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On the anniversary of the high five, an interview about Glenn Burke with Andrew Maraniss

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Maraniss authored the book ‘Singled Out: The True Story of Glenn Burke’

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The Dodgers-Astros game 44 years ago today, October 2, 1977, held no importance in the standings. Los Angeles was in first place in the National League West, a spot the team held throughout the summer, save for three days in the season’s first week in April. The team enjoyed a 10-game lead.

The only real suspense was whether Dusty Baker, stuck on 29 home runs for the past week, would hit his 30th home run, thereby giving the Dodgers four 30-home run hitters — joining Ron Cey, Steve Garvey, and Reggie Smith — and become the first club in baseball history to have such a quartet.

Batting in the bottom of the sixth against Houston’s J.R. Richard, Baker strolled to the plate running out of chances. History would be made in that moment as Baker slugged a 1-2 low-and-away fastball to the left-centerfield bleachers at Dodger Stadium for a solo home run, setting a baseball record that would not be matched for 18 years.

Baker would say later he felt “like the happiest man in the world.” Equally excited was a 24-year-old rookie outfielder from Oakland, Glenn Burke, who greeted Baker at home plate yelling, “Way to go! Way to go!” Burke held his right hand above his head, inviting Baker to match it with his right hand, something Baker did. In that moment of spontaneous exuberance, a cultural phenomenon called the High Five was born.

The mystique around the High Five origin story is the subject of numerous articles and even an ESPN 30 for 30 Shorts. The story around Burke, the chief protagonist in the High Five origin, was also somewhat mysterious until earlier this year when author Andrew Maraniss authored a biography of Burke, titled ’Singled Out: The True Story of Glenn Burke’.

Maraniss takes the reader into Burke’s personal life as the first - and only - openly gay Major League player as well as his exile from Los Angeles in 1978. I asked Maraniss to put into context the events of 44 years ago, and how they are still relevant today.

(Editor’s note: This Q&A was edited for length and clarity)

Steve Dittmore: What was the nature of the relationship between Burke and Baker?

Andrew Maraniss: “Dusty and Glenn had a great relationship. Dusty told me that when he had been a young player with the Atlanta Braves, he appreciated how Hank Aaron took the younger Black players under his wing. Dusty became that type of figure himself with the Dodgers, and Glenn was one of the young guys he mentored. Dusty told me he felt like they had a lot of things in common - both from California, both loved music and basketball, both outfielders. Dusty said that Glenn was a really popular figure in the clubhouse, even as a rookie fourth outfielder on a veteran team, because of his sense of humor and the way he supported his teammates. Glenn was the type of guy who brought everyone together. So it was no surprise that Glenn would have been elated for Dusty to hit the record-breaking homer and to celebrate in a unique and fun fashion.”

SD: Lost in the history of the high five on October 2 is that Burke also homered - his only one in a Dodgers uniform. Burke’s home run was immediately after Baker’s and gave the Dodgers a brief 3-2 lead. How was Burke welcomed in the dugout?

AM: “Well, the second high-five in history took place only a minute after the first, because when Glenn Burke returned to the Dodger dugout after hitting his homer, Dusty greeted him with a high-five of his own. It was quite an inning. Manny Mota also homered — his only home run between 1973 and the end of his career in 1982. And none of the homers really mattered. J.R. Richard pitched great otherwise and the Astros won the game. That’s baseball, right?”

SD: A widely published Los Angeles Times photo showing Burke in a windbreaker greeting Baker with a high five is often mistaken as the first high five. That photo was taken on October 5, 1977 after Baker’s grand slam in game two of the NLCS. Even an ESPN 30 for 30 Shorts leads the viewer to believe that photo represents the first high five. In terms of baseball mythology, how important is it to set the record straight regarding when the first high five occurred?

AM: “I understand why the photo is used so often and why the truth is kind of blurred about its significance. It’s a great picture and it’s the only one anyone has ever found of Burke and Baker high-fiving. So, as far as mythology goes, you could probably make an argument that it’s not that important to set the record straight. But in writing a truthful biography of Glenn, I thought it was interesting and important to point out that it wasn’t in fact the first high-five. In the photo, as you said, Glenn is wearing a jacket. On video, you can see that it was Davey Lopes’ jacket, not even his own. The Dodgers had their last names on the backs of their jackets then. Also, Glenn is wearing a regular cap, not a batting helmet, and he’s wearing it backward. So those are pretty good clues that he wasn’t the on-deck batter, as he was in the game where he gave Dusty that first high-five. Finally, you can see the bunting in the stands in the photo, with Dodger Stadium dressed up for the playoffs. The fact that Dusty’s home run took place on the last day of the regular season is significant, because otherwise the Dodgers would not have become the first team to have four players hit 30 or more homers in the same season. His playoff homer wouldn’t have counted for that record, of course.”

SD: Why did you want to write a biography of Glenn Burke?

AM: “My niche as an author is writing nonfiction, sports-related books with a social justice angle. My first book, Strong Inside, is a biography of Perry Wallace, the first Black basketball player in the Southeastern Conference. My second book, Games of Deception, is the story of the first U.S. men’s Olympic basketball team, which played at the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany. I’m writing a book now that will come out next year called Inaugural Ballers, which is the story of the first U.S. women’s Olympic basketball team at the ‘76 Games in Montreal. I felt that writing a biography of Glenn Burke would give me an opportunity to tell his story in the context of the gay rights movement of the 1970s and the backlash to that movement, as well as the toll of the AIDS epidemic and the costs of homophobia. I’m also a huge baseball fan, and it was a lot of fun to interview people like Dusty Baker, Davey Lopes, Mike Norris, Ruppert Jones and others for this book.”

SD: In May 1978, Los Angeles traded a younger Burke to Oakland for veteran outfielder Billy North. Why did the Dodgers make this trade?

AM: “At the time, the Dodgers said a veteran player like Billy North was more valuable to them in their World Series aspirations than a more unproven player like Burke, but most people believe there was a lot more to the story. Burke had started two games in the 1977 NLCS, as well as Game One of the World Series at Yankee Stadium. So he was a rookie that the team had some confidence in. During the offseason after the 1977 World Series, Al Campanis paid a visit to Glenn in the Bay Area. Glenn thought it was to talk about his role on the team in ‘78. Instead, Campanis offered Glenn a bribe to get married. Glenn asked, “To a woman?” When Campanis said yes, Glenn knew management was on to his sexuality, and he refused to go along with the plan. At that point, he knew his days with the Dodgers were numbered. Tommy Lasorda’s son, Spunky, was gay and Lasorda wasn’t happy that he and Glenn were friends. One of the things I found most interesting while researching the book is how hard Glenn’s teammates took his trade to the A’s. Sportswriters noticed players sitting at their lockers crying when they heard the news. That shows you what a presence Glenn had on that team, how much his teammates liked and respected him, even though he wasn’t a starter. And these guys knew he was gay. Some people contend, even today, that a gay player would be a “distraction” on a team. Glenn was anything but a distraction; he was one of the most popular players on the entire team.”

SD: The dust jacket of your book identifies Burke as the “the first openly gay MLB player and inventor of the high five.” His plaque on the Rainbow Honor Walk in San Francisco’s Castro District mentions the same thing. Which of those labels is more significant?

AM: “That’s a great question. It’s easy to say that his status as the first openly gay Major League player is more significant, and I think ultimately that is the right answer. But to think about the high-five and what a universally known gesture it is, and the fact that it’s all about celebrating the achievements of another person, that’s pretty significant, too. What a legacy to leave the world. But back to Glenn’s significance as a gay pioneer. When you look at the history of homophobia in American sports, and the fact that there still hasn’t been an active “out” gay player in the Major Leagues since Glenn, you appreciate the strength and courage it took for Glenn to try to live out his dreams.”

Andrew Maraniss’ book, ‘Singled Out: The True Story of Glenn Burke,’ is available wherever books are sold.