There is nothing about the 1978 Topps Glenn Burke rookie card that would make you think its subject was capable of creating a cultural phenomenon.
But it does stand out.
That 1978 set is full of odd or just bad images — a giant, scowling Mike Schmidt head; Rick Monday scratching his face; Greg Minton and Mike Paxton painted onto the fronts of their cards; Dave Kingman sticking his face through one of those “You Can Be a Cub!” photo props.
It was against this backdrop that I first encountered the Burke card. It was probably 1984 or 1985, and I was sifting through a stack of 1978s when #562 just popped out at me.
I had no idea who Burke was, but then I had yet to spend years studying every baseball card and baseball book I could lay my hands on.
No, it wasn’t Burke’s star power that stood out to me. It was that his card looked … different, somehow.
Sleepy Batting Practice?
Sure, Burke’s photo was a little odd, too. I mean, there he was, in an obviously posed yet off-balance follow-through, his head lulled the side and almost resting on his right shoulder.
The little Topps baseball in the upper right-hand corner that shows his position — OF — could be the ball that Burke has just smacked as he unwound his swing.
And the bat — which he may or may not be ready to bash against his own head — is nearly parallel to his tilted noggin and his right arm.
All in all, the card presents an interesting and tilted still-life type of symmetry that demands a closer look.
When I did look closer, though, it was Burke’s face that kept me on that card longer than the others.
While most players in the set frowned or fussed or smiled or grimace, Burke’s visage is completely smooth. His lips are just slightly parted, his forehead and cheeks are unblemished by expression of any sort, and his eyes …
Those flat, probing eyes can say almost anything you want them to say.
“You really want me to pose like that?” he’s asking the cameraman.
“Can you believe I have to pose like this?” he’s asking us.
“Mama, I’m sleepy,” he’s telling his mother just before he drifts off.
“I want to be somewhere else,” he tells the world.
And knowing what we do now about the man and his situation at the time, that last one seems at least plausible. Maybe he was daydreaming of a place and time when he could be happy and proud about being a ballplayer and all the things he was.
But I didn’t know anything about Glenn Burke back then other than what Topps told me on the back of his 1978 baseball card:
Glenn’s first major league Homer was in Dodgers’ last game of 1977 season.
(Apparently, “Homer” is a proper noun but “major league” is not.)
It may have surprised me that a man who looked so peaceful on his pasteboard could muster the anger to ever swat a home run in the Majors, but I’m not sure.
What I am sure of is that I had no idea that, between the time that photo was snapped and the card was issued, and between the time that Burke hit his first Homer and the end of the 1977 postseason, he would “invent” a sports cultural phenomenon.
It happened on October 2, 1977, the last day of the season, with three Dodgers having already collected their 30th home runs. Outfielder Dusty Baker had been stuck at 29 for several days, but if he could connect, the Dodgers would become the first team ever with four 30-homer players in one season.
And, as was and is customary, Baker’s teammates rushed toward home plate to greet him as he finished his victory lap.
One of those players was Glenn Burke, still in his warm-up jacket and beaming ear-to-ear. While the other guys on the team clapped Dusty on the back or smacked palms with him, Burke couldn’t contain his excitement.
Burke reached skyward with one hand, gap-toothed grin winking at Dusty, inviting his older teammate to “go high.” Baker followed Glenn’s lead, and the two men connected in the air above their heads for what is now generally acclaimed as the sports world’s first high five.
Glenn Burke, it seems, was a passionate and lively young man whose smile and energy was contagious. He was a man who helped change how we celebrate everything for evermore.
His 1978 Topps baseball card had lied to us … but it’s still a sight to behold.
Relegated to the dusty commons bin for most of the last four decades, it just may be time to take another look at this calming, beguiling, and misleading hunk of cardboard.