Sometime after his first major league season of 1977, Pat Putnam, the Texas Rangers’ Vermont-born first baseman, filled out a survey sent to him by the National Baseball Library. In response to a question whether any relatives had played professional baseball, Putnam wrote, “Grandfather Burrell may have played (?).” The relative Putnam had in mind was his mother’s father, George Burrell, whose career was cut short by a severely broken leg. “Grandfather Burrell” tried out for the Boston Braves back in the 1910s but never played organized professional baseball.
What Putnam didn’t know was that he had another relative who had played pro ball, and this one had actually made it to the majors. His name was Harry J. Burrell.
According to Total Baseball, Burrell was born in Bethel, Vermont, on May 26, 1869; his death certificate is probably more reliable, however, and it indicates that he was born three years earlier. Harry’s father, Peter Burrelle (note the French spelling, which many family members still retain), was a lumberjack from Boucherville, Quebec, ten miles east of Montreal. “Peter Burrelle was a strong, rugged man and was very skillful in the use of axe and saw,” reported the Bethel Courier on January 30, 1902, “and had probably worked up more wood than any two men around here.”
Peter Burrelle had come to Vermont in the fall of 1863 to work a lumber job with his brother Lewis, and the following spring the brothers brought their families to Bethel to settle permanently. Peter’s family included his wife, Louise, and five children. By the time of Harry’s birth a couple years after their arrival, Louise had died and Peter had married another woman with the same given name. Harry was Peter’s first child with the second Louise.
Like many 19th-century athletes, Harry got his start playing for the hometown nine. He must have played well enough to earn promotion to a larger town, because by 1889 he was playing for Brattleboro. The following year Harry headed west to play for Dubuque, Iowa, and spent most of the next two seasons in western minor leagues.
After a stint in Joliet, Illinois, Harry Burrell won a job in the big time, entering the American Association during its last month of operation as a major league. Joining the roster of the St. Louis Browns, which included Hall-of-Famers Charlie Comiskey, Clark Griffith and Tommy McCarthy, the right-handed pitcher made his major league debut on September 13, 1891. Over the last month of the season Burrell pitched in seven games, going 4-2 with a 4.81 ERA as the Browns finished second, 8.5 games behind the Boston Reds. The day after his last appearance, teammate Ted Breitenstein pitched a no-hitter in his first major league start. Burrell also batted 22 times, gaining five hits, including two doubles, for a .222 batting average.
So much for the major league career of Harry Burrell of Bethel, Vermont. In the decade following his month in the majors, Burrell jumped from team to team, his life as an itinerant minor leaguer no doubt simplified by his bachelor status. If he were alive today, he would probably say his greatest thrill in baseball was leading Des Moines to a Western League championship in 1897. Or perhaps he would mention pitching for Taunton, Massachusetts, of the New England League when the great Christy Mathewson made his professional debut with that club in July 1899.
Following his retirement as a player after the 1900 season, Burrell returned in the midwest and kept up his ties with the game. A Vermont newspaper, the White River Herald and News, reported on April 25, 1901:
Harry Burrell, the Brattleboro ex-outfielder who afterwards developed into a pitcher, and who has been playing professionally since he left for the West a dozen years ago, … is now a promoter of the Iowa State League. Burrell, who is a Bethel boy, is teaching penmanship at an Iowa college.
Harry eventually settled in Omaha, where he died of toxemia on December 15, 1914. Sixty-three years later, his descendant Pat Putnam, another confirmed bachelor, carried on the family baseball tradition and became the second Bethel native to reach the majors.
A version of this biography originally appeared in Green Mountain Boys of Summer: Vermonters in the Major Leagues 1882-1993, edited by Tom Simon (New England Press, 2000).
In researching this article, the author made use of the subject’s file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, the Tom Shea Collection, the archives at the University of Vermont, and several local newspapers. In addition, the authors wish to thanks Cappy Gagnon for his research assistance.