The Outfielder Who Game Out

updated 11/21/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/21/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

DRESSED ONLY IN A PAIR OF BOXER shorts, Glenn Burke does not rise from the bed to meet his guests. No matter—you can see the devastation. The arms on the man once called King Kong by his Dodger teammates are now as scrawny as chicken wings. The legs that once led a minor league in stolen bases are rippled with dark lesions. "I'm so tired," says Burke, stretched out in his sister's Oakland apartment. "This is about the end."

An outfielder with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Oakland A's from 1976 to 1979, with a career .237 batting average, Burke was in most respects an unremarkable ballplayer. Yet he leaves the game with a unique legacy. He is the only major leaguer—and one of the few professional athletes in any sport—to have publicly acknowledged his homosexuality. Now that distinction comes with a postscript: At 41, Glenn Burke is dying of AIDS.

Burke has known since January that he has AIDS. He'd had headaches and a sore throat and checked into a hospital. The disease, says Burke, whose weight has tumbled from 220 to 150 lbs., "is never out of my mind."

A life that is ending in pain started in turmoil. Burke's father, Luther, a sawmill worker, cut out when Glenn was 11 months old. His mother, Alice, moved the family around Oakland and nearby Berkeley and supported her eight kids as a nursing-home aide. "She was a strong woman," says Burke, who latched on to local jock Michael Hammock, now sports coordinator for the Oakland parks and recreation department. Hammock led Burke to nearby Bushrod Park. "After that," says Burke, "all I did was play sports." Burke starred in baseball and basketball at Berkeley High School and won a scholarship to the University of Denver in 1970, but he left after a few months. "It got too cold," he says.

He was playing ball in Bushrod in 1971 when his sister pedaled by. "Mom says the Dodgers [scouts] are here," said Lutha. "You better come home."

After five years in the minors, Burke moved up to the major leagues in 1976. The truth is, he had his career sorted out before his sexuality. "I was confused," says Burke. "I didn't have girlfriends, and I didn't have boyfriends." Back in the neighborhood, Burke had been an enigma. "There were rumors," says Hammock. "But Glenn was always bigger than everyone, so nobody ever said anything to his face."

It was a former teacher, Burke's favorite from junior high school, who gave the 23-year-old ballplayer his sexual initiation. Soon Burke was creating a life for himself on Castro Street in the heart of San Francisco's gay district. "He was our hero," says Jack McGowan, a sports columnist for the San Francisco Sentinel.

Though Burke never talked about his sexual orientation to his family or teammates, word got around. "They knew," says Burke—and, eventually, he says, the knowledge stunted his career. According to Burke, both his trade to the A's in 1978 and the team's decision not to renew his contract in 1980 were a consequence of his being gay. (Former Dodger executive Al Campanis has denied this, and ex-A's owner Charlie Finley says he wasn't even aware that Burke was gay.) In 1982 he came out to the world in a magazine article.

By then he was already on the down-slide. He tried odd jobs, but nothing stuck. He had been cutting a figure in the city's gay softball league, but even that pleasure was shattered, along with his leg, in a 1987 car accident. "It took away his athletic ability, his greatest joy in life," says McGowan.

Burke turned increasingly to drugs, says softball teammate and cafe owner Tommy Lee. "He made the comment that he would die doing drugs," says Lee. In 1988 Burke was arrested for drug possession and in 1991 ended up serving six months in San Quentin. AIDS came as a coup de grace. It did not surprise him. "All my friends were dying before me," he says.

Lying on a bed in his sister's apartment, Burke is not given to musing on fate. Asked if he has any regrets, he says only, "I should have played basketball." He does not elaborate. Instead, he closes his eyes and slowly turns away. "I'm so tired," he says.

WILLIAM PLUMMER
LAIRD HARRISON in Oakland

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