This article was written by Joseph Wancho
Cleveland pitcher Walter “Duster” Mails was feeling his oats, and why wouldn’t he be? He was living a dream after he was acquired by the Indians on August 31, 1920, in an effort to shore up the pitching staff. But manager Tris Speaker got much more than he bargained for when in eight starts in the month of September, Mails went 7-0 with an ERA of 1.85.
Still, that was the regular season. The Indians, who were making their first appearance in the World Series, relied on veteran starters Jim Bagby and Stan Coveleski to take the ball in four of the first five games. The Series was a best-of-nine format, and Cleveland held a slim three games to two lead over their opponent, the Brooklyn Robins.
Spoke called on the youngster to toe the rubber for the home team for Game Six on October 11, 1920. Mails boasted “Brooklyn will be lucky to get a foul tip off me today. If Spoke and the boys will give me one run, Cleveland will win.” i
As the saying goes, “It ain’t bragging if you can back it up”. Mails did his part, shutting out the Robins with a three-hitter, striking out four, walking two. Even the Robins’ Zack Wheat took the collar with a 0-4 showing at the plate.
The Indians’ lone run came courtesy of one of Speaker’s “substitute” players, first baseman George Burns. The right-handed batting Burns was a backup to Doc Johnston at first base since he was purchased from Philadelphia in late May. He was often called on by Speaker to take his hacks against left-handed pitchers. Such was the case in Game Six, as southpaw Sherry Smith was the starter. Burns strolled to the plate with two outs, and Speaker on first base. Burns smashed Smith’s offering between outfielders Wheat and Hi Myers, all the way to the left-field wall in front of the bleachers. Burns checked into second base with a double. But Spoke came all the way around from first base to score the first and only run of the game. With the 1-0 victory, the Tribe took a commanding lead in the Series, four games to two.
After the game, Speaker was complimentary of his first baseman. “You might say that George Burns was one of our substitutes this year. He has played first base in very few games, being used mostly as a pinch-hitter,” said Speaker. “As such, he has won a few games for us this year, but has he ever rose to the occasion any more successfully he did today when he rapped one of Sherrod Smith’s best offerings to the center-field bleachers for two bases and scored me all the way from first? The best of it was he told me he was going to do it.” ii
George Henry Burns was born on January 31, 1893 in Niles, Ohio, but lived in Tioga, Pennsylvania, and then later in Philadelphia. When George became a professional player, he was given the moniker “Tioga Kid” or “Tioga George” so that he could be distinguished from George Joseph Burns. George Joseph was an outfielder who spent his career in the National League playing mostly in New York and Cincinnati.
George Henry Burns attended Philadelphia Central High School, but dropped out at age 16 to pursue a career in baseball. He signed his first professional contract in 1913 for $150 a month with Quincy (IL) of the Central Association. He was dealt to Burlington (IA), and also played for Ottumwa (IA), all members of the same league. Burns continued his tour of the Hawkeye State, suiting up for Class A Sioux City (IA) of the Western League. He hit .301 for the Packers, and hit 12 home runs.
His contract was purchased by the Detroit Tigers. He was inserted into manager Hughie Jennings’ lineup as the everyday first baseman. Burns showed he belonged, hitting .291 his rookie year on a team that included Ty Cobb, Sam Crawford, and a young Harry Heilmann. Cobb took Burns under his wing, giving him pointers on hitting. “The little tricks and details of batting which Cobb taught me, enabled me to get hits which I otherwise wouldn’t have made, all the way through my career,” said Burns. “For a while, I even used Cobb’s type of bat. Later, I switched to a longer and heavier bat.”iii He put on a show for his hometown fans in his first visit to Shibe Park. Burns homered off of Athletics’ pitcher Eddie Plank, collecting six hits in the series. However, Burns led the league in errors with 30. It was the first of four seasons he led the league in this dubious distinction.
Burns demonstrated that even the balls he stroked into foul territory gave credence to the old adage, “where there is smoke, there is fire.” Detroit was hosting Boston in August 1915, when Burns stepped to the plate of a scoreless tie in the seventh inning against Red Sox hurler Hubert “Dutch” Leonard. With the count full, Burns fouled a pitch into the grandstand, causing a mad scramble between those trying to catch the souvenir, and those trying to avoid getting hit by it. The next pitch was ball four, and George made his way to first base. As Tiger second baseman Ralph Young stepped into the box, more commotion came from the spot where Burns foul ball had landed. “There’s a man on fire here”, somebody yelled. Sure enough, the baseball had struck a patron in his coat pocket, which held a book of matches. Smoke was emanating from the coat, as the fan tried to free himself from his garment. An alert vendor doused the man’s pocket with soda pop, averting any more harm.iv
It was not a secret to many that Burns and Jennings had a rocky relationship. In 1917, it deteriorated more as Buns suffered through his worst offensive season, hitting .226. He endured prolonged batting slumps, which he attributed to an ailing knee. Burns asked for a leave to return to Philadelphia and to have the knee tended to near his home. Jennings nixed this idea, and placed George in a local hospital. The attending physician, after two days of exams, came to the conclusion that there was nothing wrong with Burns’ knee.
Connie Mack was looking to shake up his last-place club, and dealt productive first baseman John “Stuffy” McInnis to the Red Sox for their players. He was looking for a first baseman, and learned that Burns could be had from the Tigers. The Yankees were looking for an outfielder, but would not deal Wally Pipp. Mack had an outfielder, Ping Bodie, who he could deal. “Lookit,” Mack said to New York skipper Miller Huggins, “there’s a first baseman named Burns at Detroit that I understand the Tigers are willing to deal. You buy him and swap him to me, and Bodie is yours.”v The Yankees complied, purchasing Burns for $6,000 and sending him to the A’s.
The move to acquire a hometown boy was so popular that the trading of McInnis was forgotten. Six years earlier, a young Burns had arrived at Shibe Park for a tryout with his $150 a month offer from Detroit. “I told Connie of the offer,” explained Burns, “and he said I’d better take it and he would follow my career.”vi Indeed, Mack was true to his word.
The 1918 season was shortened a month due to World War I. The World Series was played right after Labor Day, as players were being called to active duty. The early end to the schedule may have been welcomed to the A’s, as they finished in last place, 24 games behind pennant-winner Boston. But still, Mack looked like a genius when Burns led the league in hits with 178. He was also second in RBIs (70) and second in batting average (.352).
Burns married the former Marian Harris in April 1919. They were the parents of four daughters, Patricia, Marjorie, Betty, and Jacqueline.
Although he hit .296 in 1919, Burns found out that Philly fans could be very fickle and boisterous, whether you were a hometown product or not. He suffered through a slow start at the plate, posting a .255 average for May and June. The hecklers rode him, and his defense suffered. Mack thought that a change of position might benefit Burns. He was tried in the outfield, but Burns was too slow afoot, and despised playing there.
Mack felt that Burns could flourish in the big leagues, perhaps just not in Philadelphia. On May 29, 1920, Burns was sold to Cleveland for $10,000. He was used primarily as a backup to Doc Johnston, and a right-handed bat off of Speaker’s bench. Burns showed his value hitting in the clutch. On August 2, Stan Coveleski and the Senators’ Harry Courtney were both pitching shutouts through the bottom of the seventh inning. Ray Chapman and Speaker each got aboard with infield hits, which were the third and fourth hits for the Tribe on the afternoon. Burns pinch-hit for right fielder Elmer Smith, and shot a Courtney curve ball towards third base. The ball hit the bag and headed towards left field. Third baseman Freddie Thomas and left fielder Clyde Milan gave chase. But before Burns was nailed at third base, two runs had crossed the plate, giving the Indians a 2-0 lead. Coveleski finished off the ninth frame for his 18th win.
Cleveland overcame the death of Chapman and the race to the pennant with Chicago and New York to capture the team’s first league title, and World Series. Behind Coveleski’s three wins in the series, Cleveland won their first Fall Classic, five games to two.
Although Burns hit a robust .361 in 1921, he was still a backup to Johnston at first base. Speaker coveted Boston’s Stuffy McInnis, a slick fielder but mostly a singles hitter, as his first sacker. On December 24, 1921, Cleveland dealt Burns, outfielder Joe Harris, and Elmer Smith to Boston for McInnis.
It was with the Red Sox where Burns career solidified, now that he was in the lineup every day. He hit over .300 in both 1922 and 1923, and reached his career high in home runs (12) in 1922. Despite leading the league in errors both years, Burns was a key contributor to Boston’s offensive attack.
Burns earned two distinctions in 1923. He became the first player to get a hit in Yankee Stadium on April 18, off of New York’s Bob Shawkey in the second inning. Unfortunately, for George, he was thrown out trying to steal second base.
His other feat occurred on September 14, when he completed an unassisted triple play against his old mates from Cleveland. In the top of the second inning, Tribe second baseman Riggs Stephenson led off with a single to left field and third baseman Rube Lutzke followed with a walk. Up stepped first baseman Frank Brower, and Speaker put the hit-and-run play on. Brower smashed a line drive headed to right field But the ball never got there as Burns snared it from his position at first base and tagged Lutzke for the second out. Seeing that Stephenson was retracing his steps to second, Burns raced to the bag, sliding and beating the runner by a whisker. It was the third unassisted “hat trick” in the big leagues, and it has only been accomplished 15 times in major-league history.
After the 1922 season, Speaker realized that the Burns-McInnis swap two years earlier had not worked to his advantage. He traded Joe Evans to Washington for Brower, who was touted as a hard-hitting first baseman. McInnis was given his release after the 1922 season and signed with the Boston Braves. Brower was second on the team with 16 homers, and hit .285. Yet, Speaker was a man who admitted when he made a mistake, and reacquired Burns from Boston on January 7, 1924. Burns initially held up the deal, believing that he deserved a bump in salary since he was the principal part of the deal. With the particulars worked out, Burns was once again an Indian.
Over the next four years, Burns was a mainstay at first base for the Tribe. His lowest batting average was .310 in 1924. But in 1926, Burns set the record for most doubles in a season with 64, breaking Speaker’s mark of 59 set in 1923. Burns mark is still the apex for most two-baggers in the American League by a right-handed batter, and tied for most in the majors by a right-handed batter with Joe Medwick. Burns also hit .358 and led the league in hits (218).
Burns was the recipient of the League Award in the junior circuit in 1926, presented to the player most valuable to his team. Previous winners were exempt from winning a second time. This included Babe Ruth, who led the league in home runs (47), RBIs (146), walks (144), runs (139), and hits .372. The National League made no such rule when naming its most deserving player.
“Tioga George” was playing in a diminished role when he was sold to the Yankees at the end of the 1928 season, and then a year later, ended his career after the 1929 season, backing up Jimmie Foxx in Philadelphia. Although the Athletics won the title, Burns opined that it was not because he played a significant role. “I didn’t contribute anything to that one (World Series). I struck out as a pinch-hitter for the pitcher.” vii
Burns retired with a .307 batting average, 2,018 hits, and 444 doubles. He was not far removed from the diamond when Burns made his way west, piling up the miles on the 1927 Studebaker President that Burns received from the Cleveland fans on “George Burns Day” in 1927 when he was honored for his MVP season the year before.
He was a player-manager for various teams in the Pacific Coast League, including the Mission Reds, the Seattle Indians and the Portland Beavers. His playing days long behind him, Burns settled in the Seattle area, taking a job as a sheriff’s deputy in King County in 1947. Marian Burns passed away as a result from cancer in 1951.
George was employed by the sheriff’s department until he retired in 1968. Burns was adamant that he belonged in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. There was a movement by friends and former players to get Burns enshrined in the early 1970s. “I deserve to be in there,” said Burns in 1974. “But I want to get in before I die.”viii It was not to be.
He passed away after an eight-year battle with cancer on January 7, 1978, in Kirkland, Washington. He was survived by his four daughters and ten grandchildren.
Cleveland Plain Dealer
National Baseball Hall of Fame Archives, Player File
i Henry P. Edwards. “Mails Defeats Smith 1-0 in Pitching Duel; Burns’ Hit Wins Game”, Cleveland Plain Dealer, October 12, 1920
ii Henry P. Edwards “Speaker Hands George Burns Pretty Bouquet”, Cleveland Plain Dealer, October 12, 1920.
iii Ira L. Smith. Baseball’s Famous First Basemen (Copp Clark Company, 1956), 136.
iv Smith, 131-132. This story has not been confirmed or verified in another source as of yet.
v Norman L. Macht. Connie Mack: The Turbulent and Triumphant Years (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012), 130.
vii Jacqueline Burns Gendar, “My Father Deserves a Place in the Baseball Hall of Fame”, Seattle Times, June 17, 1973.
viii The Sporting News, Obituary, January 21, 1978, 61.