Singled Out: The True Story of Glenn Burke

Singled Out: The True Story of Glenn Burke
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Release Date
March 02, 2021
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On October 2nd, 1977, Glenn Burke, outfielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers, made history without even swinging a bat. When his teammate Dusty Baker hit a historic home run, Glenn enthusiastically congratulated him with the first ever high five.

But Glenn also made history in another way--he was the first openly gay MLB player. While he did not come out publicly until after his playing days were over, Glenn's sexuality was known to his teammates, family, and friends. His MLB career would be cut short after only three years, but his legacy and impact on the athletic and LGBTQIA+ community would resonate for years to come.

New York Times bestselling author Andrew Maraniss tells the story of Glenn Burke: from his childhood growing up in Oakland, his journey to the MLB and the World Series, the joy in discovering who he really was, to more difficult times: facing injury, addiction, and the AIDS epidemic.

Packed with black-and-white photographs and thoroughly researched, never-before-seen details about Glenn's life, Singled Out is the fascinating story of a trailblazer in sports--and the history and culture that shaped the world around him.

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Interesting Baseball History
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Maraniss, whose Strong Inside covered Black basketball player Perry Wallace, turns his incredible research skills the the story of Glenn Burke. While it is fascinating and noteworthy that Burke is documented as having delivered the first high five as we know it today, his story is important for a variety of other reasons. Drawing on an impressive array of books and articles, interviews, and Burke's own autobiography, written with Eric Sherman, Out at Home, Maraniss paints a vivid portrait not only of the first openly gay major league baseball player, but the times in which he lived.

Starting with Burke's childhood in the Bay Area, we see how Burke's life was a constant mixture of success (being on television and a record album) and challenges (his father was abusive and then absent). He discovered athletics early on, and played throughout his school years. College was more challenging, since academics weren't all that interesting to him, and college sports participation rely on success in academics. Burke's ball skills, however, were so phenomenal that the Los Angeles Dodgers recruited him for their farm team when he was just very young. He was an enthusiastic player, and well liked by his teammates, and was soon moved to the main team. We see the ups and downs of being involved in a professional ball team, and there is plenty of baseball described that I didn't completely understand.

What this book does particularly well is to describe what was going on in Burke's life against the background of what was occurring in the world at large. While Burke was just one of many Black ballplayers in the 1970s, there was still a lot of racial prejudices with which he had to deal. While there were other players who were helpful, like Dusty Baker, there were still a lot of issues. It's not surprising, since we're still seeing issues with racism in sports today.
Good Points
The bigger issue, of course, is that fact that Burke was gay. The book portrays him as not quite knowing what to do with this information himself at first, which seems very accurate. The perception about and treatment of gay people in the 1970s, which somewhat better than it was in the 1950s, was still very problematic. I can remember a teacher in my high school being fired in the early 1980s just under the suspicion of being gay, and it's easy to forget how near in time the early 80s were to the Stonewall Riots. Maraniss does a great job of detailing incidents which occurred in Burke's life and showing how they were colored by the events going on in the world at the time. I had forgotten how wide spread Anita Bryant's vitriol was.

Despite his athletic prowess, Burke's struggles in dealing with how being Black and gay affected him caused him to have problems in his life. The Dodgers offered him a bonus if he would get married to a woman so that he could escape the suspicion of being gay, and he had odd relationships with Tommy Lasorda, whose own son was gay, something the older Lasorda denied, as well as Billy Martin. I know so little about baseball that I started this book thinking the Dodgers were based in Brooklyn (they moved in 1958), but even I remember that Billy Martin was kind of a jerk. All of these factors played into Burke eventually leaving baseball, and then finding it hard to make a living.

A lot of the book discusses the San Francisco gay scene in the Castro district in the early 80s, and the advent of the AIDS virus. What a devastating thing for that community, and what unfortunate timing for Burke to have finally found a community where he felt at home. Even though I was a teenager at the time, I had forgotten how badly people with AIDS were treated, and the fear in which they were held. I found this portion of the book every bit as illuminative as the descriptions of Burke's ball career.

This was an incredibly all inclusive coverage of Burke's life, and it was heartbreaking. Maraniss does a good job at being circumspect about incidents, so this would be okay for upper middle grade readers, but the length of the book, as well as the emotionally devastating contents, might make it more suited for high school ones. Sex is mentioned, although not in detail, and there is also drug and alcohol use portrayed.

The chapter notes, list of resources, and gay rights timeline are all very useful, and the number of interviews the author did is impressive. While I normally like to see books about the Black experience or gay issues written by #OwnVoices authors, the author is very thorough in documenting occurrences, sincere in wanting to shed light on how people were mistreated, and seems to have had the manuscript checked by several readers, so I hope that the portrayals are acceptable. Singled Out is certainly an important book on topics that are timely and much needed.
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