Ed Burns

This article was written by Nelson 'Chip' Greene

Among a lifetime of lively anecdotes, perhaps none better evokes the colorful and adventurous life of Ed Burns than that told by another renowned sportswriter from the profession’s glory days, Red Smith. Writing four days after Burns’s untimely death, on January 27, 1955, at the age of 64, Smith suggested that his colleague “probably was the only sports reporter in America who was prodded into the craft by the muzzle of a sawed-off shotgun.”1

The episode took place in Chicago during the Al Capone-era Prohibition days of gangland warfare. At the time, Burns was in his second incarnation with the Chicago Tribune. Having joined the paper as an artist early in 1918, his employment was interrupted in July of that year when Burns was drafted into the Navy, where, Smith reported, he was “valorous in defense of the Brooklyn Navy Yard.”2 After discharge, Burns rejoined the Trib, but this time as a news reporter, assigned variously to the Federal building and criminal courts. On the latter beat, Burns “became personally acquainted with commanders, lieutenants and foot soldiers of the underworld’s several clashing forces.”3

One day while Burns was walking down Michigan Avenue, he was joined by one of these nefarious characters, who engaged him in conversation. When it came time for the two to part, the associate seemed reluctant to leave Burns’s side; he kept Burns talking for a considerable time. The next day, Burns encountered a member of a rival gang, who asked, “You bumped into Big Tony yesterday, didn’t you? Did you happen to notice a car following you along the curb?” When Burns answered no, the man explained, “Some of us boys were in it. We were gonna take care of Big Tony, but we didn’t leave him have it because you were in line.”4

Moments later, Burns stood before his managing director and told him, “I have come to the conclusion that sportswriting is my true métier.”5 For almost 30 years, sports fans were thrilled that he had made the switch.

As a boy, Burns had the perfect role model for a journalism career. Born in Frankfort, Indiana, on January 17, 1891, Edward Harold Burns, Jr. was the second son (the first son, Robert, died at 5 in 1892; and sister Blanche was born in 1894) of Edward and Flora Burns. After a stint as editor of the Frankfort Banner, in 1887 Edward Sr. became a partner and joint editor of the Frankfort Evening News, which he later owned. For four years beginning in 1906, Edward Sr. also served as Frankfort’s postmaster.

Edward Jr. began his career in the newspaper business at 14 by gathering personal items for his father’s newspaper. (In his obituary, it was also noted that Burns later worked on several newspapers, in Crawfordsville, Indiana, where he attended school, as well as in Illinois, at the Joliet Herald-News and the Chicago Examiner, but the timeline is unclear.) Around 1909, Burns then enrolled at Wabash College, in Crawfordsville, where he was a member of the Delta Chi fraternity. Whether Burns majored in journalism at Wabash is unknown, but after graduation he expanded his creative nature by studying at the Chicago Art Institute and the Academy of Fine Arts, before he joined the staff of the Chicago Herald in 1914. Four years later, he moved to the Tribune and took a job in the art department.

With his artistic talents, Burns’s career might have turned out differently, although he eventually merged both journalism and art. In reporting upon Burns’ being drafted in 1918, the Tribune wrote, “If he can draw a bead on a Teutonic dome with half the cleverness with which he portrays their features on paper there will be fewer Fritzes to return to the fatherland.”6 After his service in the Navy, Burns returned to Chicago and took a job in the art department of an advertising agency, which he held for two years. In 1923, however, he returned to the Tribune as their crime reporter. His switch to sports took place in 1927.

It was the last position Burns ever held (the exception being supplementary work he did for years with The Sporting News); for the rest of his life, almost literally until the day he died, Burns reported on sports for the Tribune. A big, jovial man, who was a master of satire and an expert in the art of ribbing and needling,7 in addition to baseball, Burns also covered football and hockey, and “won (a) reputation for his whimsical writing style.”8 (Burns was a charter member of the National Hockey League selection committee that yearly named the All-Star players and winners of hockey’s Lady Byng, Hart, and Calder trophies. When he died, Burns’s impact on hockey, it was claimed, would best be remembered by a suggestion he made to widen the blue lines on the rink from a thin, obscure marker to one 12 inches wide. Burns also originated the term “feathering the puck,” then standard in describing the practice of ragging the puck to kill penalty time.9)

Burns couldn’t have been more physically different from the athletes he covered. Indeed, he was a rather large man. Writing about their young artist in 1918, when Burns left the paper for the Navy, the Tribune first reported that he “weigh[ed] something more than 200 [pounds.]”10 In 1973 sportswriter Edgar Munzel, a contemporary of Burns for many years at The Sporting News, with whom Burns spent many springs during the 1930s at Chicago Cubs training camps on Catalina Island, offered an even more inflated account when he recalled Burns as “the 300-pound Tribune chronicler.”11 And perhaps Red Smith said it best when he wrote, in his own inimitable style, of Burns as both possessing a “large spherical silhouette” and a man who was also “corpulent and sedentary.”12 Together with his jovial personality, “delicious wit” and “wide friendliness,” the bespectacled Burns endeared himself to his contemporaries in the press box.13

That wasn’t always the case with the athletes, though. In days when writers often glossed over the foibles of the men whom they covered, Burns, recalled Red Smith, “could see deeper than a sweatshirt and, having measured an athlete’s talents accurately, could sum up his judgment succinctly.” “No hero worshipper” was Burns, wrote Smith, “enshrining demigods on pedestals of prose.”14 (When the Cubs blew a six-game lead in 1930, Burns wrote:“Don’t shoot your rifles at that thar balloon, boys — the Cubs are in it.” Later, he blamed the team’s collapse on a pair of peacocks Rogers Hornsby had bought from the late William Wrigley, Jr.’s Catalina Island bird farm during spring training. Peacocks, he insisted, were bad luck. “Back home in Indiana,” he wrote, “we tolerated ’em only on millinery. And then only on certain folks.”15)

More than once, Burns’s bluntness and criticism provoked outrage and anger from an aggrieved athlete; and yet, “if occasionally there were threats of violence from some ballplayer he had written about with what the athlete deemed an excess of candor,” Burns nonetheless remained undisturbed. “He had no patience with professionals who came complaining when he’d written the truth about them, whining, ‘You’re taking away my bread and butter.’”

“How do they think I earn my bread and butter?” Burns would retort. Of course, it helped that “he outweighed most ordinary infielders by 100 pounds or so.”16

Sometimes Burns’s critical commentary could be relentless. Witness the feud he had one season with Cubs shortstop Dick Bartell. One day during 1939 spring training with the Cubs on Catalina Island, recalled Munzel, Burns was walking across the ball field with Cubs traveling secretary Robert Lewis, another man of large girth, after a team workout. Spotting the two men, Bartell yelled, “When does the balloon go up?”

“And did Rowdy Richard [Bartell] pay for the remark!” exclaimed Munzel. “Burns was on Bartell for the rest of the year. It was never a vicious frontal attack, but big Ed jabbed the needle in day after day by tabulating Bartell’s errors … Another boot by Dick Bartell, his 22nd of the season, cost the Cubs the game … Bartell’s 31st error of the season set up another run for the Cardinals. And on and on it went, with Bartell unwittingly playing right into Burns’s hands. He had a terrible season.” 17

In his 1988 autobiography, Bartell himself remembered that year. “Dizzy Dean, Woody English and I were walking up the path to the ballpark. Up ahead was a rotund, heavyset guy. He had to turn sideways to get through the gate. “I called out, ‘Hey what time does the balloon go up?’ It was a common barb we used to throw at overweight players.

“Dean said, ‘Do you know who that is?’

“I said no.

“Dean said, ‘That’s Ed Burns, the writer for the Chicago Tribune.’

“Burns turned and pointed a finger at me. ‘You’ll hear from me all summer,” he said.

“Well, the season started and I was being charged with errors on plays where there was no error, like a double play we didn’t finish. But Burns was the official scorer. He would give me one, anyhow. And anything that might have been called a hit for me, he’d charge the other team with an error. …

“The other writers in the press box heard “Error, Bartell” so often, every time I booted one or threw it into the stands, everyone sang out, “Error, Bartell.’”

Burns’s enmity would rarely last, though. Years later, according to Bartell, Burns apologized “for coming down so hard on me that year.”18

By the time Burns joined the Tribune sports department in 1927, another Tribune sportswriting legend, Irving Vaughan, was beginning his second decade of Chicago sports coverage. From that point on, Burns and Vaughan alternated their reporting between the city’s two baseball teams. A typical article that appeared in a July 1937 edition of The Sporting News accurately conveyed their teamwork.

“Switching time is at hand for the Chicago scribes,” the article explained. Unlike “some of the New York boys” who covered three teams yet usually switched their coverage “willy nilly,” Burns and Vaughan always traded places at midseason. “The Trib pair have arranged an intricate switch. Burns, who will leave the Cubs to cover the White Sox in Detroit, July 5, en route to the All-Star game, will rejoin the Cubs in Pittsburgh for three days en route home, then will return to Chicago to join the Sox for the remainder of the season. Vaughan will pick up the Cubs at a night game in Cincy, July 12.”19 Their changes almost always went off seamlessly.

The two also yearly alternated spring trainings. (In 2002 veteran journalist Godfrey Sperling, who enjoyed a 59-year career with the Christian Science Monitor, recalled that Vaughan and Burns were “my favorite sports writers in those days. … How I envied them their assignments, covering the White Sox and the Cubs. They would start out with one team at spring training and then trade teams at midseason.”20) Burns’s first spring with the Cubs at Catalina Island occurred in 1929, the year the Cubs won the National League pennant. That spring was also the first time Burns met Cubs owner Philip Wrigley. Writing in 1947, during his first visit back to Catalina after a five-year hiatus, Burns declared, “I felt pretty proud being greeted by Mr. and Mrs. Wrigley when I got off the boat the other day. First time I ever met P.K. was right on that same wharf. He was helping unload a snow white Arabian stallion. Don’t imagine the hoss is still about his business hereabouts.”21

Filing dispatches from whichever locale happened to be his assignment was, of course, paramount for Burns, but once his working day was through, he always found the nightlife appealing. (Of Burns’s writing method, Sperling wrote, “In later years, I happened to meet Burns, who told me he always wrote his stories in longhand and that there was one Tribune (Linotype) operator who always handled his stories because he was the only one who could decipher Burns’s handwriting.”22) During his early years at Catalina, Burns stayed at the St. Catherine Hotel, where he would often entertain friends. “Bob Lewis [the traveling secretary] used to fix it with the management so I had the same room each year,” Burns wrote. “It was on the third floor north front, overlooking the ocean. …Once a gent … came to my room [for drinks]. ... As we sat for several hours discussing world problems, my guest forgot where he was. Furthermore, it was high tide and the waves were roaring up to the walk under my window. My landlubber friend heard the roar, looked out, blinked as he beheld nothing but water, then cried: “My gawd, we’re at sea. I’ve been shanghaied. Then he fainted. Quite a mess getting him to his own bed.”23

By 1947 Burns had relocated. “I’m a little sad about the dormant state of the St. Catherine hotel, but delighted with my quarters in the Atwater. Never in all the years I’ve been coming here had I set foot in the place, although I spent many hours on my feet and otherwise in a neighborhood establishment when it was known as the White Cap. That was when we used to get up and come down for the 4 a.m. show. There was a banjo player who had a three piece orchestra and he billed his unit as “Professor Burns and his Thirty Dirty Fingers.”24

If Burns gained national renown and respect for his Tribune work (in 1942 he became chairman of the Chicago chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America; in 1947, president of the national BBWAA; and in 1952, a member of the BBWAA board of directors), he possibly exceeded that work elsewhere. As baseball writer-turned-baseball executive Garry Schumacher opined in a 1961 TSN article when he named Burns and New York Herald-Tribune writer Bill Hanna as the best writers of his time, “Actually, Burns did his best work for The Sporting News.”25 There, Burns often combined his writing with his art.

In 1937 Burns interviewed Cubs coach John “Red” Corriden, who had been in the game for 30 years, concerning “inside baseball” and the variety of signs used by managers and coaches. In the piece, Burns accompanied the narrative with a panel of his own humorous drawings, such as a coach touching the brim of his hat with his left hand, while with his right simultaneously touching his ear lobe. This action, Burns wrote, “is an absent-minded coach touching skin and clothing simultaneously. If you understand baseball signs you know this kind of careless business is likely to make an obedient ball player try to run in opposite directions at the same time thus precipitating havoc. Or he might hit a triple when he was supposed to bunt.” Another cartoon shows a coach holding an open pouch of tobacco in his left hand while in his right he pinches a bit between thumb and forefinger. In this case, wrote Burns, “A coach taking a chew in this fashion would mean one thing. Pouring the scrap into his face direct from the pouch might mean an entirely opposite message with disastrous results.”26 Several months later he also produced “Burns-Eye Views of Big Time Parks,” a 15-part serial that featured, in intricate and exacting detail, Burns’s handwritten drawings of every stadium in the major leagues accompanied by “a paragraph here and there about the fan inmates thereof, together with miscellaneous historical matter and maybe an anecdote or two.”27 At the time of his death almost 20 years later, he was hoping to resume his Sporting News column, “Bouncing Around With Ed Burns.” Truly, these works represented Burns at the peak of his creativity.

The end came over a span of six months. On June 1, 1954, Burns was in Boston while traveling with the White Sox when he was stricken with an illness that turned out to be cancer. After several operations, he returned to his Oak Park, Illinois, home to recuperate. (A lifelong bachelor, for many years he lived with his sister Blanche and her family on South Maple Drive in Oak Park.) That November, Burns returned to the Trib when he covered his 28th Purdue-Indiana football game. His final assignment was Christmas night, 1954, at the opening of the Hollywood Ice Revue in Chicago Stadium. After his story was completed, Burns collapsed. For three weeks he lay in a coma at Chicago’s Wesley Memorial Hospital, before a clot on a brain artery took his life.

Two days after his death, Ed Burns was laid to rest beside his parents in Chicago’s Rose Hill Cemetery. Among his pallbearers was his good friend, Irving Vaughan.

 

This biography appears in "Winning on the North Side: The 1929 Chicago Cubs" (SABR, 2015), edited by Gregory H. Wolf.

 

Sources

 Sincerest appreciation is expressed to SABR member Bill Mortell for his invaluable contribution to this biography. Bill utilized Geneaology.com and Ancestry.com, as well as several online sources referenced below.

Seattle Times

 Chicago Tribune

Catalina Islander

The Sporting News

Christian Science Monitor

Baseball Digest

  • 1. “Red Smith: Views of Sport,” Seattle Times, January 31, 1955.
  • 2. Ibid.
  • 3. Ibid.
  • 4. Ibid.
  • 5. Ibid.
  • 6. Chicago Daily Tribune, July 27, 1918.
  • 7. “Ed Burns, Columnist for the Sporting News, Dies,” The Sporting News, February 2, 1955.
  • 8. Ibid.
  • 9. Ibid.
  • 10. Chicago Daily Tribune, July 27, 1918.
  • 11. “Munzel - 44 Years of Spring Fun and Frolic,” The Sporting News, March 10, 1973.
  • 12. “Red Smith: Views of Sport,” Seattle Times, January 31, 1955.
  • 13. “Ed Burns, Columnist for the Sporting News, Dies,” The Sporting News, February 2, 1955.
  • 14. “Red Smith: Views of Sport,” Seattle Times, January 31, 1955.
  • 15. “Ed Burns, Columnist for the Sporting News, Dies,” The Sporting News, February 2, 1955.
  • 16. Ibid.
  • 17. “Munzel - 44 Years of Spring Fun and Frolic,” The Sporting News, March 10, 1973.
  • 18. “Dingers & Zingers,” Phily.com, August 9, 1995.
  • 19. “Switching Time for Chi Scribes,” The Sporting News, July 1, 1937.
  • 20. Christian Science Monitor, July 23, 2002.
  • 21. Catalina Islander, February 20, 1947.
  • 22. Christian Science Monitor, July 23, 2002.
  • 23. Catalina Islander, February 20, 1947.
  • 24. Ibid.
  • 25. The Sporting News, March 29, 1961.
  • 26. The Sporting News, April 29, 1937.
  • 27. The Sporting News, June 24, 1937.