High Fives Glenn Burke

by Hayden Smith
Staff Writer

This year’s National High Five Day is April 20, but the first high five happened on October 2, 1977.

On the last regular day of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ regular season, Dusty Baker hit his 30th home run. His teammate, Glenn Burke, reached his hand over his head in excitement to greet him. Not knowing what else to do, Baker slapped his hand. Burke stepped up to plate and shortly after scored his first major league home run, then returned to the dugout and high-fived Baker, solidifying its invention.

While Glenn Burke helped create the iconic high five, he did not get to reap its benefits as a team member. Burke, while not out to the public, was gay and not at all shy about it.

This did not please the Dodgers manager at the time, Tommy Lasorda. It did not help that his son enjoyed spending plenty of time with Burke and out and about in the local gay scene.

At one point, the vice president offered Burke a bonus if he would get married, to which he infamously replied with a laugh, “I guess you mean to a woman.”

Burke’s teammates did not seem to have as many problems with him, describing him as the life of the clubhouse on multiple occasions. Despite this, he was still traded to the much less successful Oakland A’s in 1978, where management was even less kind. The manager, Billy Martin, was also said to have used homophobic slurs towards him on multiple occasions.

This most likely contributed to Burke’s early retirement in 1979 at the age of 27. While he was out of the professional league, he kept himself active in San Francisco’s local gay softball league, taking it all the way to dominate at the Gay Softball World Series.

"I was making money playing ball and not having any fun," Burke said, referring to his professional career. "Now I'm not making money, but I'm having fun."

Burke came out publicly in 1982 during an interview for Inside Sports. Michael J. Smith, the writer and a gay activist, noted the high five’s usage as “a defiant symbol of gay pride.” In his profile, “The Double Life of a Gay Dodger,” Smith described Burke’s lasting impact as “a legacy of two men's hands touching, high above their heads.”

Unfortunately, five years later marked Burke’s descent. In 1987, Burke was hit by a car while crossing the street. He struggled with drugs and trying to hold down a job after the traumatic injuries. Then, in 1993, he discovered he was positive for HIV. His family helped take care of him, but Burke passed on May 30, 1995. As one obituary put it, the creator of the high five “could barely lift his arm” before he died.

Though Glenn Burke is gone, his legacy still lives on. Professional sports is becoming more and more welcoming and accepting of gay athletes. The Dodgers now honor Burke’s family. And, of course, people all around the world still give high fives.

Remember Glenn Burke this High Five Day, and feel pride knowing you are carrying on the tradition of a trailblazing gay athlete.

Copyright 2017 The Gayly  - 4/20/2017 @ 9:20 a.m. CDT