The Jackie Robinson of Gay Rights


In one of the more light-hearted moments in 42, a nearly-naked Ralph Branca (played by Hamish Linklater) confronts an equally near-naked Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) on the question on why he doesn’t shower with the rest of the team. After a minute or so of hemming and hawing, Branca blurts out, “Jackie, I’d like you to take a shower with me ” — or words to that effect.

Boseman’s eyebrows raise, and Linklater immediately begins to stammer, “I didn’t mean that the way it sounded.”

When I saw it, the scene was a big laugh-getter in the theater. And yet, it brings up an issue that even 42 is afraid to deal with: Who will be the Jackie Robinsons of gays and how, exactly, are his teammates going to react when it’s shower time?

Or did baseball already have its first Jackie Robinson of gay rights? Glenn Burke, who played for the LA Dodgers and Oakland A’s from 1976-1979, made no secret that he was gay and even refused to participate in a sham marriage that the team wanted to set up for him. Burke, who died in 1995, age 42 of AIDS-related causes, wrote a superb autobiography, Out at Home. Promoting his book, he told People magazine, “My mission as a gay ballplayer was the break a stereotype…I think it worked.”

Perhaps because Burke wasn’t really a star – his major league batting average was just .237 – no one seems to remember that he was the first major league baseball player to have the guts to come out of the locker room. Ironically, Burke is remembered best by baseball fans for inventing the high five with Dusty Baker.)

But he was the subject of a superb documentary by Bay Area filmmakers Doug Harris and Sean Maddison that aired on Comcast Sports Net Bay Area in November, 2010. His book is waiting for any director with the guts to try. It would be nice if ESPN or a major studio would pick up the rights and give it the treatment it deserves.