Andrew Maraniss is an author who believes past athletic history can be one of the best conduits for offering advice to future generations of kids on social issues. All of his books have a reputation for navigating the intersection of sports and social justice by highlighting game changing athletes who have cut against the grain of what society expected of them and stood up for their ideals. In his first book Strong Inside, Maraniss introduced readers to Perry Wallace, the first African American basketball player in the Southeast Conference. Then we had Games of Deception, highlighting the 1936 U.S. men's Olympic basketball team amid the backdrop of the Berlin Games which were played out during Hitler's Nazi Germany. In his latest book Singled Out, Maraniss presents the story of Glenn Burke, the first openly gay MLB player and his struggles to gain acceptance in the world of sports as well as life.
Singled Out continues the line of titles by Maraniss written specifically for the Young Adult audience, but these titles resonate powerfully with adults as welll. Maraniss has earned a reputation as what I like to think of as "everyone's author". In terms of accessibility, sports books can be exclusive by often skewing towards age, or a specific audience of readers who have a vested interest and knowledge base in that specific sport. As a librarian, Maraniss has become my go-to for patrons age 10-100 looking for good sports nonfiction that cuts through any personality, age and background. And that's a rare find! He has a knack for speaking to every level, letting each story speak for itself, and allowing the reader to be affected by whatever aspect of the story they specifially connect with. His stories are universal, and as exciting, sincere, enertaining, electric, and inspirational, as they are educational.
Since this is a YA book, I want to take time here to point out some things in Singled Out that stood out to me as great discussion points for the YA reader. I have even included an "Extra Innings" question for the YA reader to kick off a discussion (and no, we're not starting on the second question!)
The search for identity is a struggle. One thing that constantly comes to mind in Glenn Burke's life is his search for identity. Maraniss does a great job highlighting Burke's struggle to not only find his identity as a person, but grapple with what to do with it both inside and outside of sports. The transition to adulthood for teens requires navigating unique layers, struggling to ultimately answer, "Who am I?" and "How do I fit in?" Glenn's struggle with his sexuality, his race, the outspoken nature of his personality, and how he tried to make all this fit into the context of unique environments is both enlightening and cautionary in the search for identity. It always seems, especially in the world of sports, that there is a strong stereotypical vision for what a "real athlete" should be. For many like Glenn, realizing that your identity doesn't jibe with society's picture of an athlete can be a loney and destructive search for peace and acceptance.
Extra Innings question for the YA reader: Glenn is a complex person who struggles on a multitude of fronts to discover his true self. How has Glenn's identity evolved and what are the parts in Glenn's life where he is fighting to define himself? How has your identity evolved from elementary to middle school and on to high school and adulthood? Have you had to fight or struggle to affirm any part of your identity? (Remember, a struggle can be silent or vocal)
Understanding cultural attitudes and context of the time period. Perhaps Maraniss' greatest strength as a storyteller is his ability to place his subjects in the time period through vivid details about the culture of the times. Context is key to understanding, and Maraniss always has a keen eye for details that color the background for the reader and allow his subject to "live" in that historical period as he tells his story. The 70's vibe of San Fransisco Castro area, the atmosphere in the minor league towns, entertainment fads like disco, or the rise of the AIDS scourge are great examples of things Maraniss brings alive in Burke's life that help the reader understand the atmosphere, people, and types of attitudes prevalent in that time. Understanding who people were at that time might help kids understand how they were thinking.
Extra Innings question for the YA reader: What were the attitudes in the 70's that made life particularly difficult for Glenn. In what part of society did he seek support and comfort? Looking at the culture of 2021 in America, how would a gay athlete be treated at any level from middle school to the pros?
How do we support those on the outside of "normal"? The book makes it clear that there were people in Glenn Burke's life that stood by his side, helped him, and supported who he was. I like that Maraniss introduced people like Dusty Baker, highlighting their positive impact on Glenn. But there were plenty of detractors. Glenn hid himself from most people for fear of judgement, and it took a long time for him to trust others with his secret, causing pain and poor choices in the process. Many of Glenn's teammates suspected his homosexuality and chose to keep this suspicion to themselves, which is often the way these issues are handled by people who may agree or disagree with that person's lifestyle, but feel it is not their business. At best, this type of action is respecting someone's privacy. At worst, it is a fear to acknowlege someone struggling with their identity, in turn leaving them like Glenn, isolated and quite vulnerable.
Extra Innings question for the YA reader: In what ways did people in Glenn's life support him in his athletic and personal life. In thinking of teammates, coaches, teachers, family, adults, and friends, in what ways do you feel supported in your personal life, athletic endeavors, or lifestyle choices? How do you feel there is a lack of support?
You CAN change perspectives of people. One of my favorite little anecdotes for this from Glenn's story comes when he takes his softball team of gay players up the the Willows Resort to play a game against a team of straight men from the town. After Glenn's team won, the squads hung out together at a local bar and peacefully mingled together in what Maraniss describes as "bonding over a shared love of sports." To see that two clearly divided camps of people could find a common ground of respect for each other was powerful.
I think one of the most important lesson's from Glenn's personality regarding the ability to change perspectives is to be yourself. Glenn is a loveable, free-wheeling character, and I feel that his ablity to change perspectives came from the fact that he was so genuine and likable.
One of the hardest parts of Glenn's life, much like teens struggling with sexuality, is finding the courage to change minds while being true to yourself. While I think having to always fight these negative perspectives while being loyal to himself eventually wore Glenn down and pushed him into bad choices, Singled Out shows Burke will be remembered as more of an impactful figure than probably he even would have believed.
Extra Innings question for the YA reader: How does Glenn change perspectives of people around him about who he is and what they think about gay people? How difficult is it, as a teenager, to come out in the open as yourself and celebrate your unique characteristics instead of hiding them?
Sports figures should not stay out of poitical or social issues. Boy, have we seen lots of this lately. Sports figures do not simply exist to play sports. They allow themselves to be put under a microscope for their craft, and I think this allows them a moral voice in the same world that has put them on this pedestal. Sports figures like Glenn need to have their story heard. The player and the person should be respected equally. If you want to idolize someone for their athletic ability, you don't have to idolize their personality, but they should at least be afforded some respect for their views and choices. After reading Glenn's story, it's sobering to realize that there has not been as much progress in this area.
Extra Innings question for the YA reader: Should athletes be allowed to speak out on political or social issues? Should a high school athlete be allowed to stand up for their political or social beliefs in the prep environment?
What happens when an organization is worried about it's perception? One of the big moments of Glenn's professional baseball career was when he was told in not so many words that his image would not fit with the image that the Dodgers were looking to portray. I always hear this "face of the organization" preaching from teams and the squeaky clean image they wish to put out to the public fanbase. The Dodgers valued that wholesome vibe, and while Glenn might have checked all their on field boxes, he ultimately could not fit their off field persona, which made him expendable.
Sadly, I see this sentiment creeping even into youth sports, as teams like to play an image conscious game. The idea of not accepting people of differeing lifestyle choices into your team, business, school, or club because of fear of how the organiztion may be negatively percieved is nothing short of cowardly and hypocritical. In many cases, like Glenn's, it is the root of discrimination and just plain wrong.
Extra Innings question for the YA reader: Do you feel the Dodgers mistreated Glenn or do they have the right to employ any type of person they wish? Have you ever been part of a team or organization that likes to control how others on the outside see them? What does that look like at the prep level?
The High Five as a symbol. One of the great pop culture tidbits that Maraniss weaves into his story is the invention of the high five. Glenn Burke invented the high five as a celebratory gesture to Dusty Baker who had just hit a home run. Interestingly, I feel the impact of this element has real bearing beyond just a fun fact. What I find fascinating about this, for example, is the idea of homophobic people running around happily giving high fives without knowing it was actually started by a gay man! People participate in any number of cultural gestures without knowing the origins of them, which can cause, at best, lots of ironic behavior--and at worst, misinterpreted or harmful behavior.
Extra Innings question for the YA reader: Think of many of the celebratorial gestures and dances, etc that athletes have used over time or are currently using. Research some of the origins of these. Does your school have any unique celebratory rituals? Do you know the origins of them? Is there any way that they could be deemd as offensive to any group?
I am anxious for Maraniss to take this story on the road. As good of an author as he is, Maraniss is just as good in front of rooms of teenagers. He has spoken to groups at my school about racism through Strong Inside, and it was a powerful experience for all of our kids. Now more than ever, our teens need examples from the past to show them how the types of actions they are still seeing today are harmful. We can do better, and Maraniss is one the best at highlighting athletes who have led by example.