SABR

Bill Burwell

This article was written by Gregory H. Wolf.

After his third year in organized baseball, 22-year-old right-handed pitcher Bill Burwell was drafted into the United States Army in 1917 and was assigned to the recently formed 89th Infantry Division, the “Rolling W,” and later deployed to Europe. During one of the last major offensives of the war, the Battle of Saint-Mihiel in northeastern France in September 1918, Burwell’s unit was charged with attacking German machine-gun nests stationed along trenches. Volunteering for a dangerous assignment, Burwell was wounded when his pitching hand was struck by shrapnel. The second finger on his right hand was completely shattered and he lost the tip of the finger, all of which caused his fingers to have a slight curl.1 “I thought the war was the end of me as a pitcher,” Burwell later said.2 After the war, he returned to the US and rejoined the Joplin (Missouri) Miners in the Class A Western League for the 1919 season. “When I started pitching again,” Burwell said, “I discovered that I could throw a sinker.” Burwell went on to have a 48-year career in Organized Baseball, pitched for the St. Louis Browns and Pittsburgh Pirates, won 239 games in the minor leagues, and was a longtime respected manager, coach, and scout.3

William Edwin Burwell was born on March 27, 1895, in the small town of Jarbalo, about 40 miles northwest of Kansas City in Leavenworth County, Kansas. His father, Joseph, originally from Virginia, and his mother, Ella, from Ohio, met in Kansas, married in 1885, and had three children, Frank, Ruth, and Bill, the youngest.4 His family moved to Stranger township, also in Leavenworth County, and farmed wheat and grain. At the age of 17 in 1912, Burwell matriculated at the Kansas State Agriculture College (later known as Kansas State University), where he was introduced to baseball and began to play sandlot and weekend ball. He quit college and in 1915 joined the Elgin (Illinois) Watch Makers in the inaugural season of the Class D Bi-State League. He pitched in 16 games until the league folded in early July, after which he returned to Kansas and played semipro baseball. The following spring he traveled to Topeka, about 40 miles from his hometown, and tried out for and made the Topeka Savages of the Class A Western League; and for the remainder of his life, save for his service during World War I, he was involved in baseball.

While with the Joplin Miners in 1919 (a 12-12 record in 224 innings pitched), Burwell drew the attention of the St. Louis Browns, whose scout Pat Monahan secured his purchase from the Miners and then signed him to a major-league contract for the 1920 season.5 After an impressive spring training at the Browns’ site in Taylor, Alabama, Burwell made the team as a relief pitcher. At 5-feet-11 and 175 pounds, Burwell was not an overpowering pitcher, but he had an excellent sinker and a deceptive curveball.6 His pitching motion distinguished him from other pitchers of the era; he had a side-arm to submarine delivery that was sometimes compared to that of Carl Mays.7 In his major-league debut, on May 1, he pitched a scoreless ninth inning at home against the Chicago White Sox and pitched primarily in relief all season, finishing 18 of the 33 games he pitched. In relief of 20-game winner Urban Shocker on May 12, Burwell pitched five scoreless innings for his first career win. He finished the season leading the league in relief appearances, with a 6-4 record and a respectable 3.65 ERA in 113 innings for the fourth-place Browns.

In 1921 Burwell continued his role as a relief pitcher and led the American League with 21 games finished. However, his pitches lacked the speed and movement to make him an effective major-league pitcher. He finished with a 2-4 record and his ERA ballooned to 5.12 in 84 innings. His career highlight may have been his first and only complete-game victory, on July 2, 1921, against the White Sox in one of the five games he started in his tenure with the Browns.8 At the conclusion of the 1921 season, the Browns traded Burwell to the Columbus (Ohio) Senators of the American Association for pitcher Dave Danforth.9 His move to the American Association, originally founded in 1902 as an independent league with teams located in the Midwest, proved to be a fortuitous one.

Over the course of the next ten years (1922-1931), Burwell established his reputation as “one of the greatest pitchers the American Association has seen,”10 won 170 games, regularly ranked among the league‘s top ten in wins, innings pitched, and ERA, and in 1945 was named by sportswriters to the all-time American Association All-Star team.11 After one season with Columbus, he was acquired by Indianapolis in 1923 in a trade for pitcher Harry Weaver and infielder Douglas Baird,12 and Burwell responded with an 18-21 record in a league-leading and career-high 342 innings pitched for the seventh-place Indians. The following season, Indianapolis hired as manager former Detroit Tigers shortstop Donie Bush, who had managed the Washington Senators the season before. Bush and Burwell‘s career paths stayed connected for the next two decades while Bush played a major role in Burwell‘s development as a pitcher and also influenced his decision to enter coaching.

While Bush led the Indians to three consecutive second-place finishes from 1924 through 1926, rumors swirled annually about which major-league team would sign Burwell, who won 17, a league-leading 24, and 21 games respectively while pitching in the Indians‘ West Washington Street Park, considered the largest in the American Association. Despite his nicknames, Bad Bill or Wild Bill, Burwell was neither bad nor wild. He issued few walks and was considered one of the best-fielding pitchers in the league.13 In the summer of 1925 the New York Giants pursued Burwell, but manager John McGraw ultimately purchased the contract of Burwell‘s younger teammate, Freddie Fitzsimmons, who finished with 217 wins in a 19-year major-league career.14 At the conclusion of the 1925 season, the Cincinnati Reds and manager Jack Hendricks, who had piloted the Columbus Senators and Burwell in 1923, attempted to purchase his contract from Indianapolis, but when the asking price soared over $30,000, negotiations ended.15 Praising his pitching but also casting doubt on Burwell‘s future as a major leaguer, manager Bush, Burwell‘s staunchest supporter, commented, “Burwell is smart, has courage, and mixes them up. His fastball may not be good enough for the majors, but he‘s been a big winner in the American Association.”16 Finally, in 1928, Burwell made it back to the majors, albeit for a brief time, when the Pittsburgh Pirates, managed since 1927 by none other than Donie Bush, traded pitcher Erv Brame and outfielder Adam Comorosky to Indianapolis for Burwell. With his unorthodox delivery and mangled pitching hand, Burwell was often suspected of throwing a spitter, officially banned in the major leagues since 1920. Burwell lasted just one month and four appearances for the Pirates and was returned to Indianapolis for Erv Brame in early July. At 33, Burwell‘s chance had passed. He finished his major-league career with a 9-8 record in 70 games and a 4.37 ERA in 218⅓ innings pitched.

Burwell returned to Indianapolis and helped lead the Indians to their first division title and to their first Junior World Series championship since 1917 by beating the Rochester Red Wings of the International League five games to one. Burwell pitched a complete-game victory in the series-clinching game, giving up 10 hits; he also scored a run in the 4-3 victory.17 Noted for his durability and health, Burwell remained a regular starter for the Indians through the 1931 season, when he won 17 games and was named to the league All-Star team. After compiling 2,700 innings pitched in the previous ten years in the American Association and at the age of 37, Burwell began to slow down, though he still pitched more than 100 innings per year for the Indians over the next three seasons. With his wealth of knowledge and experience, Burwell served as a mentor and unofficial pitching coach for the young pitchers on the Indians’ staff. “Bill Burwell . . . gave me many pointers. I‘ll never forget how he worked with me. My personal opinion is that Burwell is one of the smartest pitchers in the game,” said former teammate Oral Hildebrand coming off his All-Star season with the Cleveland Indians in 1933.18

Burwell‘s managerial career began in 1934 when he took the reins as player-manager of Indianapolis’s newly formed farm club, the Fort Wayne Chiefs of the Class B Central League.19 The financial situation of many teams in the lower minor leagues during the height of the Depression was unstable, sometimes leading to sudden and drastic movement for players and coaches. When the Central League folded after just one month, Burwell returned to the parent club as a pitcher and won eight games. In 1935 he was released from his contract to pitch and manage the independent Terre Haute Tots in the Class B Three-I League. He led the team to a 57-61 record and tutored the 20-year-old whiz Dizzy Trout, but the team was not fielded for the following season. Burwell joined his old friend Donie Bush in 1936 and served as his pitching coach for the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association, who had just begun their affiliation with the Boston Red Sox. The following season, 1937, must have tested Burwell‘s commitment to managing and baseball. He signed a contract to become the manager of another new team, the St. Joseph (Missouri) Saints of the Class A Western League, but the team folded before the start of the season.20 Burwell then took over the Rock Island (Illinois) Islanders of the same league, and then they disbanded in midseason; at that point he returned to Minneapolis to serve as Bush‘s pitching coach again. At 42, Burwell also pitched, primarily in relief, and won four games.

Burwell led the Class D Crookston Pirates, an affiliate of the Minneapolis Millers, to the Northern League finals in 1938, and, at the age of 43, had a 1-3 pitching record. That was his last year pitching in Organized Baseball; he finished with a 239-206 minor-league record and 3,873 innings pitched in 601 games. In 1939 he reunited yet again with Donie Bush, who had been named manager of the Louisville Colonels, the Boston Red Sox’ new affiliate in the American Association. And when Bush was forced to relinquish his position because of illness in May, Burwell was named manager,21 guided the Colonels to the league championship, and then to the Junior World Series title when they defeated the Rochester Red Wings of the International League, four games to three. Burwell‘s reputation soared and he entertained coaching offers from major-league teams.22 Even though Bush maintained that he would resume his managerial duties in 1940, Burwell decided to remain with the Colonels and signed a contract paying him $6,000 per year which made him one of the highest paid coaches in Organized Baseball.23 Ultimately Bush stepped down and Burwell managed the Colonels for four more seasons, leading them to the Junior World Series again in 1940 and to the American Association finals in 1941.

Burwell was a patient manager who had the ability to coax maximum effort from his players. Big Jim Weaver, a former major-league pitcher who toiled for the Colonels as a 36-year old on what most thought was just an average Colonels team in 1940, remarked of Burwell, “He‘s not just the best manger, he‘s a Houdini without mirrors.”24 Players respected him for his honest approach and his fatherly concern for their welfare as players. “He‘d talk about personal habits, our drinking, and things like that,” said Johnny Pesky, who played for the Colonels and was the American Association MVP in 1941. “He told players they were only hurting themselves by not staying in their best physical shape.”25 Burwell was a quiet and selfless manager who genuinely wanted his players to succeed and gave them credit when they did. “Any success I‘ve had the players gave to me,” he said after the Colonels’ surprising 1940 season.”26

Burwell got his first taste of coaching in the big leagues when the Red Sox named him third-base coach in 1944, replacing Tom Daly. The Red Sox brass recognized Burwell‘s effect on player development, especially pitchers. “Burwell is a wonder at developing youngsters,” said Herb Pennock, the former Yankees great who was the director of the Red Sox farm system at the time.27 There was some speculation that if manager Joe Cronin, who at 38 was still draft-eligible for World War II, was drafted, then Burwell might succeed him.28 Cronin was not drafted and Burwell resigned at the end of the season, ending his working relationship with the Red Sox.

Donie Bush and Indianapolis banker Frank McKinney had purchased the Indianapolis Indians before the 1945 season. Bush invited his longtime pitcher, coach, and confidante to skipper the team. Burwell accepted and responded by leading them to consecutive second-place finishes in 1945 and 1946. This led to speculation that he‘d be offered the job of managing the Pittsburgh Pirates under their new ownership group led by Frank McKinney.29 However, Billy Herman, the former All-Star second baseman and Burwell‘s good friend, was offered the job and he invited Burwell to join his staff, which he did for the 1947 season.30

From 1947 until he officially retired in 1962, Burwell served in the Pirates organization as major-league coach, minor-league manager, roving pitching instructor, and even for one game as their manager. When Herman resigned as manager before the last game of the 1947 season, Burwell was named interim manager, and won his one and only game, 7-0, over the Cincinnati Reds. Rumors swirled that Burwell would be named the new manager in the offseason;31 however, the Pirates chose well-respected Billy Meyer, who had coached in the New York Yankees farm system since 1932, and Burwell was retained as a coach for the 1948 season. He was reassigned at the end of the season when ownership made wholesale changes to the entire Pirates system, including reducing the number of farm reams from 19 to 13.32 He was named manager of the Davenport (Iowa) Pirates in the Class B Three-I League, where he developed two 19-year-old future All-Star pitchers, Vern Law and Bob Purkey. Law said Burwell “taught me how to utilize my legs and my body more so than my arm. He helped me hold runners on by developing a quick throw to first.”33 After beginning 1950 as a roving instructor, Burwell replaced Hugh Luby in midseason as manager of the New Orleans Pelicans in the Double-A Southern Association, where he continued tutoring Law and Purkey as well as future Pirates All-Star outfielder Frank Thomas.

Upon being named general manager of the Pirates after the 1950 campaign, Branch Rickey turned his attention to the Bucs’ minor-league system and stressed player development. He promoted Burwell to “player overseer” of the entire farm system, which allowed Burwell to work with all of the Pirates minor-league teams and to scout the nation for talent.34 With his reputation as a master teacher, Burwell participated in Pirates rookie camps, including the first fall rookie camp in major-league history, in 1951, as well as spring training.35 At the age of 60 in 1955, Burwell was named manager of the Lincoln Chiefs in the Class A Western League, the last time he piloted a team. When Rickey resigned after the 1955 season, Burwell resumed his role as player overseer, scout, and managerial consultant under new general manager Joe L. Brown.

Burwell rejoined the parent club to start the 1958 season when Danny Murtaugh, in his first full season as manager of the Pirates, assembled his new coaching staff and named Burwell pitching coach, a position he held until his retirement in 1962. During Burwell‘s tenure with the Pirates, the pitching staff coalesced and served as one of the Pirates’ strengths. In his first year as pitching coach, the Pirates enjoyed their best season since 1944 and Burwell‘s effect on the pitching staff deserved credit. Vern Law won 14, his career high to that point, and credited Burwell for his success via a change in pitching mechanics. Bob Friend won a career-high 22 games, which led the National League. Ronnie Kline responded with 13 wins, and the team ranked second in the National League in ERA at 3.56. “Bill picks out mistakes in a hurry, but he doesn‘t make a fuss about them – out loud,” said Murtaugh. “One of his real assets is his patience with young pitchers. He doesn‘t try to make any radical change in their style . . . but you‘ll note that a kid breaking in who doesn‘t have a change-up starts working on one.”36

In 1960 Burwell experienced the pinnacle of team success when the Pirates won the World Series. Despite giving up 55 runs to the Yankees in seven games, the pitching staff had pitched solidly all year. “Bill has done a tremendous job with the pitching staff, especially with the youngster boys,” wrote Pittsburgh Post-Gazette sports editor Al Abrams.37 Law won the Cy Young Award, Friend won 18 games, and the staff finished third in the league in ERA, only .09 of a run behind the league-leading Los Angeles Dodgers. Burwell‘s importance to the team couldn’t be reduced to just his role as a pitching coach. Throughout his career as a manager and coach, batters as well as pitchers praised him for instilling confidence in their game. Roberto Clemente singled out Burwell and hitting instructor George Sisler as the reason for his success in 1960 and especially in 1961, when he won his first National League batting title, “They helped me all season by giving me encouragement. They kept telling me I could hit for high average.”38

At the age of 67, the quiet, studious, and mild-mannered Burwell retired after the 1962 season during which the Pirates staff had led the National League in ERA. He settled with his wife, Virginia, with whom he had no children, in the Daytona, Florida, area where they had lived in the offseason for three decades. One year after Virginia died in 1964, Burwell married Kappy Dudley, the widow of former Louisville Colonels president and general manager Bruce Dudley, with whom Burwell had stayed in touch since the early 1940s.

During his official retirement from baseball, Burwell continued to work closely with the Pirates staff and their pitching prospects in the minor leagues and also served as a scout. His passion for pitching never waned after retirement. He helped develop Bob Veale into an All-Star and spent the early part of the 1967, 1968, and 1969 seasons with the Gastonia Pirates of the Class A Western Carolinas League, where he assisted manager Don Leppert and then Frank Oceak with pitcher development.39

Not just a baseball player, manager, and coach, Burwell was a Renaissance man. He had an excellent tenor voice, enjoyed singing, and composed his own music. On June 11, 1973, Bill Burwell died of a heart attack at the age of 78. He was buried next to Virginia at the Daytona Memorial Park in Daytona Beach, Florida.

 

This biography is included in the book "Sweet '60: The 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates" (SABR, 2013), edited by Clifton Blue Parker and Bill Nowlin. For more information or to purchase the book in e-book or paperback form, click here.

 

Sources

Statistics are from Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org.

David Cicotello and Angelo J. Louisa, eds., Forbes Field. Essays and Memories of the Pirates Historic Ballpark, 1909-1971 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2007).

Rick Cushing. 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates Day by Day: A Special Season, An Extraordinary World Series. (Pittsburgh: Dorrance Publishing Co., Inc., 2010).

David Finoli and Bill Ranier, eds., The Pittsburgh Pirates Encyclopedia (Champaign, Illinois: Sports Publishing, 2003).

Dick Groat. The World Champion Pittsburgh Pirates. (New York: Coward-McCann, 1961).

David Maraniss. Clemente: The Pride and Passion of Baseball’s Last Hero. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006).

Richard Peterson, ed., The Pirates Reader (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2003).

Jim Reisler. The Best Game Ever: Pirates vs. Yankees October 13, 1960. (Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2007).

 

Notes

1 George L. Brickson, “Bullet Gives Burwell Power to Pitch Curve.” Ogden (Utah) Standard Examiner. May 9, 1920, 27.

2 The Sporting News, June 30, 1973, 28.

3 All season and career records have been verified with Baseball Reference.com. See www.baseballreference.com.

5 The Sporting News, January 30, 1952, 8.

6 New Castle (Pennsylvania) News, May 6, 1920, 12.

7 Ibid.

8 Single game box scores have been verified with Retrosheet. See www.retrosheet.com.

9 The Sporting News, January 5, 1939, 5.

10 The Sporting News, August 23, 1923, 03.

11 The Sporting News, April 21, 1945, 22.

12 Pittsburgh Press, June 5, 1928, 39.

13 “Bad Burwell is Slipping.” Milwaukee Journal, December 9, 1930, 13.

14 The Sporting News, November 17, 1948, 10.

15 The Sporting News, December 24, 1925, 2, and December 31, 1925.

16 Jeanette (Pennsylvania) News Dispatch, June 26, 1926, 4.

17 Charleston (West Virginia) Gazette, October 7, 1928, 24.

18 The Sporting News, January 11, 1934, 3.

19 The Sporting News, April 5, 1934, 1.

20 The Sporting News, February 25, 1937, 3, and April 1, 1937, 5.

21 The Sporting News, July 6, 1939, 5.

22 The Sporting News, December 14, 1939, 2.

23 Ibid.

24 The Sporting News, October 17, 1940, 7.

25 The Sporting News, November 24, 1962, 3.

26 The Sporting News, October 17, 1960, 7.

27 Milwaukee Journal, July 13, 1943, 9.

28 The Sporting News, March 9, 1944, 4 and 6.

29 Chester L. Smith, “And Kennedy Due to Stay.” Pittsburgh Press, August 5, 1946, 16.

30 The Sporting News, November 27, 1946, 16.

31 The Sporting News, September 24, 1947, 35.

32 “Bill Burwell out as Pirate Coach.” Pittsburgh Press, October 2, 1948, 45.

33 Vern Law. “Vern Law Picks up Pointers Viewing other Top Hurlers.” Uniontown (Pennsylvania) Morning Herald, July 6, 1962, 12. He may also have managed Davenport for at least a while in 1948, too.

34 Jack Hernon. “Bill Burwell Named Aid to Branch Rickey.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, January 13, 1951, 10.

35 The Sporting News, October 31, 1951, 15.

36 Rick Cushing. 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates Day by Day: A Special Season, An Extraordinary World Series (Pittsburgh: Dorrance Publishing, Co., Inc., 2010).

37 Bernhard Kahn, “Scholarly Bill Burwell Spurs Pirates Pitchers.” Daytona Beach Morning Journal, August 30, 1958, 26.

38 David Maraniss, Clemente. The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006), 161.

39 Gastonia (North Carolina) Gazette, July 30, 1968, 6.

Individual Memberships start at just $45/year

Become A Member Today

When you join SABR you are making a statement of support for baseball history. You are joining a worldwide community of people who love to read about, talk about and write about baseball.