Sunday, June 1, 2008

BASEBALL LEGENDS--SMOKY BURGESS AND THE GREAT PINCH HITTERS

One of my favorite ball players from the 1950's and 60's was the great pinch hitter Forrest "Smoky" Burgess. He grew up on tobacco road in North Carolina and inherited the nickname from his father. He was a decent catcher for quite a few seasons from 1949-64, making the National League All-Star team 6 times, until his girth interfered with his mobility.

Smoky was a guy the average fan could identify with--a short fat guy with a large belly. In his bio he is listed at 5'8" and 187 pounds, but when I saw him play in his later years with the Chicago White Sox, he was closer to 287 pounds. On one occasion he won a clubhouse bet by eating 100 hot dogs in 30 minutes. But even if he couldn't bend down anymore to play in the field regularly, the left handed hitting Burgess could still hit the fastball with authority.

His lack of foot speed became legendary--he could run the 100 yard dash in just under 2 hours. But they paid him to hit, not run in track meets. The Chisox, locked in a close pennant race, would send him to the plate in critical situations with men on base. When Smoky delivered, as he often did, the team would quickly send in a pinch runner, otherwise he would clog up the basepaths. In fact, he was removed for a pinch runner 206 times in his career which is 9th most in major league history, behind such slowpokes as Willie McCovey (332), Greg Luzinski (260) and Harold Baines
(234) who ran bases like they were running through quicksand. I didn't know they even kept statistics on stuff like that.

Incredibly, in the 1966 season, Burgess collected 21 hits plus 11 walks, but he scored no runs at all. In fact, he holds the record for most at-bats in a season
(80) without scoring a single run. But he drove in 15 runs and his on-base percentage was an outstanding .413. The previous season, 1965, with 22 hits and 11 walks, he scored only 2 runs, both on pinch hit home runs. An efficient hitter with men on base, he drove in 24 runs with those 22 hits.

Over his career, he collected 145 pinch hits (in 507 at-bats for a .286 average) which was the all time record until it was surpassed by Manny Mota 14 years later. Of those 145 pinch hits, 16 were home runs, which places him among the all time leaders. Many knowledgable fans consider him the greatest pinch hitter of all time, even though his records have been broken by singles hitters like Mota and Lenny Harris. Harris, who although he didn't scare many pitchers, played long enough to be the current record holder with 212 pinch hits (with a batting average of only
.261). By contrast, Burgess's lifetime batting average, over 18 seasons was .295 with 126 home runs.

One must consider that pinch hitting is one of the most difficult jobs in baseball. The player must sit on the bench, sometimes for days at a time, patiently waiting in the dugout for that one opportunity to hit against a pitcher throwing the ball at 95 mph. It takes a unique individual to be able to get loose on short notice and be able to produce in a pressure situation. Unlike some of the recent pinch hitting specialists who have approached or surpassed his records, Burgess was usually called upon to face the opposing team's best relief pitcher in the late innings of a close game with men on base. He was expected to deliver a game tying base hit in a clutch situation, and he usually did.

Early in his career, Burgess played a couple of seasons with the Chicago Cubs, but was traded to Cincinnati and later to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. In his best season, 1954, he batted .368 in 108 games for the Phillies, but he lacked the necessary at-bats to qualify for the league batting championship. Later, as a catcher with Pittsburgh, he caught Harvey Haddix's famous 12 inning perfect no-hit game against Hank Aaron and the Braves. He played in 6 games in the 1960 World Series for the champion Pittsburgh Pirates against the New York Yankees, batting .333.

In an interview, he said that his most satisfying pinch hit was the homer he hit off the Cubs Sam Jones at the close of the 1956 season to allow his Cincinnati Reds to equal the NL team season home run record (221). His manager, Charlie Dressen sent him up to bat for weak hitting shortstop Roy McMillan, ordering him, "Make it a home run or nothin'" Smoky swung the bat and the ball landed on Sheffield Avenue outside Chicago's Wrigley Field.

Speaking of pinch hitters, the most remarkable pinch hitter in history was the forgettable Carroll Hardy because of the all-time greats he pinch hit for. He was the only player ever to pinch hit for the legendary Ted Williams, perhaps the greatest hitter of all time. The story was that Williams foul tipped a ball off his knee, and he had to leave the game. Hardy replaced him and lined into a double play.
Hardy was also called upon in his rather undistinguished career to bat for Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski and home run champion Roger Maris. Batting for Yastrzemski, he bunted for a single. Batting for Maris, he hit a 3-run game winning homer.

Next: Some other unusual and little known baseball records.

KENNETH SUSKIN

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1 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

the 1956 reds manager was birdie tebbits.

June 11, 2013 at 4:09 AM  

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