Honoring Glenn Burke can’t hurt

Monday night during the rain delay, I was fooling around with Baseball-Reference.com’s Play Index and came across a weird coincidence. I’m 98 percent sure it’s a coincidence, anyway. I’ll tell you about that in a minute.

Tuesday in Minneapolis, Commissioner Bud Selig is scheduled “to make a major announcement regarding its inclusion efforts.” My first reaction upon this news was to assume the announcement is related to African-Americans. But then I read this in the New York Times, and realized it’s probably something a bit less conventional:

As part of a concerted effort to demonstrate an atmosphere of tolerance and inclusion, the league invited Burke’s family to Tuesday’s All-Star Game in Minneapolis — its first official recognition of Burke’s early role in a movement just now gaining traction across the sports landscape.

“He was a pioneer, and should be recognized,” Pat Courtney, a Major League Baseball spokesman, said.

Attending the game will be Lutha Burke, one of Glenn Burke’s five surviving siblings, who cared for Burke in his final months as he withered and died from the effects of AIDs, and her daughter Alice Rose. Burke died in 1995.

“It was overdue, and Glenn has a story that needs to be told,” Lutha Burke, 66, said over a cup of coffee, sitting beside Rose. “Glenn wouldn’t be upset that it took this long. He’d just say, ‘It’s about time you guys showed up.’ ”

Burke and Rose were scheduled to attend the game and its surrounding festivities, including a gala Monday and a news conference with Commissioner Bud Selig Tuesday.

The league will also announce that Billy Bean, who played six seasons in the majors and came out publicly in 1999, four years after he retired, will work with the league on its inclusion efforts.

An old Chinese proverb comes to mind. Or maybe it’s a Zen thing. Either way: The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second-best time is today.

The best time for Major League Baseball to welcome gay players was 20 years ago. Or 30 or 50. The second-best time was before the NBA and the NFL welcomed openly gay players. You know, since Baseball so loves to pat itself on the back (and Commissioner Bud is the Grand Poobah of back-patting). But yes, the third-best time is indeed today. So good on them. Who knows, maybe someday there will actually be an openly gay player in the majors. Or the minors.

No, there will be. It’s just a matter of when. And maybe, just maybe, Commissioner Bud’s public pronouncements will help a little.

What does Glenn Burke have to do with all this? Really, I’m not sure. I doubt if Commissioner Bud is sure. Was Burke really a pioneer? In the sense that he was the first ex-major leaguer to come out, then yes, he was. Did Burke’s coming out make a real difference for other gay players? Man, I don’t know. Considering that was 32 years ago and we’re still waiting, I hope you’ll forgive my skepticism. I wonder if Baseball’s honoring Burke simply because Baseball has run out of other, better ideas. Much as Baseball continues to commemorate Jackie Robinson, and the Negro Leagues, while struggling to actually attract black players and black fans.

Because, you know, all those things are really hard. While it’s relatively easy to invite someone’s relatives to the All-Star Game, or retire a jersey number.

Which isn’t to say those things shouldn’t be done, too. They’re probably just fine.

More from the Times:

In May 1978, just as teammates began realizing that Burke was gay, he was traded to the A’s for the veteran Bill North. It was not a popular move in the clubhouse.

“He was the life of the team, on the buses, in the clubhouse, everywhere,” Davey Lopes, a teammate, said of Burke the next day. When Burke came out in 1982, Lopes was among several former teammates who said that Burke was traded because he was gay.

–snip–

Burke started regularly in the outfield for the A’s in 1978, but a pinched nerve in his neck in the 1979 season kept him off the field. He refused to take cortisone shots to get back on the field, and simply left the team. He was 26.

“I probably wouldn’t have left if there hadn’t been the other problem, the gay thing,” Burke said in the 1982 Inside Sports story. “But put it all together, and it was too much.”

He returned the next spring. The team’s new manager, Billy Martin, reportedly addressed Burke with homophobic slurs in front of teammates. A knee injury in spring training led Burke to the minor leagues. Living as a gay man in Ogden, Utah, his dream of starring in the major leagues as far away as ever, he walked away.

“The browbeating got to him,” Lutha Burke said last week. “I’m more than sure that being gay cost him his baseball career.

I’m not quite so sure. If you didn’t know Glenn Burke was gay, you might wonder why he stayed in the majors for as long as he did, and why the Dodgers didn’t trade him sooner.

Burke was a 17th-round draft pick in 1972. He did well in his first couple of pro seasons, and reached Class AA when he was just 21. He sort of stalled out for a couple of seasons, but did join the Dodgers in 1976. Burke just never hit in the majors, though. He finished with 556 plate appearances in his career, with a .237/.270/.291 batting line. His fielding stats, from this distance, look pretty crummy. He did steal 35 bases, and he did (maybe) invent the high-five. Those things aren’t nothing.

They just don’t prove that Glenn Burke was drummed out of the majors because he was gay. Even if we’re more than sure that being gay in that environment couldn’t have been easy for him, just as can’t be easy for today’s gay players.

Oh, that coincidence I mentioned at the top? From 1970 through 1999, exactly 498 outfielders amassed at least 500 plate appearances in the major leagues.

Alex Diaz posted the worst OPS+ among those 498 outfielders. Glenn Burke posted the third-worst. And the second-worst?

Billy Bean.

I told you it was weird.