If you don't know the name Glenn Burke, I don't blame you.
If you don't know he's a former Nevada Wolf Pack athlete, you're not in the minority.
Burke's tenure in Reno didn't last very long. He wasn't even here long enough to earn a varsity letter. But he went on to become one of the most noteworthy athletes to ever play at Nevada. I've written about Burke a little in the past, but he was a shooting star whose career quickly flamed out, in part because of factors outside of his control.
Here's the quick background: Burke played for the Dodgers and A's in the late 1970s and was the first big-leaguer to come out as gay to his teammates while playing, his homosexuality coming to a head when he befriended Tommy Lasorda's son Spunky, who also was gay against his father's wishes. Burke endured bigotry from fans and his own managers. He's also crediting with creating the high five. In physical and financial despair later in his life, Burke sadly died at age 42 of AIDS-related complications.
Burke, once described as the next Willie Mays, is best known as a baseball player, and that's where he had his most success. But his true athletic love was basketball, and he signed with Nevada as a prized recruit out Berkeley (Calif.) High. He signed with the Dodgers in 1972 after being picked in the 17th round, which made him ineligible to play baseball for the Wolf Pack. But he did join Nevada hoops for the 1974-75 season while playing Double-A baseball in Connecticut earlier that year.
Burke showed great promise as a basketball player. In his first game at Nevada, he scored 35 points in a 106-101 win over Stephen F. Austin. His 16 made field goals that game are still tied for the fourth most for a Wolf Pack player. But Burke played in only five more games with the team before being dismissed for a so-called lack of discipline. He averaged 16.3 points during his short run at Nevada, with the team going 4-2 in the games he played that season — both losses were to Pac-12 teams — and 6-14 without him.
"Glenn Burke leaves Reno, criticizes both Padgetts," read the headline in the Reno Evening Gazette when Burke was dismissed shortly before Christmas 1974.
"I think the problem is that Burke couldn't adjust to the college way of life and way of playing college basketball," then-Nevada coach Jim Padgett told the paper. "He lacks the discipline. ... He hasn't been on a coached team since high school and I stress a team effort. He just hasn't matured."
Burke fired back with sharp criticism of Padgett and his son, Pete, the Wolf Pack's star big man who Burke said was running the team.
"We've been having problems with Coach Padgett and Pete," Burke told the Gazette after being dismissed. "The gist of it is Pete isn't getting the points and rebounds he normally gets, therefore the publicity. He's not playing for the team."
Responded the elder Padgett: "That's not true. I have the statistics right in front of me, and Pete has the fewest field-goal attempts of any of the frontliners."
While his Wolf Pack basketball career didn't last long, Burke's relationship with the elder Padgett wasn't completely soured. The day before being kicked off the team, Padgett got a call from Phoenix Suns scout Jerry Krause — yes, the Jerry Krause who would eventually put together the 1990s Bulls as Chicago's general manager — inquiring about a speedy guard Nevada had faced earlier that season.
"Look no more," Padgett told Krause before giving him Burke's name.
Burke was promised a tryout with the Suns but never got an NBA contract. He'd make him MLB debut with the Dodgers in 1976 before playing in the 1977 World Series. It was that year when Burke created the high five. After teammate Dusty Baker smashed his 30th homer of the season, Burke raised his hand over his head and Baker slapped it. That is widely credited as the first high five in sports. And in an ESPN feature on the high five invention, Baker defers credit to Burke.
"No, I didn't invent the high five," Baker said. "All I did was respond to Glenn. That's all I did."
A physical freak and unbelievable athlete, Burke also was the life of the party away from the field. He was beloved by his Dodgers teammates, who saw a bright future for him. But a couple of weeks into the 1978 season, Burke was shipped to the Oakland A's for veteran Bill North, who'd hit .234 in 110 games with the Dodgers.
"There was no justification for it," Burke's agent Abdul-Jalil al-Hakim told ESPN. "You could't have found one player in the locker room who felt good about it, so why now and what for?"
Added Baker: "I don't know what people are going to say why he was traded, but we knew the reason he was traded was because he was gay. You couldn't be more blunt than that."
Burke had come out to his teammates, and by all accounts the players were fine with it and viewed Burke as a great teammate.
“He could take any moment in time and make it fun," former teammate Rick Monday told the L.A. Times in 2013. "There was no better guy in the clubhouse, I’ll tell you that. There was no one who didn’t love having Glenn around.”
Management was not so open to Burke's sexuality. Owner Walter O'Malley and Al Campanis offered him $75,000 to get married, presumably to a woman. He dated the son of his manager, Spunky Lasorda. So he was shipped out to his hometown of Oakland where management wasn't any more understanding. Many of his Dodgers teammates cried on the day Burke was traded.
A's manager Billy Martin, in the twilight of his career, ostracized Burke, calling him a "faggot" among other slurs, which also came from fans in the stands.
“They knew I was gay and were worried about how the average father would feel about taking his son to a baseball game to see some fag shagging fly balls in center field,” Burke wrote in his autobiography. “Martin never called me a faggot to my face. He may have known I would’ve kicked that ass.”
Burke's sexuality, coupled with a knee injury in training camp in 1980, eventually led to his ouster from the league. His career numbers were unspectacular — a .237 hitter in 225 games over parts of four seasons — but those who played with him, including All-Stars like Baker and Mike Norris, who Burke played with in Oakland, said his potential was unlimited.
“He could make everything look easy on the field," Norris told FanGraphs in 2015. "Very nonchalant. He ran effortlessly. Didn’t look like he exerted himself when he was out there. I actually played basketball against him at Berkeley High — it was a nightmare. You would get on him, and he’d go by you. You’d step off him, and he’d shoot the jumper.”
Burke's post-baseball career was largely tragic. He ran into physical and financial ruin. Drugs filled his life and cocaine destroyed him. His leg and foot were crushed after being hit by a car in 1987. He was arrested on drugs charges and lived on the San Francisco streets for several years. In 1995 and weighing less than 100 pounds, he died of AIDS complications at 42. The man who invented the high five couldn't lift his hand high enough to give one when he passed.
Despite his life ending too soon, Burke's post-baseball career did have some bright spots. He came out in a 1982 article in Inside Sports magazine and won medals in the 100- and 200-meter sprints in the first Gay Games later that year. He competed in the 1986 Gay Games in basketball, and his number was retired by his high school. He played in the San Francisco Gay Softball League for many years, a meaningful gesture to the gay community, which built a team not only good enough to beat the police's softball team but destroy them.
"He was basically a symbol of what all these guys were trying to show the rest of America what they could be, which was masculine and athletic, and the high five was part of that mystique for Glenn Burke," journalist Jon Mooallem told ESPN. "People in the neighborhood knew he had invented the high five. One guy who knew him back in those days told me he'd often see Glenn sitting on a hood of a car outside of the Pendulum Club, which was a big gay club in the neighborhood, and he'd have a big smile on his face just high fiving people who walked by."
Burke was inducted into the National Gay and Lesbian Sports Hall of Fame in its inaugural class, and MLB honored him during the pregame press conference before the 2014 All-Star Game. His brother threw out the first pitch during the A's Pride Night in the 2015 season, and Burke was inducted into Baseball Reliquary's Shrine of the Eternals in 2015.
"They can't ever say now that a gay man can't play in the majors," Burke told the Philadelphia Inquirer shortly before his death, "because I'm a gay man and I made it."
Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @ByChrisMurray.