Jason Collins may be the first man to come out of the closet not just to people in his immediate circle, but to the country as a whole, while still actively pursuing a professional career in Major League Sports, but he wasn’t the first man out in baseball. That was Glenn Burke, who in the seventies was out to both Dodgers management and his teammates, and who came out nationally after his retirement. And apparently, Jamie Lee Curtis and her production company have been trying to get an adaptation of Burke’s autobiography into production, and are hoping the momentum of Collins’ announcement might help them make it happen. As Deadline summarizes the story:
Drafted by the Dodgers and touted as a potential star, Burke got off to a flying start when he became the only rookie to start in the 1977 World Series. Burke also took credit for inventing the high-five in 1977. Waiting on-deck at Dodger Stadium, he was first to congratulate teammate Dusty Baker with that up-high slap, after Baker hit his 30th home run in the last game of the season. While his adversity was nothing compared to what Dodger predecessor Jackie Robinson faced when he broke baseball’s color barrier, Burke’s decision to come out of the closet probably hastened his demise. In his autobiography, Burke wrote about how Dodgers GM Al Campanis offered to pay for a pricey honeymoon if Burke would get married in a Rock Hudson-like charade, but the ballplayer wasn’t going along with the sham. Campanis later was fired for appearing on Nightline and making outlandish racist remarks. Burke’s stats show he did not live up to the potential expected of him, but he seemed at peace with his decision to not hide his off the diamond life. “They can’t ever say now that a gay man can’t play in the majors, because I’m a gay man and I made it,” he said. He was diagnosed with AIDS in 1994 and died a year later at age 42.
One of the most important things movies can do is get under-acknowledged history to a mass audience. Milk, for example, mattered so much precisely because it introduced a mass audience to the idea that the gay rights movement was, in fact, a long-standing effort, and one that involved heroes and martyrs who fit into conventional narratives about sacrifices for social progress. A biopic of Burke could similarly help combat the idea that sports were a previously heterosexual zone that was somehow colonized by gay people, reminding mass audiences that there have always been gay athletes, even if they didn’t choose to share that fact with fans, or if fans weren’t astute enough to pick up on it.
And I’m also excited about the possibilities of a Burke biopic precisely because the audience would come to it with few assumptions and expectations. One of the things that I found deadening about 42, and what ultimately would have sucked the air out of any Jackie Robinson biopic was how familiar everyone was with the story. It’s mandatory to have set-pieces like Pee Wee Reese’s public embrace of Robinson or Leo Durocher’s dressing-down of the Dodgers who didn’t want to play with a black man, no matter how well or how human each of those moments has the potential to be. But with a story about Burke, nothing will be mandatory. Everything will be new. And as a result, the movie can be more human and relaxed, less stiffly conscious of history, something that serves good art, as well as humane arguments for equality.