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A high-five for ‘Singled Out’

True story of Glenn Burke is important gay baseball history lesson

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(Image courtesy of Philomel Books)

‘Singled Out: The True Story of Glenn Burke’
By Andrew Maraniss
c.2021, Philomel Books $17.99/320 pages

“Singled Out: The True Story of Glenn Burke” by Andrew Maraniss is the perfect read for you if you’ve been jonesing during this pandemic winter for baseball.

The affection queer fans have for baseball is intermingled with sadness and anger. Because, historically, Major League Baseball has been homophobic.

“Singled Out,” written for readers age 12 and up, sheds light not only on homophobia in MLB but on LGBTQ history. Maraniss tells the story of Glenn Burke, a Black, gay man who was in Major League Baseball from 1976 to 1979 (playing with the Los Angeles Dodgers, then with the Oakland Athletics).

Burke, who was born in 1952 and died in 1995 from complications of AIDS, was the first openly queer MLB player. Though he didn’t come out until after he stopped playing with the MLB, his sexuality was an open secret. His family, friends and teammates know he was gay.

“Singled Out” is a page-turner for teens and adults. Maraniss, whose first book “Strong Inside” received the Lillian Smith Book Award for civil rights and the RFK Book Awards’ Special Prize for social justice, makes Burke come alive.

In lesser hands, Burke’s story could have been a dull history lesson. Thankfully, Maraniss, who lives with his wife and children in Nashville, transforms Burke’s story from a historical footnote into a vibrantly lived life.

Burke, born in Oakland, Calif., loved being in the limelight even when he was a child. From early on, he was a terrific singer as well as a fab athlete. At age nine, he was among a group of Berkeley kids who sang in the chorus of a recording of a live album by the popular folk group the Limeliters. He’s on the album cover wearing a gold sweater.

As a student at Berkeley High School, Burke was a star baseball and basketball player. LA Dodger coach Junior Gilliam, after watching Burke play, said Burke was the next Willie Mays. After playing for one season in the Dodgers farm system, he played with the basketball team at Nevada-Reno for a few games in the 1974-1975 season.

Burke was a highly touted prospect for the Dodgers. He was popular with his teammates, who loved the way he played his music and made them laugh. He started in center field in Game 1 of the 1977 World Series.

On top of that, Burke invented the high five. In the last game of the 1977 season, Dusty Baker hit his 30th home run. Burke greeted Baker with a raised hand as Baker crossed home plate. Baker slapped Burke’s hand. This was the first high five. When Burke, too, hit a home run, Baker greeted him with the second high-five in history.

Though Burke was closeted, he lived as an openly gay man in San Francisco during the off-season. But he discovered that “fame came with a price,” Maraniss writes.

“In the baseball world, he worried he’d be shunned because he was gay,” Maraniss adds, “In the gay world, he resented that his fame was the only reason some men cared about him … otherwise he’d just be another gay Black man facing two layers of discrimination.”

The Dodgers offered him $75,000 if he would get married. “To a woman?” Burke asked as he turned down this proposal.

After being let go by the Dodgers and leaving the A’s because of homophobia, Burke struggles with homelessness and drug addiction. In fast-paced, short chapters, Maraniss writes of Burke’s pain and of his legacy. He sets the homophobia that Burke encounters within the context of the 1970s – Anita Bryant, sodomy laws – the decade after Stonewall. This is particularly helpful for young readers who would have little or no knowledge of that time.

Burke was posthumously honored at the 2014 All-Star Game and inducted into San Francisco’s Honor Walk in the Castro in 2017. Last year, the MLB paid tribute to Burke during Pride month. In December 2020, Oakland’s LGBTQ Community Center’s wellness clinic was named after Burke.

Without being preachy, Maraniss deftly tells Burke’s story. A high-five for “Singled Out.”

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Books

‘On Bette Midler’ is a divine new read

Part charming, part nostalgic, and very affectionate

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(Book cover image courtesy of Oxford University Press)

‘On Bette Midler: An Opinionated Guide’
By Kevin Winkler
c.2024, Oxford University Press 
$29.99 232 pages 

Superb.

That word’s appropriate in this situation. Fantastic, that’s another. Transcendent or celestial, if you’re of that mind, or perhaps anointed. There are many adjectives you can use for a performer who transports you, one who sings to your soul. Sensational, breathtaking, outstanding, or – as in the new book “On Bette Midler” by Kevin Winkler – another, better word may be more suitable.

Born in Hawaii a few months after the end of World War II, Bette Midler was named after film star Bette Davis. It was a perhaps auspicious start: despite a minor disparity (Midler’s mother thought the movie star’s first name was pronounced “Bet”), young Midler seemed at a young age to want to follow in her almost-namesake’s footsteps. By age 11, she’d won accolades and prizes for her performances and she “yearned to be a serious actor.” As soon as she could, she headed for New York to seize her career.

Alas, her “unconventional” looks didn’t help win the roles she wanted but she was undeterred. Unafraid of small venues and smaller gigs, she “just blossomed” in New York City. Eventually, she landed at the Improv on 44th Street; the owner there helped her negotiate some minor work. Another man became her manager and secured a job for her at the Continental, a New York bath house strictly for gay men. She was hired for eight summer nights, Friday and Saturdays only, for $50 a night.

Almost immediately, her authenticity, her raunchy language, and her ability to relate to her audience made her beloved in the gay community. Midler’s tenure at the Continental expanded and, though legend points to a longer time, she worked at the bath house for just over two years before moving on and up, to television, recording studios, movies, and into fans’ hearts. Still, asks Winkler, “Did it really matter what stage she was on? She touched audiences wherever she performed.”

In his earliest words – and, in fact, in his subtitle – author Kevin Winkler reminds readers that “On Bette Midler” is a book that’s “highly opinionated, filled with personal contemplations…” He is, in other words, a super-fan, but that status doesn’t mar this book: Winkler restrains his love of his subject, and he doesn’t gush. Whew.

That will be a relief to readers who wish to relish in their own fervor, although you’ll be glad for Winkler’s comprehensive timeline and his wide look at Midler’s career. Those things come after a long and fascinating biography that starts in 1970, takes us back to 1945, and then pulls us forward through movies, television appearances, stage performances, and songs you might remember – with appearances from Barbara Streisand, Barry Manilow, and Cher. It’s a fun trip, part confidential, part charming, part nostalgic, and very affectionate.

Despite that this is a “personal” book, it’s great for readers who weren’t around during Midler’s earliest career. If you were and you’re a fan, reading it is like communing with someone who appreciates Midler like you do. Find “On Bette Midler.” You’ll find it divine.

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Books

Architecture junkies will love new book on funeral homes

‘Preserved’ explores how death industry evolved after WWII

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(Book cover image courtesy of Johns Hopkins University Press)

‘Preserved: A Cultural History of the Funeral Home in America’
By Dean G. Lampros
c.2024, Johns Hopkins University Press 
$34.95/374 pages

Three bedrooms upstairs. That’s a minimum.

You need a big kitchen, a large back room would be a bonus, you want lots of bathrooms, and if you can get a corner lot, that’d be great. The thing you need most is a gigantic all-purpose room or maybe a ballroom because you’re planning on a lot of people. As you’ll see in the new book “Preserved” by Dean G. Lampros, not all living rooms are for the living.

Not too long ago, shortly after he took a class on historic preservation, Dean Lampros’ husband dragged him on a weekend away to explore a small town in Massachusetts. There, Lampros studied the town’s architecture and it “saddened” him to see Victorian mansions surrounded by commercial buildings. And then he had an epiphany: there was once a time when those old mansions housed funeral homes. Early twentieth-century owners of residential funeral homes were, in a way, he says, preservationists.

Prior to roughly World War II, most funerals were held at home or, if there was a need, at a funeral home, the majority of which were located in a downtown area. That changed in 1923 when a Massachusetts funeral home owner bought a large mansion in a residential area and made a “series of interior renovations” to the building. Within a few years, his idea of putting a funeral home inside a former home had spread across the country and thousands of “stately old mansions in aging residential neighborhoods” soon held death-industry businesses.

This, says, Lampros, often didn’t go over well with the neighbors, and that resulted in thousands of people upset and lawsuits filed. Some towns then passed ordinances to prohibit such a thing from happening to their citizens.

Still, funeral home owners persevered. Moving out of town helped “elevate” the trade, and it allowed Black funeral home operators to get a toehold in formerly white neighborhoods. And by having a nice – and nice-sized – facility, the operators were finally able to wrest the end-of-life process away from individuals and home-funerals.

Here’s a promise: “Preserved” is not gruesome or gore-for-the-sake-of-gore. It’s not going to keep you up all night or give you nightmares. Nope, while it might be a little stiff, it’s more of a look at architecture and history than anything else.

From California to New England, author Dean G. Lampros takes readers on a cruise through time and culture to show how “enterprising” business owners revolutionized a category and reached new customers for a once-in-a-deathtime event. Readers who’ve never considered this hidden-in-plain-sight, surprising subject – or, for that matter, the preservation or re-reclamation of those beautiful old homes – are in for a treat here. Despite that the book can lean toward the academic, a good explanatory timeline and information gleaned from historical archives and museums offer a liveliness that you’ll enjoy.

This book will delight fans of little-know history, and architecture junkies will drool over its many photographs. “Preserved” is the book you want because there are other ways to make a house a “home.”

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Books

‘Mean Boys’ raises questions of life, death, and belonging

New memoir wanders but enjoy the whiplash

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(Boom cover image courtesy of Bloomsbury)

‘Mean Boys: A Personal History’
By Geoffrey Mak
c.2024, Bloomsbury 
$28.99/267 pages

It’s how a pleasant conversation is fed, with give and take, back and forth, wandering casually and naturally, a bit of one subject easing into the next with no preamble. It’s communication you can enjoy, like what you’ll find inside “Mean Boys” by Geoffrey Mak.

Sometimes, a conversation ends up exactly where it started.

Take, for instance, Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” which leads Mak to think about his life and his inability to “cull the appropriate narratives out of nonsense.” Part of that problem, he says, was that his living arrangements weren’t consistent. He sometimes “never really knew where I was living,” whether it was Berlin or California, in a studio or high-end accommodations. The parties, the jokes, the internet consumption were as varied as the homes and sometimes, “it didn’t really matter.” Sometimes, you have to accept things and just “move on.”

When he was 12 years old, Mak’s father left his corporate job, saying that he was “called by God” to become a minister. It created a lot of resentment for Mak, for the lack of respect his father got, and because his parents were “passionately anti-gay.” He moved as far away from home as he could, and he blocked all communication with his parents for years, until he realized that “By hating my father, I ended up hating myself, too.”

And then there was club life which, in Mak’s descriptions, doesn’t sound much different in Berghain (Germany) as it is in New York. He says he “threw myself into night life,” in New York Houses, in places that gave “a skinny Chinese kid from the suburbs… rules I still live by,” on random dance floors, and in Pornceptual. Eventually this, drugs, work, politics, pandemic, basically everything and life in general led to a mental crisis, and Mak sought help.

“I don’t know why I’m telling you all this,” Mak says at one point. “Sometimes life was bad, and sometimes it wasn’t, and sometimes it just was.”

Though there are times when this book feels like having a heart-to-heart with an interesting new acquaintance, “Mean Boys” can make you squirm. For sure, it’s not a beach read or something you’ll breeze through in a weekend.

No, author Geoffrey Mak jumps from one random topic to another with enough frequency to make you pay close to attention to his words, lest you miss something. That won’t leave you whiplashed; instead, you’re pulled into the often-dissipated melee just enough to feel almost involved with it – but with a distinct sense that you’re being held at arms’ length, too. That some stories have no definitive timeline or geographical stamp – making it hard to find solid ground – also adds to the slight loss of equilibrium here, like walking on slippery river rocks.

Surprisingly, that’s not entirely unpleasant but readers will want to know that the ending in “Mean Boys” could leave their heads swirling with a dozen thoughts on life, belonging, and death. If you like depth in your memoirs, you’ll like that — and this.

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