Sunday, November 1, 2015

Alex Burr, the Yankee Who Gave His Life for Our Country

A player for the New York Yankees once died for America in a war. And, mostly likely, you've never heard of him.

November 1, 1893: Alexander Thomson Burr is born in Chicago. Usually listed as "Alex Burr" in baseball reference sources, but known as "Tom Burr" to his friends, he went east to attend the Choate prep school (now Choate Rosemary Hall) in Wallingford, Connecticut, and became a star pitcher. He then attended Williams College in Williamstown, in the Berkshire Mountains, in the northwestern corner of Massachusetts, bordering the States of New York and Vermont.

He signed a pro contract before ever appearing in a college game, so he never played for Williams. But he didn't last long. Frank Chance, the legendary Chicago Cubs manager now struggling to lift the Yankees to success, was impressed with him in spring training, and brought him north with the club.

But Tom Burr appeared in exactly 1 major league game, on April 21, 1914, at the Polo Grounds, and not as a pitcher. He played center field for the New York Yankees -- not yet an exalted position. He only played in the field, in the 10th inning, had no fielding chances, and never came to bat -- a true "Moonlight Graham." The Yankees went on to beat the Washington Senators 3-2.
He was soon released, and never reached the majors again. He played 7 games for the Jersey City Skeeters of the International League. He went back to Williams, but when the U.S. got into World War I in April 1917, he enlisted in the U.S. Army without getting his degree, and became a pilot.

On October 12, 1918, just 1 month before the Armistice ended the war, Tom Burr was killed in action in a plane crash, in Cazaux, France. It was an accident: Rather than being shot down, another U.S. pilot crashed into him -- what became known as "friendly fire." His plane caught fire, and crashed into a lake. It took 12 days to find his body.
He wasn't quite 25 years old. He was 1 of 8 major league players killed in "The War to End All Wars." Another, former St. Louis Cardinals catcher Harry Glenn, died of pneumonia the same day as Burr. Only 1 other played for a New York team, former Giant 3rd baseman Eddie Grant.

For all their history, and for all their attention to it, the Yankees make no mention at Yankee Stadium of the one and only player from their ranks to have died in military service. This becomes all the more glaring when you remember how much longtime team owner George Steinbrenner, whose prep school was Culver Military Academy in Culver, Indiana, pandered to patriotism and to our armed forces, down to the Monument to the 9/11 victims and rescuers in Yankee Stadium's Monument Park.

Where did The Boss go to college? Williams, also the alma mater of Tom Burr. You'd think he would have seen some kind of memorial there, and remembered it.

Alas, all the men and women who served in World War I are dead now -- of combat wounds, of wartime illness, of later shortcuts of life, of old age. Army Corporal Frank Buckles of Oakwood, Oklahoma was the last living American veteran of that conflict, dying on February 27, 2011, age 110. Chief Petty Officer Claude Choules of Britain's Royal Navy was the last combat veteran, dying on May 5, 2011, also 110. And Florence Green, of the Women's Royal Air Force, was the last veteran of any kind of that war, living until February 5, 2012, just short of turning 111.

On the 75th Anniversary of the Armistice, November 11, 1993, ABC News did a piece on it, and taped a French survivor, in his late 90s, visiting a military cemetery. France had suffered terribly, especially since most of the action on the Western Front was on their soil (and some of it in their airspace).

I can't remember the man's name, but he looked into the camera, held up a finger, and said something. The reporter covering it translated it as, "All should remember to never do this again."

There it is: The best way to honor your dead soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines is to not make any more of them.


November 1, 1870: In Chicago, the Mutuals of New York visit the White Stockings at Dexter Park before 6,000 people. With Chicago leading 7-5 after 8 innings, the Mutuals score 8 runs in the to of the 9th, to make it 13-7.
In the bottom of the 9th, Chicago adopts a waiting game, and the Mutuals' pitcher, Dutch-born Reinder Albertus "Rynie" Wolters, loads the bases on walks‚ and complains that the umpire is not calling strikes. A few hits and passed balls make the score 13-12 in favor of the Mutes when McAfee‚ the next batter for the Whites‚ lets a dozen balls go by without swinging. Wolters throws up his hands and walks off. The ump reverts the score to the 8th inning and the Whites win‚ 7-5.
Chicago has now defeated the Mutes twice since they took the Championship away from the Atlantics. The controversial ending of the game makes the Mutual club unwilling to give up the Championship.
The New York Clipper, the closest thing America had to a sports-only publication in those days, says‚ "In 1867 the Union club happened to defeat the Atlantics two games out of three of the regular series them played between them-only one series being played between clubs at that time. By this victory a precedent was established giving the championship title only to the club that defeated the existing champions two games while they were the champions. Of course this is an. absurd rule but it has prevailed ever since."
November 1, 1874: The National Association season ends today, with the Boston Red Stockings being declared the Champions with a record of 43-17. Boston actually had a record of 52-18, but the Committee running the league throws out the games played by the Baltimore Canaries (not "Orioles"), because they did not complete their schedule. The Mutuals finish 2nd.
November 1, 1894: Former Providence Grays pitcher Charlie Sweeney is convicted of manslaughter in San Francisco, after killing a man in a bar fight.

Just 10 years earlier, he had been the toast of the baseball world, becoming the 1st pitcher to strike out 19 batters in a major league game. But the fame went to his head: He began drinking, staying out late, and feuding with the Grays' other starting pitcher (only 2 were necessary in those days), Charles "Old Hoss" Radbourn. He was finally released after choosing to spend the morning with his girlfriend in Woonsocket rather than report to the Providence ballpark, the Messer Street Grounds, for a scheduled start.

No other National League team would take him, and although he got picked up by the St. Louis Maroons, who dominated the Union Association so much that the league folded after a year. Sweeney overworked himself, and was never as good on the mound again. In an 1886 game, he gave up 7 home runs, still a major league single-game record. He threw his last major league pitch in 1887, only 24 years old.

He served 8 years in prison before being released, when it was obvious that he was dying, from tuberculosis. He returned to his hometown of San Francisco, and died there in 1902, just 38.

November 1, 1914: Connie Mack begins cleaning house, putting together what would, today, be called a fire sale. The Philadelphia Athletics' manager and part-owner -- effectively, also the general manager, although that term wasn't used in baseball in those days -- asks waivers on pitchers Eddie Plank, Albert "Chief" Bender and Jack Coombs -- 2 future Hall-of-Famers, and a man who would have been a perennial All-Star if there'd been an All-Star Game back then.

Colby Jack goes to the Brooklyn Dodgers. Gettysburg Eddie and the Chief escape Mack's maneuvering by jumping to the Federal League. Although all have some life left in their soupbones‚ they are near their careers' end‚ and their departure is more sentimental than serious.

Mack's excuse: Retrenchment. Despite the Pennant‚ Philadelphia fans did not come out to Shibe Park in sufficient numbers, and the club lost $50‚000. It doesn't sound like much -- even with a century's worth of inflation factored in, it's a little under $1.2 million -- but by 1914 baseball standards, it was a fortune.

This is the 1st time a great A’s team is broken up to save money. Mack would do it again starting in 1932, because he had lost all of his non-baseball investments in the stock market Crash of 1929, and needed cash badly. In Oakland, Charlie Finley would do it in 1974-76, and Billy Beane in 2007 and 2011. Only on the last occasion did the A’s “get away with it,” competitively speaking.

November 1, 1916: Harry Harrison Frazee‚ New York theater owner and producer‚ and Hugh Ward buy the Red Sox for $675‚000 ($14.75 million in today's money, although one report puts the figure at $750‚000, or $16.4 million) from Joseph Lannin. Bill Carrigan announces that he will retire as Red Sox manager to pursue his interests in Lewiston‚ Maine.

November 1, 1925, 90 years ago: After 3 defeats, plus 5 games against non-NFL teams, the expansion New York Giants win a game against another NFL team, defeating the 3-time defending Champion Cleveland Bulldogs, 19-0 at the Polo Grounds.

However, the win is not as impressive as it may seem, because the champs had fallen apart due to a dispute over the rights to pro football in the Cleveland area. And only 18,000 fans came out. Still, for the Giants, a win is a win.

November 1, 1942: Brooklyn Dodger president Larry MacPhail, already a hero of World War I (how much of one depends on who's telling the story), reenters the Army, and gives up his ownership stake. The Dodgers look to St. Louis for leadership. After 2 decades at Sportsman's Park, Branch Rickey splits with Cardinals owner Sam Breadon. He will sign to become the president of the Dodgers.

As Cardinal GM, he had already changed the game, by inventing the farm system. As Dodger president, he will change the world, by signing, and sticking by, Jackie Robinson. MacPhail, upon his return, will join with Del Webb and Dan Topping, and remake the New York Yankees.

November 1, 1945, 70 years ago: Branch Barrett Rickey, a.k.a. Branch Rickey III, is born in New York. Like his famous grandfather, he played baseball at Ohio Wesleyan University, and also wrestled there. He became a wrestling referee, and officiated in the Olympics.

He served in the Peace Corps in 1971, and the next year joined the Kansas City Royals organization. He later served in the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds organizations. He became President of the American Association, 1 of 3 Triple-A leagues at the time, along with the International League and the Pacific Coast League. In 1997, a realignment led to the elimination of the AA and the absorption of its teams into the IL and the PCL, and Ricky was named President of the PCL, a title he still holds.

November 1, 1946: The right foot of Cleveland owner Bill Veeck is amputated‚ a result of a war injury in the South Pacific 2 years before.

Veeck has already had a tremendous impact on promotion in a half season of ownership. A minor but typical change is the regular posting of NL scores on the Cleveland scoreboard‚ a departure from the long-standing practice of both Leagues, whose teams would only post the scores from around their own League.

Veeck doesn't let the amputation slow him down. He walks around on a prosthesis, and frequently stubs out his cigarette on it. He even says, "I'm not disabled. I'm crippled." In other words, his ability was reduced, but not eliminated. And, as long as his brain worked (however strangely at times), he had plenty of ability.
Also on this day, the 1st NBA game is played at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. (Until 1949, the National Basketball Association was known as the Basketball Association of America, or the BAA.) A crowd of 7,090 -- about half of capacity -- attends, and the New York Knickerbockers beat the Toronto Huskies, 68-66.

The Huskies go out of business after just 1 season. The Knicks are 1 of only 2 charter NBA teams still playing in their current city. The other is the Boston Celtics. They've just started their 70th season.

They are not, however, pro basketball's oldest franchise. The Philadelphia SPHAs were founded in 1917, as the team of the South Philadelphia Herbrew Association. They, too, were a charter BAA/NBA team, as the Philadelphia Warriors. They are still playing today, as the Golden State Warriors, in Oakland, although they are building a new arena to open near the Giants' ballpark in downtown San Francisco, with the start of the 2017-18 season as the target date.

Ossie Schectman, a former Long Island University star who scored the 1st NBA basket, died on July 30, 2013, at the age of 94. He was the last surviving player from this game.
Also on this day, Richard Lee Baney is born in the Los Angeles suburb of Fullerton, California. Dick Baney pitched for the Seattle Pilots in 1969, and was mentioned a few times in Jim Bouton's book Ball Four. He also pitched for the Cincinnati Reds in 1973 and '74. He now invests in and manages real estate.


November 1, 1960: Fernando Valenzuela Anguamea is born in Navojoa, Sonora, Mexico. In 1981, the chunky, screwballing lefthander for the Los Angeles Dodgers was the hottest thing in baseball, He won his 1st 8 starts, with 5 shutouts and an ERA of 0.50. He was only 20 years old.

On May 15, 1981, I was traveling with my family to a weekend vacation in Williamsburg, Virginia. We stopped off at a rest area on Interstate 95, and I saw the new Sports Illustrated. Fernando was on the cover, with the headline, "UNREAL!" No, the cover didn't jinx him: He was 7-0 at that point, and won his next start, before falling to 8-1. That night, Len Barker of the Cleveland Indians pitched the 1st major league perfect game of my lifetime.

"Fernandomania" made the Dodgers what they remain to this day: Mexico's favorite team, despite the San Diego Padres playing a short drive from the border. It was tamed somewhat by the strike, as he went just 5-7 after his amazing start. But he pitched a complete-game win over the Yankees in Game 3 of the World Series. The Dodgers won in Game 6; had it gone to Game 7, he would have started it.

He had his only 20-win season in 1986, and struck out a record-tying 5 straight batters in that season's All-Star Game. He missed most of the 1988 season due to injury, but still got a 2nd World Series ring. He was released in 1991, and bounced around, signing with the Padres.

In 1996, the Padres played 3 games in Monterrey, the 1st regular-season games ever played in Mexico. He started the opener against the Mets, and benefited from a 15-0 lead. The Mets came back, and he left to a standing ovation. The Padres hung on to win, 15-10. He retired after the season, his career record 173-153.

A member of the Hispanic Heritage Baseball Museum Hall of Fame and the Caribbean Baseball Hall of Fame, the Dodgers have not officially retired his Number 34 -- aside from Jim Gilliam, they don't do that unless the man in question is elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame -- but they've kept it out of circulation.

He is now a broadcaster for the Dodgers' Spanish network, bringing up memories of his struggles to learn English. It was said in 1981 that, "The two best lefthanded pitchers don't speak English: Fernando Valenzuela and Steve Carlton." (Referencing Carlton's refusal to talk to the media.) Manager Tommy Lasorda said the only English words he knows are "beer," "food" and "light beer." On The Tonight Show, Johnny Carson said, "Fernando Valenzuela learned another English word today: 'Million.'"

November 1, 1971: Cold Spring Harbor, the 1st album by Billy Joel, is released. The record is made at the wrong speed, and the songs don't sound right. Billy gets out of his contract, signs with Columbia Records, releases Piano Man 2 years later, and the rest is history.

Before Game 3 of the 1979 Stanley Cup Finals at Madison Square Garden, Billy, by then one of the biggest music stars in the world on the back-to-back successes of The Stranger and 52nd Street, sang the National Anthem. When he's done, Ranger Captain Dave Maloney skates up behind him, and swats him on the rear end with the blade of his stick. The Rangers lost to the Montreal Canadiens, 4-1, and won the Cup in Game 5, although I don't think Maloney's childishness with Billy had anything to do with it.

Before Game 1 of the 1986 World Series at Shea Stadium, Billy, on the success of a new album, The Bridge, sang the Anthem. The Mets and Boston Red Sox players left him alone. The Sox won a thriller, 1-0.

On June 22, 1990, Billy became the 1st non-festival music act to play Yankee Stadium, hosting the 1st of 2 sold-out concerts. On July 16 and 18, 2008, he played the last 2 concerts at Shea. He has never been invited to perform at halftime of the Super Bowl, but he sang the Anthem at numbers XXIII (1989) and XLI (2007) -- both in Miami, and neither in 2017.

Two nights ago, Billy sang the Anthem before Game 3 of the World Series at Citi Field. In the middle of the 8th inning, as they have all season long, the Mets played "Piano Man," and the fans sang along, looking at Billy in the owner's box. He had a puzzled look on his face, as if to say, "No, this is not a happy sing-along song." Actually, the Bronx-born, Long Island-raised Billy is a Yankee Fan, so the real question to ask was, "Man, what are you doing here?" Oh la, da, da-dee-da, la-da, da-dee-dah, da-dum.

November 1, 1979: Edward Bennett Williams buys the Baltimore Orioles from Jerold Hoffberger for a reported $12.3 million (about $40.3 million in today's money). NFL rules prohibit a majority owner from being the majority owner of a team in another sport, so he sells some stock in the Washington Redskins to former Los Angeles Lakers and Kings owner Jack Kent Cooke.

In 1983, Williams becomes the 1st, and still only, owner to win championships in both football and baseball in the same calendar year. Not long thereafter, he will sell the rest of his Redskins stock to Cooke.

He remains Orioles owner until his death in 1988. Orioles fans were afraid that the Washington "superlawyer" would move the team to D.C., especially after the NFL's Colts were moved out of town in 1984. But, not long before his death, he cut a deal with the State of Maryland to build the ballpark that became Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

Also on this day, in separate deals‚ the Yankees acquire outfielder Ruppert Jones from the Seattle Mariners, and catcher Rick Cerone and pitcher Tom Underwood from the Blue Jays. They give up 7 players‚ including popular 1st baseman Chris Chambliss‚ shortstop Damaso Garcia‚ aging outfielder Juan Beniquez‚ and young pitchers Jim Beattie and Paul Mirabella.

This could have been a great pair of trades for the Yankees, as Cerone filled in admirably in the wake of the death of Thurman Munson, and he and Underwood were key in winning the American League Eastern Division in 1980 and the Pennant in 1981. But Jones, named the Mariners' 1st-ever All-Star in their expansion season of 1977, and essentially acquired to replace the traded Mickey Rivers, crashed into an outfield fence making a great catch in 1980, injured his shoulder, and was never the same player. The Yankees, the team of Earle Combs, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Bobby Murcer, wouldn't find a great regular center fielder again until Bernie Williams.

The M's and Jays didn't even do that well. None of the players they got from the Yankees did much. Chambliss did absolutely nothing for the Jays, through no fault of his own: They traded him, almost immediately, to the Atlanta Braves for outfielder Barry Bonnell. Once an All-Star, Bonnell was terrible in Toronto, while Chambliss helped the Braves win the NL West in 1982 and nearly did so again in 1983. Ironically, it was his tenure with the Braves, not the Yankees, that did the most to make him a major league coach: The Braves' manager at that time was Joe Torre.

November 1, 1984: The Los Angeles Clippers play their 1st home game after moving up the California coast from San Diego, at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. They had played 2 away games first. Oddly enough, their 1st game under the Los Angeles name was away to the Utah Jazz, the team they beat in their last game in San Diego.

The Clips beat the New York Knicks, 107-105. Last season's breakout Knicks star, Bernard King, scores 25, but some players who had won NBA Championships elsewhere led the Clips to victory: 1971 Milwaukee Buck Junior Bridgeman, 1980 and '82 Laker Norm Nixon, and, overcoming a never-ending foot injury, 1977 Portland Trail Blazer, San Diego native and UCLA star Bill Walton.

For several years, this opener stood as the highlight of Los Angeles Clipper basketball, as, much like the Nets behind the Knicks in the New York Tri-State Area, they have been stuck behind the Lakers, partly due to the older team being so well-established, successful and popular, and partly due to their own perennial losing, due to team owner Donald Sterling caring only about schmoozing his pals at the games rather than winning.

To make matters worse, since 1999 they have had to share the Staples Center with the Lakers, whereas they only had to share the Sports Arena with USC basketball; from 1999 onward, not only were they the worst pro basketball team in their city, they’re not even the best basketball team in their own building.  Indeed, despite a recent Playoff revival, with the NHL’s Kings having won 2 Stanley Cups, the Clips could arguably be said to have been the 3rd-best sports team in their own building.

But now, they're rid of the cheap racist Sterling, and they've gotten good, while the Lakers have gotten old. Maybe the next title at the Staples Center will go to the Clippers.

November 1, 1988: Masahiro Tanaka is born in Itami, Hyōgo Prefecture, Japan. After starring in his homeland for the Sendai-based Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, he signed with the Yankees in 2014, and became an All-Star in his rookie season.

He was named the starting pitcher of this year's American League Wild Card game, but lost 3-0, because the Yankees didn't hit for him. Still, he is the closest thing to a real ace that New York baseball current has. (And I don't want to hear about any of the Mets' starting pitchers.) 
November 1, 1997: The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum opens in its new home in Kansas City‚ Missouri. It had been occupying a temporary site there for 4 years.


November 1, 2001: Game 5 of the World Series at Yankee Stadium. Steve Finley and Rod Barajas hit solo home runs for the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 5th inning, and those remain the only runs of the game going into the bottom of the 9th.

In an amazing case of history repeating itself‚ the Yankees again come from 2 runs down with 2 outs in the 9th inning, to win 3-2 in 12 innings. Byung-Hyun Kim is again victimized‚ this time by Scott Brosius' 2-run HR in the 9th. Alfonso Soriano's single wins it in the 12th. Steve Finley and Rod Barajas homer in the 5th for Arizona's runs.

In 97 previous years of World Series play, only twice had teams come from 2 or more runs down in the bottom of the 9th to win a game. The Yankees had now done it on back-to-back nights -- albeit in different months (October 31 & November 1).

Also on this day, the Memphis Grizzlies play their 1st game, after 6 seasons in Vancouver. But they get torched by 34 points from Jerry Stackhouse, and lose 90-80 to the Detroit Pistons, at the arena then named the Great American Pyramid.

November 1, 2005, 10 years ago: A bronze sculpture featuring the friendship of Pee Wee Reese and Jackie Robinson is unveiled at Brooklyn's KeySpan Park, home of the Mets' Single-A team, the Brooklyn Cyclones. (The stadium is now named MCU Park.)

The William Behrends sculpture captures the moment when the Dodger captain showed support by putting his arm around his black teammate's shoulder, hushing an unruly crowd hurling racial slurs at his teammate at Crosley Field in Cincinnati in 1947.

November 1, 2009: Game 4 of the World Series at Citizens Bank Park. Yankee manager Joe Girardi starts CC Sabathia, ALCS MVP but loser of Game 1, on 3 days' rest. It seems to work, as the Yankees lead the Philadelphia Phillies 4-2 going into the bottom of the 7th.

One of the Phils' runs shouldn't have counted, because Ryan Howard didn't touch the plate. This could have been an epic controversy. And it might have been, because Chase Utley hit a home run off CC in the 7th, and Pedro Feliz hit one off Joba Chamberlain in the 8th to tie it.

But in the 9th, Johnny Damon fouled off pitch after pitch from Brad Lidge before singling with 2 outs. Mark Teixeira was up, and the Phils went into their lefthanders' switch. This was an echo of the shift used by the Cardinals on Ted Williams of the Red Sox in the 1946 World Series. But Damon realized that, if he stole 2nd, he could steal 3rd, too, because no one would be covering. He went for it, bringing up memories of another factor of the '46 Series, Enos Slaughter's "Mad Dash" that won Game 7 for the Cardinals.

Unnerved, Lidge accidentally hit Teix, and Alex Rodriguez got the biggest hit of his career (and regardless of what he wins from 2016 onward, it will remain so), a double to score Damon. Joe Posada singled home Teix and A-Rod, and Mariano Rivera shut the Phils down it the bottom of the 9th, securing a 7-4 Yankee victory, stunning the defending World Champions in their own raucous, not strangely silence, house. The Yanks can wrap it up tomorrow night.

November 1, 2010: The Giants win their 1st World Series since moving to San Francisco. Edgar Renteria, who drove in the winning run for the Florida Marlins against the Cleveland Indians in the 11th inning during Game 7 of the 1997 Fall Classic, joins Yankees legends Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Yogi Berra as only the 4th player in baseball history to collect two World Series-winning hits. (He had also made the last out for the St. Louis Cardinals as the Boston Red Sox won the 2004 World Series *.)

The Series MVP's 3-run homer off Cliff Lee in the 7th inning leads to San Francisco's 3-1 victory over the Rangers, and brings an end to 56 seasons of what some Giants fans had been, in recent days, describing as "torture." (Clearly, they'd never been truly tortured.)

I'll do the milestones for November 2 through 8 tomorrow, since there will be so many fewer of them.

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