Mike Fleming

EXCLUSIVE: Long before veteran hoops player Jason Collins made a groundbreaking announcement this week that he is a gay athlete, there was former Los Angeles Dodgers and Oakland A’s 70s phenom outfielder Glenn Burke. Burke, who right up front made his teammates and team management aware he was gay, back when this was really taboo. Post-retirement, he became the first baseball player to come out publicly, during a Today Show interview with Bryant Gumbel in 1982. Jamie Lee Curtis and JUMA Entertainment are hoping the attention being paid to Collins will provide momentum for a story she has been trying for years to tell about Burke, based on Out At Home: The Glenn Burke Story, the autobiography written by Burke with Erik Sherman.

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.

“Glenn Burke changed the world forever with that one hand slap,” said Curtis about the high-five. She’s producing with Robert Horowitz. “Yesterday, Jason Collins changed the world forever when he told the truth. It’s a moment of truth that the world has been waiting for.” CAA represents both Curtis and JUMA.

Since NBA vet Collins is a free agent on the down side of an OK career, it will be interesting to see if a team signs him in light of his revelation. It certainly brought out a few neanderthals in the sports realm, like ESPN hoops analyst Chris Broussard, who ranted that homosexuality is a sin. I hate people who use the Bible as a document to justify exclusion, and wonder why guys like this don’t realize it wasn’t that long ago that bigots came up with similar excuses to justify segregation in the 60s, and ostracization of Jews in WWII Europe. Hopefully, a continuing groundswell of things, from Collins’ revelation to continued political momentum for tolerance and gay marriage, to movies like Glenn Burke or the one on Queen frontman Freddy Mercury that Sacha Baron Cohen and possibly Tom Hooper will make at Sony Pictures and GK, will eventually make it not okay for people to wear prejudice on their sleeve they way they continue to do with gays, lesbians and transgenders.

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