Andrew Maraniss delivers a home run with ‘Singled Out’
New biography on Major League Baseball’s first openly gay player is already a hit
Unearthing a sports story that lends itself to book-length narrative nonfiction and involves a significant social issue isn’t easy.
Madison native Andrew Maraniss had already done it twice. His first book, “Strong Inside” — a prize-wining biography of Perry Wallace, the first African American basketball player in the Southeastern Conference — was followed by “Games of Deception,” an account of the first United States Olympic basketball team, which played in Nazi Germany in 1936.
Two years ago, Maraniss, a Madisonian at heart — more on that momentarily — who now lives near Nashville with his wife and two children, was searching for a similarly compelling tale to tell. He kicked some ideas around with Alec Shane, his literary agent. Nothing grabbed them. Then Shane said, “What about Glenn Burke?”
Maraniss is a lifelong baseball fan — he once worked in media relations for the Tampa Bay Major League franchise — and remembered having Burke’s late-1970s baseball card as a kid. Burke played outfield for the Dodgers in the 1977 World Series. Maraniss didn’t remember much more than that, until Shane said Burke was considered the first openly gay player in Major League Baseball.
“That’s the story,” Maraniss said.
This month brings the publication of Maraniss’s “Singled Out: The True Story of Glenn Burke,” a book that has already been excerpted by the New York Times and ESPN’s The Undefeated. “Singled Out” is ostensibly for young adults, a market that Maraniss first targeted with an adaption of “Strong Inside,” initially published for adults. The author doesn’t put much stock in labels.
“I consider [‘Singled Out’] a book for everybody,” Maraniss says. “The difference is it’s slightly shorter than a typical adult biography, the chapters are fast-paced, there are a lot of pictures — but I think adults like all that stuff, too.”
Maraniss began his research — “my favorite part of any book” — by reading “Out at Home,” Burke’s autobiography written with Erik Sherman. In 1995, Burke, dying from AIDS complications, poured his story out to Sherman, a writer who had gotten Burke’s autograph at Yankee Stadium as a middle-schooler. Nearly 25 years later, Sherman welcomed Maraniss as he began trying to place Burke’s story in a larger context of gay rights and race in the final decades of the last century.
“He was very gracious,” Maraniss says of Sherman. “He shared the audio of his interviews with Glenn. He shared letters from people who had read the book and had additional stories to tell. I was able to follow up with them.”
Burke grew up in California, where he was a legend on the playground courts in Oakland. He couldn’t just dunk, he could touch the top of the backboard. Burke was even better at baseball, rising in the minor leagues before joining the Los Angeles Dodgers. His first full season was 1977.
Burke was popular with his teammates, humorous and fun-loving. But he didn’t join them at the bars where women sought contact with professional athletes. In the off season, Burke lived in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood. He was gay.
Among his Dodger teammates, Maraniss says, Burke’s sexuality “was kind of an open secret. He never came out and said it. But he wasn’t really hiding it.” The players liked him, it was ‘live and let live.’
Dodgers general manager Al Campanis, however, called a meeting with Burke after the 1977 season.
“He offered Glenn $75,000 to get married,” Maraniss says. “Glenn said, ‘To a woman?’”
When Burke refused, he was traded to the Oakland Athletics, where his teammates were strangers and less welcoming. Burke was soon out of baseball.
It was in 1982 — in an article in “Inside Sports” magazine followed by an interview with Bryant Gumbel on the “Today” show — that Burke publicly acknowledged he was gay.
“Glenn thought that by coming out he might actually get another chance in the Major Leagues,” Maraniss says. “As people realized it wasn’t because he couldn’t play that he left baseball. He’d essentially been run out because of who he was. Maybe a team would give him another chance. That never happened.”
For Maraniss, the chance to interview Burke’s Dodger teammates, especially Dusty Baker — “cool, kind and generous” — was a kick. Maraniss’s baseball roots, as noted, go deep — as do his Madison roots. In fact, they’re connected.
When I visited Andrew’s father, the author David Maraniss, in Washington, D.C. a couple of years ago, David talked about listening to Milwaukee Braves games with his own dad — Capital Times editor Elliott Maraniss — on their porch in Madison. Andrew Maraniss was born in Madison (he grew up in Washington and Austin) and visits often. He says he’s “successfully brainwashed” his kids, Eliza and Charlie, into being Brewers fans. “They got their Brewers’ Kids Club packs in the mail for Christmas,” he says, and hopes to bring them to Milwaukee for a game this summer.
More meaningful, perhaps, was the trip the Maraniss family — including wife and mom, Alison — took to San Francisco while Andrew was researching his book. They saw some baseball games and went to the Castro District, where a bronze panel for Burke is embedded in the Rainbow Honor Walk. Baseball honored his pioneering gay rights’ stance at the 2014 All-Star game, inviting Burke’s sister, Lutha, and her daughter to Minneapolis for the tribute.
One more thing. In the last game of the 1977 season, Dusty Baker hit a home run, his 30th that year, which set a record for most players on a team hitting 30 in a season. Glenn Burke was in the on-deck circle and he greeted his teammate at home plate.
Burke raised his hand. Baker slapped it. A momentous occasion.
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