He spent a few years traveling the minor league circuit, crushing balls out of the park. A solid hitter and a quick-footed outfielder, scouting reports likened him to the "next Jackie Robinson." In 1977, he was recruited by the Los Angeles Dodgers where, by season's end, Burke had become an integral part of the starting line-up that sent the Dodgers to their first pennant in years. After his teammate Dusty Baker hit a game- and series-winning home run, Burke rushed the field and gave his teammate the first-ever recorded "high five."
But by the next season, Burke's gay escapades had become common knowledge in the Dodgers' locker room. The Dodgers apparently offered to pay for a luxurious honeymoon if Burke would agree to marry a woman. He refused and was traded upstate to the Oakland As, where he had a brief stay before dropping out of pro baseball completely.
Some accounts of his life have portrayed Burke's short-lived pro baseball life as heroically tragic--ostracized from sports, but ultimately, in the final months of his life, supported by his former teammates as he was ravaged by AIDS.
However, the real ending is not so wistful. After being cut from the As, Burke's life sped downhill. He was slapped with a prison stint for dealing crack cocaine. At some point, he contracted AIDS. Released from prison, he took to the streets, where he begged and, by some accounts, became a common hoodlum, stealing and mugging. In his final months, his sister pulled him off the San Francisco streets--but he died anonymously and with a criminal record much lengthier than his baseball rap sheet.
Meanwhile, across the pond, another athlete also had an auspicious beginning, positioning himself as a role model and a trendsetter, only to eventually crash and burn. An orphaned child, Justin Fashanu rose quickly through Britain's soccer leagues, signing with a semi-pro team at the age 14. In 1981, Fashanu signed the first million-plus pound contract for a black athlete in that country. Later that year, he volleyed a game-winning goal against the top-ranked Liverpool--a shot that was voted "goal of the season" by European sportswriters.
But the next season his coach, disgusted with his gayness, suspended him. Eventually, Fashanu moved on to another team. But during one of his first games, he tore apart his knee. He never quite rekindled the magic that let him slip through even the most solid defensive lines. For the next few years, he floated around pro and semi-pro teams in Britain and the U.S.
For a brief moment in 1990, Fashanu again climbed to the front page of British tabloids when he very publicly outed himself. Under a headline screaming, "I'm Gay," Fashanu told his story--a story he reportedly sold for £80,000, and which also implicated two male politicians. Unfortunately, Fashanu lied--not about his sexual orientation, but about the parliamentary paramours. Four years later, he admitted he had fabricated the story about the flings in order to increase the value of the story.
Disgraced, he fled to the U.S., where he coached a high school team in Georgia. After four years there, he was accused of molesting a 17-year-old boy. With accusations dogging him, he returned to London. Three days later, he was found hanging from the rafters on the underside of an East London bridge. The authorities ruled it a suicide. PHIL BUSSE