SABR

Al Burris

This article was written by Marty Payne.

Alva Burton Burris was born on January 28, 1874, in the small village of Warwick in Cecil County, Maryland. Census records available through HeritageQuest only list the family for 1910 in Kent County, Delaware, showing he had two brothers (Frank and Eli) and three sisters (Amanda, Linda, and Elizabeth, a schoolteacher). The census lists his mother, also named Elizabeth, with an occupation listed as "own income."

Burris' contributions to his community and local baseball are largely forgotten. Variously, and respectfully referred to as "Pop," "Doc," or "Prof.," Burris was probably the most prominent player, manager, and organizer in baseball on the Eastern Shore of Maryland prior to the beginning of the Class D minor leagues in the 1920s.

The right-handed throwing and hitting Burris was signed to pitch for the Washington College team in 1892. The formation of the Maryland Inter-Collegiate Athletic Association in 1888 had created an ardent competition for the collegiate championship of Maryland. Young Dick Hawke (the first to throw a no-hitter from the modern pitching distance) had already pitched for the college. When Burris reported to the school with a student body of only 70 young men, he found the 25-year-old Dave Zearfoss as his catcher. Serving four years as his battery mate, Zearfoss would later play in the major leagues. Burris' leadership abilities were recognized early when the college named him coach of the baseball team and Athletic Director as he entered his junior year.

It was an eventful time for the young scholastic standout. He got a one-game shot at the major leagues that year when he pitched for the Philadelphia Nationals against the World Champion Baltimore Orioles, soon after the college season ended on June 22, 1894. Of the game, the wire services reported, "For several innings professional ball was played, but after that it was a regular lot game." (ProQuest; Chicago Daily Tribune, June 23, 1894, p. 6) Burris came on in relief of Kid Carsey in the fifth inning of an 18-14 slugfest loss to Baltimore. He managed to shut down the feared Oriole lineup in three of his five innings, but surrendered six runs in the sixth inning and four more in the eighth. Giving up ten runs on fourteen hits and two walks (the box score counted one), Burris was not credited with the loss. He did show well at the plate, however, going two-for-four.

Upon his graduation, he would continue to serve the school for ten more years as a professor, athletic director and baseball coach. Although he didn't always manage on the field, Burris was at the reins of the college team from 1894 through 1906, arguably the best teams in the college's history. Responsible for recruiting "imported" players to bolster the roster, his teams held their own against larger schools such as Maryland, Syracuse, Villanova, and Pennsylvania over the years. In an era of less stringent college rules, Burris would often take the field for his team as pitcher, catcher, or third baseman.

Burris went to great lengths to field a competitive team. In addition to Zearfoss, several future major league players came under his tutelage. Regional Delmarva Peninsula stars and future major league players such as Homer Smoot and Jack "Happy" Townsend saw action for the college in the late 1890s. He was also quick to snap up players who came to this region, which was a hot bed of semi-pro activity. Future major league players like Raymond "Chappy" Charles, Joe Knotts, and Bob Unglaub came to the little college to hone their skills. Unglaub was also playing for the University of Maryland at the time under his middle name of Bob Alexander.

Once the College season ended, Burris' talents as player and coach were in high demand on the professional small town teams of the area. It was not unusual for these rosters to include future, former, and even current major league players, and he excelled at this high level of semi-pro competition.

Having developed an effective curve ball, Burris was known as "master of the pitching art," (Chestertown Transcript, July 8, 1897) and "The wizard, the puzzler" (Chestertown Transcript, April 14, 1898). Box scores show that he caught, played short, third, and centerfield, was occasionally a starting pitcher, and excelled in relief. His reputation as a leader attracted the best talent coming to the region to the teams he played and managed.

Burris played for Cambridge in 1896 and 1897. While continuing his studies at college, he spent the next few summers playing in the Silver Lake Assembly in New York. He then played for Salisbury in 1902 before returning to Cambridge in 1904 to play in the Eastern Shore League, the first Peninsula-wide league that featured teams in Cambridge, Salisbury and Easton. Among the future major league players on that team were Pete Loos, Chappy Charles, Buck Herzog, and Stub Brown. Somehow, during that busy season, he found time to manage and play for the team from the resort town of Betterton, Maryland. This little town on the Chesapeake Bay offered tourists beaches, a boardwalk, an amusement park, restaurants, and shopping, but baseball was its biggest attraction. Their schedule against some of the best semi-pro teams in the Baltimore and Philadelphia regions was widely circulated and drew large crowds. His star pitcher was future one-game major league left-hander, Hanson Horsey.

A picture of the Pocomoke team of 1905 shows the short, stocky Burris with a solid team composed of several of his old cohorts, Si Nicholls, Jack Townsend, Chappy Charles, and newcomer Frank "Home Run" Baker. In 1907 Burris helped Cambridge claim the informal Maryland State Championship under the management of former Pocomoke teammate Leonard Bassett and featuring Frank Baker. The town was determined to put an equally good team on the field the following season. When Burris was named manager prior to the 1908 season, it was announced that he had "never managed a losing team." (Cambridge Daily Banner, June 13, 1908) Cambridge claimed the Maryland-Delaware championship that year, after a hotly contested series against Seaford, Delaware, which brought back Buck Herzog from the Giants to manage and play shortstop. Intermittently through these years, Burris traveled north to play in the Silver Lake Assembly in New York.

The 1908 season would be Burris' last as player and field manager. In 1906 he had begun work on his studies at the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Baltimore and completed his degree in homeopathic medicine at Hahneman College in Philadelphia in 1908. After two brief internships, he set up practices in Salisbury and Ocean City, Maryland, opened a drug store on Main Street in Salisbury, and served as superintendent of the Pine Bluff Sanatorium. (Salisbury Daily Times, March 6, 1938)

Although no longer on the field, he remained an influential factor in regional baseball. In 1911 Burris, along with Ray Truitt and R. V. Rich of Salisbury, proposed an independent league with strict rules limiting player transactions. Most towns were not ready for such restrictions on their independence, but he eventually succeeded with the formation of the independent Peninsula League in 1915 with entries from the towns of Salisbury, Cambridge, Easton and St. Michaels. Burris was chosen president. Under his leadership, the Peninsula League was the first independent league on the Shore to abide by a set of by-laws and successfully complete the season.

One of the features of the league was that Home Run Baker, sitting out the year in a contract dispute with Connie Mack, played for Easton. The league provided early professional experience for future major league players Jack Enright, Joe Knotts, Eddie Rommel, Mike Cantwell, and Doc Twining. His efforts culminated when the champion Salisbury Club beat the Philadelphia Athletics in a September exhibition game before a rabid crowd of 2500 fans. One of the Athletic players was heard to remark that they "hadn't played in front of a crowd that size at Shibe Park all year" (Wicomoco News, September 23, 1915).

Burris did not take part in the return of the Peninsula League in 1916. His medical practice and community work were now taking up most of his time as he advertised his thriving drug store for sale. But Burris made his influence felt once again on the baseball scene in 1921. He was called in to manage the independent Salisbury team when its manager was called away on business. The Class D Blue Ridge League of Western Maryland offered to play the best independent team on the Eastern Shore for the championship of Maryland with the Baltimore Sun paper running the series. Sun sporting editor C. E. Sparrow insisted that the Shore decide the representative through a single-elimination tournament. Burris protested that such a format was not a fair way to pick the best team to represent the region. As a result of his influence, two teams boycotted the playoff tournament.

Burris does not appear to have been involved in the formation of the Class D Eastern Shore League in 1922, or any of its later reincarnations. The life-long bachelor continued to live alone, and in the absence of an immediate family, settled into a quiet life devoting his energies to his community. He split his medical practice between Salisbury and Ocean City (thirty miles and isolated from most medical care). Ocean City in winter was a sparsely populated strand of sand; in summer it teemed with thousands of tourists. Burris refused his services to no one, paying little heed to their ability to pay.

During this time Burris shifted his athletic focus from professional adults to the youth of the community. Before the era of organized youth leagues, he used his passion for and knowledge of sports to influence children of all ages and both genders.

As the Salisbury Times said on March 24, 1938: "Always a sports enthusiast, he taught scores of youngsters the rudiments of baseball, football, and tennis. However, his interest was not only in the physical development of the youth, he sought to inculcate in their minds the principles of good sportsmanship in competitive sports and clean, wholesome living."

Burris suffered a paralyzing stroke in November of 1937, and the citizens of Salisbury rallied to his support and voted him the prestigious Salisbury Award. This was the equivalent of a Man of the Year award in the local community, and the winner was usually not announced until the night of the banquet. Because of his condition, and confined to a wheelchair, he was informed prior to the event. Dr. H. C. Byrd, Burris' former teammate on the championship Cambridge Clubs of 1907-08, and in 1938 president of the University of Maryland, presented the certificate, which read:

"In recognition of his contributions to the youth of the community, and for his own exemplary life which has been an inspiration to old and young alike.

"As a physician he offered his services and skill unsparingly without thought of compensation or discrimination. Yet his public service did not end there. In his active years he contributed his time and talent to teaching youth the rudiments of athletics and, more important, proper physical development, and sportsmanship and clean, wholesome living." Byrd added his own praise for his life long friend, "The spiritual contributions an individual makes toward the betterment and progress of humanity is everlasting; it endures long after his material contributions have been forgotten." (Salisbury Daily Times, March 6, 1938.)

Many thought the esteemed doctor was on the road to recovery when Burris suffered a second massive stroke three weeks later and died on the morning of March 24, 1938, at Peninsula General Hospital in Salisbury, Maryland. He was buried at the Hollywood Cemetery in Harrington, Delaware. One brother and four sisters (Frank Burris, Elizabeth Duffus, Linda Burris, Amanda Lofland, and Laura Spurry) survived him.

Alva Burris was a college baseball star, major league player, a college coach and athletic director by the age of twenty. He was a college professor, baseball manager and an influence on many young men aspiring to the major leagues at the lowest professional level. Burris was a dedicated and unselfish doctor, a businessman, administrator, and league organizer. But what he was remembered for at the time of his death was as a mentor and inspiration to the youth of his community.

Sources

The statistics for Burris' major league baseball appearance are from The Baseball Encyclopedia, MacMillan & Co. New York, 1989. His family composition came from a combination of the HeritageQuest census data for Kent County, Delaware, for 1910, for Salisbury, Maryland, for 1920 and 1930, and his obituary, which appeared in the Salisbury Daily Times, March 24, 1938. Most of his professional career outside of baseball comes from the above-cited Salisbury Daily Times, March 24, 1938, and an article on his receiving the Salisbury Award in the Salisbury Daily Times, March 6, 1938. Much of this information and his local baseball career can also be pieced together from numerous contemporary newspaper accounts.

The Washington College years were compiled from the Chestertown Transcript, May 12, 1892; June 9, 1892; July 14, 1892; June 1, 1893; June 15, 1893; June 22, 1893; April 5, 1894; April 19, 1894; June 21, 1894; April 18, 1895; June 20, 1895; July 25, 1895; April 16, 1896; April 4, 1897; July 8, 1897; April 14, 1898; July 20, 1899; June 9, 1900; April 19, 1902; April 25, 1903; June 9, 1906. Also see the Kent News, June 9, 1906, and August 18, 1906.

A box score of Burris' lone major league appearance is available through ProQuest, the Chicago Daily Tribune, June 23, 1894. One of the opposing pitchers for the Orioles that day was Stub Brown. Ten years later they would be teammates on the Cambridge Club.

An account of the contentious 1896 season when Cambridge tried to sign Joe Corbett and Dad Clarkson from the Baltimore Orioles for a series with rival Salisbury is provided in the Cambridge Chronicle, July 2, 1896, and the Salisbury Advertiser, July 7, 1896; July 18, 1896; July 25, 1896; August 1, 1896; August 15, 1896; August 29, 1896;

The exploits of the avid Eastern Shore League of 1904 and Burris' participation are found in the Dorchester Democrat and News, August 6, 1904; August 13, 1904; August 20, 1904; August 27, 1904. See also the Salisbury Advertiser, July 30, 1904; August 6, 1904; August 13, 1904; August 20, 1904; August 27, 1904; September 3, 1904; September 10, 1904; and the Wicomoco News, August 11, 1904; August 25, 1904; September 1, 1904; September 8, 1904. Among the other major league players to see action in the league were Joe Knotts, Si Nicholls, Bill Kellogg, and Walter Brodie for Salisbury, while Easton featured Nick Maddox on the mound.

For information on Burris and the Cambridge championship teams of 1907 and 1908 see the Cambridge Daily Banner, June 13, 1908; June 27, 1908; and the Dorchester Democrat and News July 13, 1907; August 3, 1907; August 10, 1907; June 11, 1908. Lee Fong, a first generation Chinese-American and owner of the local laundry, was one of the primary financial backers of Cambridge baseball during these years and considered the "star rooter."

The attempt to form an independent league appeared in the Cambridge Daily Banner June 7, 8, and 10, 1911. Details of the Peninsula League of 1915 are included in the Wicomoco News, July 22, August 5, and September 23, 1915, and in the Baltimore Sun of August 3, August 7, August 8, and August 31, 1915. Burris' involvement with the Salisbury Club and the Championship series of 1921 can be found in the Wicomoco News, August 25 and September 1, 1921. Much of the detail of the playoffs and subsequent series is included in a series of articles in the Baltimore Sun appearing August 28 through September 11, 1921.

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