Hollywood somehow missed the Glenn Burke story. In the right hands, it could have been an Oscar winner without much dramatic embellishment. Still could be.
"I could see someone like Jamie Foxx playing Glenn Burke," said documentarian Doug Harris. "He has some of the same physical and facial characteristics as Glenn."
Then again, telling the tale of Burke, who was effectively driven from the game because of his barely concealed homosexuality, hardly requires Tinseltown treatment. The first openly gay Major League Baseball player has a story that's searing, sad and powerful, and it's just a documentary told through interviews with people who knew and played alongside him.
Thirty-one years after he played his last major league game with the Oakland A's, and 15 years after his 1995 death from AIDS, Burke's story is coming to the screen. Co-produced by Harris and Sean Maddison and financed by Comcast SportsNet Bay Area, "Out. The Glenn Burke Story" will premiere tonight at a screening at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. It also will be televised on CSNBA at 8 p.m.
It's an hour of landmark work, and you'd best have a box of tissue nearby. The social stigma of gay athletes is still difficult for many people to comprehend or accept today. Telling a tale from more than 30 years ago offers a barometer about where we are now, and where we were then.
"It would be nice if viewers look at this film and take a personal assessment of their whole level of acceptance, not necessarily dealing just with the gay issue but acceptance overall," Harris said.
Burke's story always has had a personal appeal for Harris, who was invited by Ted Griggs, CSNBA vice president and general manager, to co-produce the film. Harris, like Burke, attended Berkeley High, and though he was eight years younger than the school's athletic icon, he grew up watching Burke's prowess on the basketball court and baseball diamond.
Griggs, a Hayward native, had heard of Burke's athletic exploits as a youth and long wanted to present a documentary for Comcast. He became familiar with Harris' work a few years ago when Fox Sports Net aired a tribute to the old East Bay high school basketball Tournament of Champions. Harris also has made documentaries on Berkeley High athletic legend Don Barksdale and former Cal basketball coach Pete Newell, among others films.
The project was launched in May and more than 30 people were interviewed for the film. They included former Burke teammates with the A's and Los Angeles Dodgers, childhood friends, Burke's sister Joyce, baseball executives and media members. Also interviewed was former major league outfielder Billy Bean (not the A's general manager), who also revealed his homosexuality once his playing career was over.
Through the words of former Dodgers teammates Reggie Smith, Dusty Baker, Davey Lopes and Rick Monday, some preconceived notions about how players might deal with a gay teammate are effectively skewered. The players tell how they came to learn that Burke was gay, and they expressed fondness for his personality and talent. They also expressed sadness when Dodgers management couldn't accept Burke's lifestyle and traded him to Oakland.
Former A's players such as Rickey Henderson, Shooty Babitt and Claudell Washington are even more outspoken about how Burke was mistreated here, notably by then-manager Billy Martin. In one stunning recollection, Washington said that on the day Martin introduced Burke to his new teammates in Oakland, he added, "Oh, by the way, this is Glenn Burke and he's a faggot."
Burke lasted two years and 101 games with Oakland. He had enough of the persecution and couldn't live dual lives anymore. He moved to San Francisco, where he became something of a celebrity in the gay community. The story turned tragic in the 1990s, however, when Burke was hit by a car, turned to drugs and alcohol, wound up homeless, and ultimately contracted AIDS and died.
Some of the most emotional moments in the film come when Burke speaks from tapes of interviews he did with author Eric Sherman, whose 1995 book "Out At Home: The Glenn Burke Story" didn't earn the readership it probably should have because baseball was trying to gain traction after the 1994 strike.
The Comcast production should help rectify that. It's a good bet this edgy documentary will get national attention. Burke's story deserves it.
Contact Carl Steward at email@example.com.