SABR

Ken Burkhart

This article was written by Gregory H. Wolf.

Having lost no fewer than nine pitchers to the armed forces during World War II, the St. Louis Cardinals invited 28-year-old rookie Ken Burkhart to spring training in 1945. Owning a 91-64 record in seven minor-league seasons, Burkhart became one of the season’s big surprises, winning 18 games, third best in the senior circuit. But Burkhart, bothered by chronic arm pain, won only nine more games in his five-year major-league career. A baseball lifer, he then began a successful 22-year career as an umpire in 1952, and served the final 17 of those years in the National League.

Kenneth William Burkhart was born on November 18, 1916, in Knoxville, Tennessee. Called both Ken and Bill by his family, he was the third of four children born to Albert Mayford and Alma Grace (Chenoweth) Burkhart. When the his parents separated by 1920 and later divorced, Ken, along with his older brother, Albert, and younger one, Clifford, remained with their father on the family’s 65-acre farm. By one account, sister Mildred was raised by family members. A big, stout adolescent growing up in a football-crazed town dominated by legendary coach Robert Neyland at the University of Tennessee, Burkhart excelled on the gridiron and diamond at Central High School, earning three letters in both baseball and football and another in track. But with the hard economic times brought on by the Depression, Albert and his three sons moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where Ken completed his final year of high school. He became a machinist and entered the workforce, but also played baseball in the city’s highly competitive sandlot and semipro leagues. Dazzling competition while pitching for Rosenbloom, a local clothier, the big right-hander decided to test his luck and attended a Cardinals tryout camp in Columbus, Ohio, in August 1937.

Almost 21 years old and about five years older than most of the other participants, the 6-foot-1, 190-pound Burkhart impressed the Cardinals’ brass and was invited to the team’s baseball school in Winter Haven, Florida, in March 1938. “Most everybody in the Cardinals organization – minor-league managers and scouts” were there, he later recalled.i To his surprise, he was offered a contract and immediately sent to spring training with the New Iberia (Louisiana) Cardinals in the Class D Evangeline League, one of the Cardinals’ 13 Class D teams. “I guess you have to attend such a school to appreciate what sort of an experience that is for a young player,” Burkhart said.ii

New Iberia was the first stop in Burkhart’s long and arduous, indeed improbable, seven-year journey to the major leagues. With 27 affiliates in the Cardinals farm system in 1938, a player needed luck (in addition to ability) to advance to the next level of competition, let alone all the way to the big leagues. At New Iberia, Burkhart pitched a career-high 248 innings and led the Evangeline League with 188 strikeouts, but also 17 losses. One of his team-high 14 victories was a no-hitter against future teammate Johnny Beazley of the Abbeville (Louisiana) A’s. Burkhart breezed his way through the next two leagues. At Springfield (Missouri) in the Class C Western Association he went 17-6 in 1939 and improved on that by notching a career-high 20 wins and only 6 losses for the Asheville (North Carolina) Tourists in the Class B Piedmont League in 1940. Pacing the league in wins, strikeouts (145), and shutouts (6), Burkhart had a 13-game winning streak and was primed for stiffer competition. His most important decision came on September 28 when he said “I do” to high-school sweetheart Doris Marie Peck. They made their home in Cleveland, where Burkhart worked as a machinist in the offseason, and raised two daughters.

Cardinals general manager Branch Rickey “loaned” Burkhart and left-handed pitcher Tom Sunkel to the Syracuse Chiefs, an affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds in the International League for the 1941 season. “I never knew exactly why Mr. Rickey sent me out of the Cardinals system at the time,” said Burkhart, who was still the property of the Cardinals but feared for his future. “I understood he owed the Reds some players in a deal.”iii Burkhart got off to a fast start, winning his first five decisions. “[Burkhart] doesn’t have a fastball he can power by a batter,” said the Syracuse Herald Journal. “He has a big variety of slower stuff.”iv With a 10-10 record and a 3.57 earned-run average in 174 innings, Burkhart developed a reputation as a cerebral and wily hurler who “pitches with his head.”v

Brought back to the Cardinals in 1942, Burkhart was assigned to the Columbus Red Birds of the American Association. Managed by first-year skipper Eddie Dyer, the Red Birds were led by a pitching staff that included future Cardinals stars Harry Brecheen, Red Munger, and Ted Wilks (as well as Preacher Roe). A dominating 9-0 shutout over the Milwaukee Brewers on May 21 suggested a bright future for the 25-year-old Burkhart, but a fluke injury derailed his season and almost his career. As he slid into second base, his spikes caught the dirt and he broke his left leg. He managed to return in August, but was confined to the bullpen and pitched inconsistently, logging just 80 innings the entire season. As the Red Birds’ won their second Junior World Series in a row, Burkhart was credited with the win Game Four by pitching five innings of relief.

Returning the following year to Columbus, now managed by Nick Cullop, Burkhart was overshadowed by the hard-throwing Roe and Wilks, as well as southpaw George Dockins. He led the team with 28 starts, but had a difficult time pivoting on his left leg and was bothered by chronic pain while pitching. Though he posted respectable numbers (12-10, 3.14 ERA), they were not good enough for an organization stacked with great young pitchers. When Burkhart lasted just two-thirds of an inning in Game Three of the Junior World Series, surrendering four runs in a 5-1 loss to the Syracuse Chiefs, he saw his chance to play for the Cardinals slipping away. It was the Red Birds’ only loss in their third consecutive title with three different managers.

By the beginning of the 1944 season, World War II was wreaking havoc on rosters throughout Organized Baseball. With Wilks promoted to the Cardinals, Roe traded to the Pirates, and Dockins in the armed forces, Burkhart was given another chance to prove his worth with the Red Birds. He found himself pain-free for the first time in almost two years, and emerged as the team’s best starter. He was named to the American Association all-star team and pitched three scoreless innings against the the Milwaukee Brewers in the league’s all-star game. He finished the season with 15 wins, his most since 1940, ranked third in the league in innings (231), and fourth in complete games (17); but he also surrendered 10.1 hits per nine innings and posted a 4.05 ERA.

In 1945 Burkhart was invited to the Cardinals’ spring training in Cairo, Illinois. The reigning World Series champions began camp without the services of eight established pitchers (Johnny Beazley, Al Brazle, Murry Dickson, Max Lanier, Red Munger, Howie Pollet, Freddy Schmidt, and Ernie White), prompting team owner Sam Breadon to comment, “I have a better pitching staff in the services than [manager] Billy Southworth can put on the field.”vi Except for mainstay Mort Coopper, who had won at least 20 games the previous three seasons for the Cardinals, the pitching staff was inexperienced (which was even more pronounced when Cooper was sent to the Boston Braves for Red Barrett in a sensational trade in May). Needing capable arms, Southworth kept Burkhart on the roster and assigned him to the bullpen to start the season.

Burkhart’s major-league career began in dramatic fashion. In the Cardinals’ home opener, on April 21, he entered the game in the top of the eighth inning with the Cardinals and Reds tied, 2-2, and tossed two scoreless innings. Then his sacrifice in the bottom of the ninth, advancing Marty Marion and Emil Verban, set the stage for Johnny Hopp’s single to score Marion, giving Burkhart an exciting win in his major-league debut. He made four more relief appearances, then on May 17 he relieved Stan Partenheimer, who was chased in the first inning without registering an out against the Braves. Burkhart pitched nine innings, holding the Braves to six hits and two runs, and earned his second victory of the season. He pitched twice more in relief, then made his first start on May 30, against the Braves, and was pounded for seven hits and three runs in 2⅓ innings in a 9-2 loss to the Braves. Burkhart pitched better in his second start, losing to th New York Giants 3-2 on June 2, but was sent back to the bullpen afterward.

Less than a week after being rejected for military service because of the broken leg he suffered in 1942, Burkhart started again on June 17 and shut out the Pittsburgh Pirates on five hits, pulling the Cardinals to within a game of first place.vii Over the next ten weeks, Burkhart was one of the hottest pitchers in baseball, winning 11 of 15 decisions with a 2.41 ERA and keeping the Cardinals in the hunt for the NL pennant. With complete-game victories in three of his next four starts, Burkhart finished the first half of the season with a 9-4 record. “It seemed like a long time coming up, but I kept aiming for the top” he said of his success. “I believe I might have been up earlier, but a broken left leg … handicapped me.”viii

“The prince of the staff,” Burkhart helped keep the Cardinals’ pennant hopes alive in the dog days of summer.ix While the Cardinals battled a “sore-armed epidemic” with injuries to Harry Brecheen, Blix Donnelly, and George Dockins, Burkhart tossed shutouts in three consecutive starts in a nine-day span in August.x In the middle of a 23-game road trip, Burkhart, whom The Sporting News called “the most vital factor in the St. Louis pitching surge,”xi blanked the Brooklyn Dodgers on four hits on August 12, held the Philadelphia Phillies to two hits on August 16 in arguably the best game in his major-league career, and limited the Braves to seven hits on Aug 20. “He’s one of the gamest pitchers I’ve ever had work for me,” said Southworth. “I’ve had men with more stuff, but none who ever bore down harder.”xii Owing to Burkhart’s odd delivery, which gave the impression that he was throwing a shot put and not a baseball, teammates began calling him Frozen Shoulder.xiii

With five starts in the first two weeks of September, Burkhart pitched well (3.55 ERA) but seemed to have hit a wall. Battling the Cubs throughout the last month of the season, the Cardinals finished on a 21-10 tear, propelled by pitching and timely hitting, but the Cubs played even better (22-10) to win the pennant by three games. In the bullpen for the last two weeks of the season, Burkhart made a spot start and tossed a complete game to defeat the Reds, 5-3, on the last day of the season, his 18th victory, the third most in the senior circuit. Burkhart’s success resulted from smart, situational pitching. “He’s not blessed with blinding speed,” wrote The Sporting News. “He depends on control and the use of an oddly-breaking knuckleball.”xiv Surrendering just nine home runs and 66 walks in 217⅓ innings, Burkhart posted a 2.90 ERA in 42 games (22 starts).

There were some questions about the spelling of Burkhart’s name. In 1945 The Sporting News began spelling it with a “d” (Burkhardt). Burkhart said that early in his career a journalist dropped the “d”; thus, minor-league records show his name as Burkhart. “It didn’t make much difference to me whether they spelled it with or without a ‘d’ as long as they didn’t leave out any of my winning games,” he once joked.xv In 1946 The Sporting News reverted back to Burkhart, which is how his name is spelled on the 1920 Census (the first in which he appeared).

With wartime travel restrictions lifted, the Cardinals conducted spring training in St. Petersburg, Florida, in 1946. First-year manager Eddie Dyer faced a serious dilemma (and a manager’s dream): too many starting pitchers brought on by the return of players from the military service. Dyer, who managed Burkhart in 1942 when the pitcher broke his leg, inaugurated the season with a rotation led by Red Barrett, Harry Brecheen, Max Lanier, and Howie Pollet, with Burkhart, Murry Dickson, and Ted Wilks as spot starters and regular relievers. But injuries, pitching inconsistencies (the byproduct of time spent away from baseball), and the defection of Lanier to the Mexican League forced Southworth to juggle his staff the entire season (seven pitchers started at least nine games; only two started at least 30).

Bothered by elbow tenderness, Burkhart made only nine appearances (six starts) in the first three months of the season. Snapping a four-game Cardinals losing streak, he pitched a 16-0, ten-hit shutout against the Cincinnati Reds on July 3. Pitching for the first time in 16 days, Burkhart hurled his last big-league shutout on August 19 when he blanked the Reds on eight hits, winning 6-0. Five days later, his complete-game 3-1 victory over the Phillies kept the streaking Cardinals in a tie for first place with their archrival Dodgers. With a healthy pitching staff in September, Burkhart worked out of the bullpen. The Cardinals went 42-19 over the last two months of the season and won their fourth pennant in five years. In 25 appearances (13 starts) Burkhart finished with a 6-3 record and a 2.88 ERA. He did not play in the Cardinals’ exciting seven-game victory over the Boston Red Sox in the World Series.

Burkhart’s promising start (24-11 and a 2.89) in his first two years in the majors was followed by three years filled with arm miseries and chronic arm pain. Used primarily in mopup situations and as an occasional spot starter in 1947, he struggled and won just three of nine decisions, surrendering 108 hits and 14 home runs (more than his first two years combined) in 95 innings while his ERA skyrocketed to 5.21. After the season he had bone chips removed from his right elbow by the team physician Dr. Robert Hyland, but his future looked bleak. Contending for a spot on the staff in spring training in 1948, Burkhart had problems with two of the keys to his previous success, control and movement. “Burkhart throws a good knuckler,” said catcher Del Wilbur, noting a change in his pitches, “but it always acts the same way. It drops.”xvi

Owning a 5.54 ERA in 37⅓ innings, Burkhart was traded in July 1948 to the Cincinnati Reds for first baseman Babe Young, but fared even worse, losing three times without a win and posting an ERA near 7.00. Despite Burkhart’s ineffectiveness, the Reds gave him another shot in 1949, but after six appearances, Burkhart was optioned to Syracuse, where he spent two months with little improvement (3-9 with a 3.75 ERA). He was recalled in July and concluded his last season in the major leagues with a 0-0 record and 3.18 ERA in 28⅓ innings.

After pitching in relief for the Chiefs in 1950, Burkhart held out the following season, saying he “wanted to play in the Coast League.”xvii He was traded to Oakland but was released by the Oaks in July with a 6.23 ERA, bringing his playing career to a close. In five big-league seasons, he went 27-20 with a 3.84 ERA in 519⅔ innings. He won 101 games and lost 78 in a ten-year minor-league career.

In 1952 Burkhart began a 22-year career as an umpire. Unsure what to do after he was released by Oakland, he had hoped to find a job in the Cardinals’ organization and contacted owner Fred Saigh about a possible coaching job.xviii But after reading an advertisement in The Sporting News, he decided to attend the George Barr Umpire School, then the country’s premier academy for umpires, in Longwood, Florida. After completing the month-long course, he was hired by the Class D Florida State League. From 1952 through 1956 Burkhart worked his way up the ladder (Class B Big State League, Class A Western League, and Class A Texas League), before being hired by the National League to start the 1957 season.xix

In his 17-year career as a National League umpire, Burkhart built a reputation as one of the league’s best. “The players trust you more if they know you’ve played before,” he said. “It makes it easier for an umpire to understand the player’s temperament and problems.”xx Well regarded and generally liked by players, Burkhart worked in three World Series (1962, 1964, and 1970 when he served as crew chief) and in four All-Star Games.

Unfairly, Burkhart’s 36-year career in baseball is best remembered for one of the most controversial calls in baseball history. In Game One of the 1970 World Series between Cincinnati and Baltimore, with the game tied 3-3 and runners on first and third, the Reds’ Ty Cline hit a high chopper in front of home plate. Burkhart positioned himself to call it fair or foul. Bernie Carbo, on third, broke for home. Orioles catcher Elrod Hendricks lunged to make the tag on Carbo but was blocked by Burkhart, whom he knocked down on his backside. With his back to the play, Burkhart called Carbo out without consulting other umpires. “I looked over my shoulder and saw the catcher tag him,” he said after the game. “I saw it so fast. I don’t know how I saw it.”xxi Replays showed that not only did Hendricks apply the tag with his glove while holding the ball in his right hand, Carbo missed the plate. Though Reds manager Sparky Anderson argued the call, he said after game, “The umpires didn’t beat us, Baltimore did.”xxii Fans at Riverfront Stadium were stunned and outraged. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn ordered extra security for Burkhart in Game Two, when he worked the right-field line.

Six years after retiring, Burkhart returned to baseball in 1979 when major-league umpires went on strike. Serving as an “adviser” to replacement umpires, he counseled them on everything from game tactics and interaction with players and managers to handling the press. Many striking umpires considered Burkhart’s activity “treason” and severed ties with him.xxiii

Suffering from emphysema, Burkhart died at the age of 88 on December 29, 2004. He was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in Knoxville.xxiv

 

Sources

Ken Burkhart player file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame

Ancestry.com

Chicago Tribune

BaseballLibrary.com

Baseball-Reference.com

New York Times

Retrosheet.com

The Sporting News

 

Notes

i The Sporting News, August 30, 1945, 7.

ii Ibid.

iii Ibid.

iv Syracuse Herald Journal, June 24, 1941, 18.

v Ibid.

vi The Sporting News, June 14, 1945, 4.

vii The Sporting News, June 21, 1945, 10.

viii The Sporting News, August 30, 1945, 7.

ix The Sporting News, July 5, 1945, 6.

x The Sporting News, August 16, 1945, 15.

xi The Sporting News, August 30, 1945, 2.

xii The Sporting News, August 16, 1945, 15.

xiii William B. Mead. Baseball Goes to War (Washington: Broadcast Interview Source, 1998), 233.

xiv The Sporting News, October 23, 1946, 6.

xv The Sporting News, August 30, 1945, 7.

xvi The Sporting News, April 21, 1948. 11.

xvii The Sporting News, April 25, 1951, 30.

xviii The Sporting News, February 20, 1957, 13.

xix Ibid.

xx Ibid.

xxi The Sporting News, October 24, 1970, 7.

xxii Ibid.

xxiii Texas Monthly, June 1979, 134.

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