Thursday, December 18, 2008

Tom Burgess, baseball player (1927-2008)

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
December 18, 2008

Tom Burgess had abandoned a dream of playing baseball for a living when his wife urged him to try one last time.

Her encouragement gave birth to a long career as a player, coach and, most notably, an instructor. Mr. Burgess also had two brief stints as a player in the major leagues, a rare Canadian to earn a roster spot in the mid-1950s.

A lackluster performance — he hit an anemic .177 in 104 games — belied a keen baseball mind.

He helped send to the majors legions of young players who benefitted from the skills he taught. Others praised him for his handling of young athletes. Among them was Tom Henke, the fireball reliever of the Toronto Blue Jays, who credited Mr. Burgess with ushering him through the minors.

The coach’s winning personality could convince even the most headstrong athlete to tinker with their batting stance, or alter their positioning in the field.

Like a mechanic who can fine tune an engine to get extra power, Mr. Burgess eliminated the weaknesses that made hitters vulnerable.

A typical case was that of Chito Martinez, a prospect born in what is now Belize, who languished in the minors with a low average. The free-swinging batter considered quitting until the coach eliminated a long, upper-cut swing in favour of a compact stroke that was both shorter and quicker. Mr. Martinez went on to enjoy two productive seasons with the Baltimore Orioles.

For a time, Mr. Burgess was under consideration to become manager of the Texas Rangers of the American League, which, had it happened, would have made him the first Canadian to handle a major-league club since George (Moon) Gibson guided Pittsburgh in 1934.

Despite a lifetime on the diamond, Mr. Burgess considered himself an outsider among the American baseball fraternity.

“To survive in the U.S. being a Canadian,” he said in a 2003 interview, “you’re getting knocked down and getting back up.”

For all his many seasons in flannels and polyester pinstripes, Mr. Burgess did not earn much attention in his homeland, even as a coach for the Baseball Canada’s national junior and senior teams.

“I am the best-kept secret in Canadian baseball,” he once told the Edmonton Journal.

Born to the postmaster of Lambeth, outside London, Thomas Roland Burgess, who would also be known as Tim in his playing days, interrupted high school studies to pursue baseball. He followed success as a peewee by pitching for the London Majors, a semiprofessional team in Ontario’s Major Intercounty circuit. He also played senior-B hockey in winter.

The St. Louis Cardinals signed him to a pro ball contract, assigning him to their Hamilton farm club. He was promoted to Allentown, Penn., and Columbus, Ga., before winding up at Omaha, Neb., after three seasons in the minors.

Mr. Burgess placed himself on the voluntarily retired list to return to London to complete his education.

After three summers, his wife, the former Dorrie Bates, a school teacher, convinced him to take another shot at winning a big-league job.

“I always thought that maybe later on he would wish he had gone back to baseball,” she told Neil MacCarl of the Toronto Star in 1953. “He had gone halfway up the baseball ladder and to quit then seemed silly to me.”

The couple set a two-year limit to the renewed quest.

The 6-foot, 180-pound left-handed outfielder enjoyed a stellar season with the Rochester (N.Y.) Red Wings, hitting .346 with 22 home runs and 93 runs batted-in. He finished second in batting average in the International League in 1953.

The parent St. Louis Cardinals called him up the following season for spot duty. The Redbirds had a solid outfield with rookie Wally Moon, sophomore Rip Repulski, and the veteran Stan Musial, a future Hall of Famer. Mr. Burgess managed just one hit — a double — in 21 at-bats.

He spent six seasons at Rochester, where his solid production on the field and popularity off it earned him the nickname, The People’s Choice.

Another three seasons in the high minors with the Columbus (Ohio) Jets and the Dallas-Fort Worth (Tex.) Rangers won him another chance in the majors.

The Los Angeles Angels were an expansion team in their second season in the American League when they promoted Mr. Burgess to fill a spot at first base. He displayed a deft glove, making only a single error in 35 games, but struggled at the plate, hitting just .196.

Ted Bowsfield, a pitcher born in Vernon, B.C., was also on the roster. He hit .162.

Mr. Burgess completed his playing days with the Richmond Virginians in 1963 before embarking on an odyssey. He managed teams in different leagues on both American coasts, as well as in the Texas and Appalachian Leagues.

He returned to the majors as a third-base coach, working with the New York Mets in 1977 and the Atlanta Braves the following season.

He was fired often and quickly hired by rival teams.

“It’s like politics,” he told the Globe’s Paul Patton in 1985. “If you’re on the right side, good things will happen.”

His regret at the time was not finding work in his homeland.

“I’m a Canadian and I’m sorry neither the Jays nor the (Montreal) Expos ever had a job for me,” he said.

He got his chance to work with homegrown talent with Baseball Canada. Among those whose raw skills he helped refine were Jason Bay and Justin Morneau, whose batting averages today are significantly heftier than that of their mentor.

In 1992, Mr. Burgess was inducted into the Rochester Red Wings’ hall of fame. The Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame at St. Marys, Ont., honoured him the same year.

A decade earlier, Mr. Burgess co-edited a coaching guide to baseball fundamentals. Like all books, it came with a price tag, though the creator was more than willing to share his knowledge for free.

Tom Valcke, president of the Canadian hall, tells a story about the coach’s ceaseless desire to pass on his baseball knowledge. Mr. Burgess was at the head table at a banquet held in Hamilton, the city where he launched his pro career, when approached .at the end of the evening by a prospect seeking tips. The conversation lasted until long after the hall emptied. The information was put to good use, as the prospect, Joey Votto, of Toronto, went on to join the Cincinnati Reds and was runner-up for National League rookie-of-the-year honours announced last month.

Thomas Roland Burgess was born on Sept. 1, 1927, at London, Ont. He died of cancer at Victoria Hospital in that city on Nov. 24. The resident of Lambeth was 81. He leaves a son, Tom Burgess, of St. Petersburg, Fla.; a daughter, Cindy Crawford, of London; a sister, Ruby Astles, of Toledo, Ohio; a brother, Bill Burgess, of London; and, five grandchildren. He was predeceased by his wife, Dorrie (nee Bates), who died in 1994. He was also predeceased by sisters Mildred and Violet.


Unknown said...

I am so glad I found this posting! Many years ago, in the mid-60's, when I was in grade 4, our teacher used to regale us with tales about her husband who had played for the St. Louis Cardinals. I cannot remember any of the details from any of these stories but it has always stayed with me that Mrs. Burgess was married to someone who was somewhat famous. I always wanted to verify this and now in the digital age, I have! My original searches produced only baseball statistics - no personal information. But then I found your blog entry and at last have confirmed her claim. Thanks so much!

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