los Angeles, contributing as a reserve outfielder and boosting morale with his high-octane personality, as the Dodgers regained NL West supremacy from the Cincinnati Reds.4
“Teammates loved his enthusiasm and gap-toothed grin, the laughter he brought to the locker room, the funky music blasting from his boom box,” Burke biographer Andrew Maraniss wrote.5 “With his broad chest, muscular legs, and seventeen-inch biceps, other players marveled at his strength and physique. He had an energy and toughness to match, never backing away from a fight.”6
But there was more to the 24-year-old Burke than the public saw. Burke was gay, something known by few in the Dodgers’ organization and elsewhere, at a time when, Maraniss noted, “[n]ot only were there no openly gay athletes in Major League Baseball, the National Football League, or the National Basketball Association, but most Americans would have found the notion far-fetched.”7
Harder to miss was the Dodgers’ 1977 renaissance under first-year manager Tom Lasorda. A distant second in 1975 and 1976, Los Angeles had a 10½-game lead on the division by May 6 and never looked back, clinching the title on September 20, with 11 games remaining.8
Dodger strengths included a quartet of power-hitting veterans: First baseman Steve Garvey, third baseman Ron Cey, right fielder Reggie Smith, and left fielder Dusty Baker. One by one, as September progressed, they reached the 30-home-run milestone. Garvey was first, hitting his 30th homer off Cincinnati’s Manny Sarmiento on September 14.9 Four days later, Cey hit number 30 off Atlanta’s Mickey Mahler; Smith equaled him that same game with a blast off Dave Campbell.10
Baker’s 29th homer came off the Astros’ Joe Niekro on September 25, but over the next five games he went homerless, missing the milestone blast by mere feet with a double on October 1.11 Going into the season’s final day, Baker had just one more chance to complete baseball’s first-ever foursome of 30-homer teammates.
The finale’s pitching matchup appeared to tilt the odds against him. Flamethrowing Houston starter J.R. Richard was as hard to homer against – or just bat against – as anyone in baseball. The 27-year-old, 6-foot-8 righty, seeking his 18th win of the season, was on his way to finishing second in the league in strikeouts and seventh in ERA; entering this game, only four NL starters had allowed home runs less frequently.12
With 46,501 on hand for Fan Appreciation Day,13 Houston leadoff hitter Jose Cruz shattered his bat fouling off Bobby Castillo’s first pitch of the game. The splintered barrel struck Dodgers catcher Steve Yeager in the back of the head. Yeager – who had narrowly escaped fatal injury a season earlier when hit in the neck by the jagged end of a broken bat – remained on the ground for several minutes before walking off. Johnny Oates replaced him.14
The Astros tested Oates right away. Cruz singled and attempted to steal second, but Oates threw him out. Enos Cabell followed with another single, and César Cedeño doubled, but the Dodgers gunned down Cabell at home for the second out. Houston finally broke through when Bob Watson singled Cedeño home for a 1-0 lead.
Richard protected the lead with a steady stream of strikeouts. Vic Davalillo – back in the majors at age 38 after 3½ seasons in the Mexican League – and Garvey bookended the first by striking out around Baker’s single. All three Dodgers batters fanned in the second inning, and Richard recorded two more strikeouts in the third.
Watson led off the fourth with a home run against the 22-year-old Castillo, who was making his first major-league start after winning 19 games in the Mexican League in 1977.15 Richard continued to dominate with the 2-0 lead, holding the Dodgers hitless in the fourth and fifth innings, adding single strikeouts in each inning to increase his total to nine.
In the middle innings, Lasorda began to substitute for his regulars. Burke entered in center in the fifth.
With Castillo due to lead off the sixth, Lasorda sent up 38-year-old Manny Mota. Almost exclusively a pinch-hitter since 1974, Mota had not homered since June 1972.
The Astros shifted, anticipating the right-handed Mota slapping the ball the other way. Mota surprised everyone16 by yanking Richard’s second pitch into the bullpen in left for a home run, breaking up the shutout with his first homer in 777 plate appearances.17
Richard regrouped to retire the next two Dodgers; Rafael Landestoy was his 10th strikeout. Baker batted with two outs.
The first pitch sailed over Baker’s head to the backstop, and Richard then got ahead 1-and-2. Baker drove the next delivery toward the 395-foot marker in left-center. Cedeño went back, then stopped as it cleared the fence. Baker had 30 home runs; the Dodgers had their historic foursome.
Baker leapt in the air and clapped his hands several times while rounding the bases. His teammates met him at home plate.
The first to reach him was Burke, direct from the on-deck circle. As the frenzied crowd gave a standing ovation, Burke raised his right hand high, shouting, “Way to go!” and encouraging Baker to slap it. Baker did.18
With the game now tied, Burke took a fastball for a ball. Richard came back with another fastball, and Burke belted it over the left-field fence. Baker welcomed him in the dugout with another high-five.19 With two high-fives, three home runs, and four teammates with 30 homers, Los Angeles had a 3-2 lead.
Lasorda entrusted the advantage to right-hander Dennis Lewallyn, called up from Triple A when the rosters expanded in September. Lewallyn opened the seventh by retiring Roger Metzger and Richard on grounders. But Cruz singled and Cabell walked. Cedeño’s single drove in Cruz with the tying run, as Cabell took third.
With second base open and Watson up, Lasorda ordered an intentional walk, loading the bases for Dennis Walling, a 23-year-old appearing in only his 15th major-league game. Walling foiled the strategy with a triple to right, sending Cabell, Cedeño, and Watson home to put the Astros back up, 6-3.
Richard breezed through the last three innings against a reserve-heavy Los Angeles alignment with little in common with the lineup the Dodgers had fielded to start the game. He added two strikeouts in the seventh and two more in the eighth to finish with 14. Lee Lacy’s seventh-inning walk was Los Angeles’ only baserunner after Houston regained the lead. Richard completed a four-hitter for his 18th win – with three of those hits Mota, Baker, and Burke’s sixth-inning homers.
Two days later, the Dodgers opened the National League Championship Series against the Philadelphia Phillies, and Burke started in center against Steve Carlton.20 In Game Two, Baker slugged a grand slam, and Burke greeted him with another high-five, this one captured in a Los Angeles Times front-page photo.21 Los Angeles won the NLCS but lost the World Series to the New York Yankees; Burke started Game One in center.
But the game soon turned against him. In the 1977-78 offseason, with speculation about his personal life increasing, Dodgers management reportedly offered Burke a raise if he got married.22 Then, more rumors,23 a trade to the A’s in May 1978,24 slurs in Oakland,25 and the end of his professional career by 1980. In 1982 Burke revealed his sexuality during a nationally televised interview.26 He contracted AIDS and died at age 42 in 1995.27
Baseball’s official recognition of Burke’s life and career waited until years after his death, as sport and society’s inclusiveness gradually increased over time. Major League Baseball saluted his pioneering status at the 2014 All-Star Game, while announcing an initiative to support the game’s gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community.28 The A’s celebrated him on Pride Night in 2015; the Dodgers followed in 2022.29
But some acts require no official blessing to conquer the world. So it was for Burke’s initial high-five, conceived in exuberance, and inspired by a record-setting moment involving three players – Baker, Richard, Burke – whose respective stories reflect the dazzling promise and heartbreaking limitations of baseball’s inclusiveness after Jackie Robinson. The high-five’s rapid, universal spread and enduring popularity ensured Burke’s worldwide impact, long before baseball acknowledged his trailblazing legacy.
This article was fact-checked by Bruce Slutsky and copy-edited by Len Levin. The author was inspired to write about Glenn Burke after reading Andrew Maraniss’s 2021 biography, Singled Out: The True Story of Glenn Burke. He also acknowledges Erik Sherman, who collaborated with Burke on the posthumously released autobiography, Out At Home: The True Story of Glenn Burke, for his work in documenting Burke’s life story. SABR members Gary Belleville and Kurt Blumenau provided insightful comments on an earlier version of this article, and Jeff J. Snider contributed valuable research assistance.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes below, the author consulted Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org for pertinent information, including the box score and play-by-play. He also reviewed game coverage in the Houston Chronicle and Los Angeles Times newspapers and SABR Baseball BioProject biographies of several players involved in this game, especially Rory Costello’s Vic Davalillo and Manny Mota biographies.
1 Andrew Maraniss, Singled Out: The True Story of Glenn Burke, (New York: Philomel, 2021), 23, 27-28.
2 Maraniss, 44.
3 Ross Newhan, “Lopes Is Out of Dodger Opener … If There Is One,” Los Angeles Times, April 9, 1976: III, 2; Steve Kennedy, “Maturing Burke Relishes Spring,” Independent and Gazette (California), September 23, 1976: 34.
4 Toby Zwikel, “Basketball Remains First Love of Dodgers’ Burke,” Valley News (Fallbrook, California), June 9, 1977: 4, 3.
5 Maraniss, 4-5.
6 Maraniss, 5.
7 Maraniss, 55. In 1975, a year before Burke’s major-league debut, retired professional football player Dave Kopay became the first athlete from a major professional team sport to announce publicly that he was gay. Stan Farber, “Gay Kopay Happy, but Coaching Doors Shut,” Tacoma News Tribune, May 3, 1976: C-2.
8 Jason Turbow, They Bled Blue: Fernandomania, Strike-Season Mayhem, and the Weirdest Championship Baseball Had Ever Seen (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019), 14-17.
9 Ross Newhan, “Lasorda Lets John Do It – He Doesn’t: Reds Overcome 8-3 Deficit for a 9-8 Victory,” Los Angeles Times, September 15, 1977: III, 1.
10 Ross Newhan, “Dodgers Fail to Get Relief, Miss Clincher: Bullpen Collapse Gives Braves 9-8 Win; L.A. Assured of Tie Despite Defeat,” Los Angeles Times, September 19, 1977: III, 1.
11 Ross Newhan, “Reggie Smith Regains Drive Just in Time,” Los Angeles Times, October 2, 1977: III, 1.
12 Entering his final start of the 1977 season, Richard had allowed 0.523 home runs per nine innings pitched. The only NL pitchers ahead of him were Rick Reuschel of the Chicago Cubs, Jerry Reuss of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Steve Rogers of the Montreal Expos, and Tommy John of the Dodgers. By allowing three home runs in this game, Richard’s season figure increased to 0.607, allowing Burt Hooton of the Dodgers to pass him.
13 The Dodgers’ season attendance total of 2,955,087 broke their own record, set in 1962, the first year of play at Dodger Stadium. Ross Newhan, “The Gang of Four,” Los Angeles Times, October 3, 1977: III, 1.
14 Newhan, “The Gang of Four.” The Philadelphia Daily News reported Lasorda wanted Yeager to catch five innings in a playoff tuneup. “I never even got to catch one pitch,” Yeager said. Stan Hochman, “Nobody Ever Promised Yeager a Rose Garden,” Philadelphia Daily News, October 4, 1977: 67. X-rays showed no injury, and Yeager caught the Dodgers’ NLCS opener on October 4. Newhan, “The Gang of Four.”
15 Turbow, They Bled Blue, 60-61.
16 The Los Angeles Times reported that in the Dodgers dugout, Lasorda had turned to second baseman Davey Lopes and said, “Wouldn’t it be great if Manny hit a pinch-hit homer?” “If he hits a home run, I’ll buy everyone on the team a steak dinner,” Lopes responded. When Mota hit his home run, Lopes “collapsed on the top step of the dugout in a feigned faint.” Newhan, “The Gang of Four.”
17 “When I saw the outfield swing to the right today, I said to myself, ‘OK, take one pitch and see if you can pull it, see if you can hit it hard,’” Mota said afterward. “It was a great feeling to run clear around the bases for the first time in five years.” Newhan, “The Gang of Four.” It was the last of Mota’s 31 career homers over 20 major-league seasons.
18 Maraniss, 112. A 1990 Atlanta Journal column by Terence Moore corroborates this origin story: “[T]his high-five madness that currently dominates society began in 1977 during the first year of ‘The Good Ship Lasorda.’ Whenever Dusty Baker and Glenn Burke were pleased with an accomplishment by a fellow member of the Los Angeles Dodgers, they would slap hands in the air.” Terence Moore, “A Totally New Wave: Why Not Start a Fad Against Fads in Sports?” Atlanta Journal, June 20, 1990: E-3. A 2019 Business Insider article on the history of the high-five adds, “slapping hands as a type of handshake dates back to at least the 1920s, [but] there was something different about the way Burke and Baker did it that instantly caught the public’s attention.” Mark Abadi, “Today Is National High Five Day – This Photo from 1977 Shows the First High Five,” BusinessInsider.com, April 18, 2019, https://www.businessinsider.com/where-does-the-high-five-come-from-origin-2017-4.
19 Maraniss, 115.
20 When asked by the media why he was starting Burke in center over veteran Rick Monday, Lasorda responded, “Glenn Burke had four hits in six at-bats against Carlton this year with two RBI and a double.” Don Merry, “Dodger Lefty Recalls Playoff Role in 1974,” Los Angeles Times, October 4, 1977: III, 1. Burke was hitless in three at-bats in Los Angeles’ 7-5 loss.
21 “Give Him a Hand,” Los Angeles Times, October 6, 1977: I, 1.
22 Maraniss, 133-136.
23 Maraniss, 143-145.
24 Ross Newhan, “Burke Trade Stops the Music,” Los Angeles Times, May 21, 1978: III, 2.
25 Maraniss, 171-175, 183.
26 Maraniss, 201-212.
27 Michael Bamberger, “Grip of AIDS Leaves Burke Clinging to Life,” Austin American-Statesman, February 14, 1995: C2.
28 Maraniss, 255-256. MLB’s announcement followed Jason Collins’s coming out as the National Basketball Association’s first openly gay player in 2013 and Michael Sam of the University of Missouri announcing he was gay shortly before the 2014 National Football League draft. As of 2022 no active major-league baseball player has publicly announced he was gay.
29 “Glenn Burke’s Family at Game as A’s Honor Him on Pride Night,” Sacramento Bee, June 18, 2015: B6; Scott Miller, “The Dodgers Embrace the Family of a Player They Once Shunned,” New York Times, June 2, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/06/02/sports/baseball/glenn-burke-dodgers-pride.html.