This article was written by Kathy Torres
At the peak of his career, John Joseph “Black Jack” Burdock was considered to be the premier second baseman of 19th-century professional baseball. An article in Harper’s Weekly on May 16, 1885, about that year’s baseball season featured “the nine men universally acknowledged as the most expert players in their respective positions in the field,” and Burdock was selected as the second baseman of this precursor of today’s all-star teams, along with four future Hall of Famers: King Kelly (right field), Charles “Hoss” Radbourn (pitcher), Buck Ewing (catcher), and John Montgomery Ward (“the best base runner”).
Sadly, Burdock’s considerable skill and athleticism were ultimately undermined by alcoholism. He became a binge drinker starting in the early 1880s, resulting in essentially the end of his major-league career by the conclusion of that decade.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, in April of 1852 (there is no record of the exact date), Jack was the eldest of six children. His father, William Burdock, was a laborer who came to America from the county of Kent, England. His mother, Mary McGovern Burdock, was an Irish immigrant who worked as a laundress. By the time he was 15, Jack had dropped out of school to help provide for the family by working as a laborer like his father. However, like many other boys of the immigrant working class in New York, his free time was devoted to baseball. In 1867 he joined the Enterprise Junior Club of Brooklyn as a catcher and shortstop. Two years later, at the age of 17, he was playing with the amateur Union Baseball Club, and a year after that he was one of the club’s directors. Burdock worked hard not only at developing his skills but also at learning the evolving rules of the game. He also became a highly regarded umpire by the age of 19 and continued to umpire until at least 1883. In 1873 the Philadelphia City Item identified Burdock and Theo Bomeisler as the best umpires in the game, and the Chicago Inter-Ocean described Burdock as “an umpire who not only had intelligent comprehension of the rules, but who had the nerve and courage to enforce them.” Nerve and courage were important attributes for an umpire in the early days of baseball, when it was not uncommon for umpires to have bottles and bricks thrown at them by unhappy “cranks” (fans) on the sidelines or to be verbally assaulted and physically intimidated by the players themselves.
Burdock started 1871 as a player with the Athletics Amateur Club of Brooklyn, but by July he had begun his long professional career by signing with the Brooklyn Atlantics of the National Association. Atlantics captain Bob Ferguson strove to reorganize the team into a “strong professional club; a co-operative nine with a salaried pitcher,” recruiting “such experts” as Burdock. In 1872 Ferguson made Burdock the Atlantics’ shortstop, where he received notice in the press as a “fine, all-around player … worth more than many who command high salaries in the professional arena.”
In 1873 Burdock moved to second base. He was a strategic batter, but his real value was in the field. He reached his first major-league milestone that year, ranking second among fielders in total chances accepted with 412. Ferguson had chosen his players, including Burdock, not only for their skill, but for their integrity, “determined that no pool selling influences shall interfere with the nine” and that “gambling influence be removed forever from our much abused national game of base ball.” However, Ferguson does not appear to have discouraged “trickery” to the same degree with which he opposed betting, and Jack himself seemed to harbor the hardscrabble determination of the immigrant working class to win at any cost. He was especially criticized in the press for “tricky play.” The Chicago Inter-Ocean opined, “There are some half dozen players in the fraternity who would rather earn the applause of the roughs and the rabble by small meannesses and tricks in play … than earn the praise of the gentlemen of the crowd by manly efforts to win. Anson is one of these, and Burdock is another. The latter is regularly in the habit of trying to hide the ball when players are on bases, and to trick his opponents out in every way he can. He may think this is ‘playing points.’ If he does he is wonderfully mistaken.” Burdock was also developing a reputation for physical and verbal intimidation of opposing players.
By October 1873 the Atlantics had disbanded and 22-year-old Burdock signed with the New York Mutuals professional club for 1874. Assigned to third base, he continued to get recognition for both outstanding performance in the field and his integrity in regard to the “gambling interests,” claiming to have turned down a $1,000 bribe offered by McGeary of the Philadelphias to help throw a game. It was a good year for the Mutuals, who ended the year in second place, while Jack ranked third in fielding average at .820. He married 19-year-old Catharine Agnes “Kate” Kelly in Brooklyn on October 7. His abilities in the field were well known by this time and several clubs were bidding for his services. It was briefly thought that Chicago had claimed Burdock, but he ultimately signed with Hartford. It is likely that his new bride was reluctant to travel all the way west to Chicago, leaving her family and friends behind in her native Brooklyn. Hartford was much closer to home. Burdock may also have been influenced to choose Hartford by Bob Ferguson, who was to captain the team, in spite of their often volatile relationship.
Burdock started at second base with the Hartford Dark Blues in 1875 and remained in that position for the rest of his career. His fielding average of .895 was best in the league, and he was fifth in stolen bases with 20.
Kate gave birth on September 13, 1875, to a son, Thomas Francis, the first of 13 children she and Jack would have during their 46-year marriage. The National Association folded after its 1875 season and the Dark Blues joined the new National League. Still manning second base for Hartford in 1876, Burdock ranked third in the league in walks with 13 and fourth in runs with 66 (tied with Chicago’s Deacon White). He led all second basemen in putouts (and continued to do so for each of the next five years).
Captain Ferguson moved the team to Brooklyn for the 1877 season, renaming them the Hartfords of Brooklyn. He also began the innovative process of moving Burdock to the left side of the infield for certain batters and moving the outfield around in response to others, strategies that are taken for granted now but were cutting-edge defense for the time. Burdock’s skill at second base continued to draw notice. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, reporting on a June 18, 1877, game, said: “The fielding of Burdock in this match was a model display of second base playing. One throw out of his in the fifth inning, when he fielded Croft’s apparently safe grounder to Start in time, was one of the best plays of the kind ever seen on the field.” And again, reporting on a June 21 game: “The contest of yesterday afforded a striking illustration of the soundness of the theory that ‘it is fielding that wins.’ … Burdock gave another sample of model second base play. …” Burdock ranked best in fielding average that season, at .903. The Hartfords of Brooklyn ended 1877 in third place, but drew poorly and owner Morgan Bulkeley disbanded the team after the season.
Burdock signed with Harry Wright’s Boston Red Stockings for the 1878 season, and remained with the team for ten years. In The Great Encyclopedia of 19th-Century Baseball, David Nemec wrote, “Burdock and (shortstop) George Wright were the best keystone pair in the League, and the Boston team as a whole combined to set a new fielding average record of .914 and became the first club ever to average fewer than four errors per game.” Burdock ranked second in total chances accepted at second base with 498 and ranked first in fielding average with .918, and his 7.62 chances accepted per game that season remain the record for his position, according to the SABR publication Baseball’s First Stars (1996). Jack and Kate added twins John Joseph and Mary Florence to their growing family in August 1879, but John Joseph died at five months.
Baseball was a rough game in those days before the common use of fielders’ gloves, and Burdock was clearly a very tough individual, continuing to play through numerous injuries, including concussions and broken fingers, leaving a game only for a broken arm and again when his finger split open because he had continued to play after his fingernail was ripped off by a thrown ball. In an 1878 game Indianapolis, right fielder Orator Schaffer slammed hard into Burdock while attempting to steal second base, knocking Jack out. The game was halted for ten minutes while a physician attended to Burdock, after which he jumped to his feet and continued to play. This was the first of at least four serious head injuries he suffered in games, all resulting in varying periods of unconsciousness.
Harry Wright made a number of changes in the infield in 1879, but he left Burdock at second base. Burdock ranked second in total chances accepted at 662. When the owners instituted the reserve clause on September 29, 1879, the Red Stockings kept Burdock on reserve, and he remained so the entire time he was with Boston.
After 14 years of increasing success in his sport and his personal life, 1881 proved to be a problematic year for Burdock. In mid-April, he was thrown from the rear platform of a horsecar, his head slamming onto the pavement. He was carried home “in a dying condition” and was in and out of a coma for many hours, possibly for days. This was clearly a far more serious brain injury than the one Burdock had suffered on the ballfield three years earlier. It was not long after this trauma that he seemed to turn from a “normal” amount of drinking (by 19th-century working-class standards) to an actual dependence on alcohol. Binge drinking became so serious a problem for him that it ultimately destroyed his career and permanently damaged his family relationships. Although the effect that brain damage can have on personality and behavior was not understood in 1881 as well as it is in modern times, Burdock, when he appeared in court for public intoxication in 1893, himself indicated that the accident was likely the start of his drinking problem. The judge asked him how long he had been a drinking man and he replied “ten or twelve years,” which would set the start of his drinking problem right around 1881. Burdock did not earn a top ranking in any fielding or batting category in 1881. Unhappy with the team’s poor performance in 1880 and 1881, Harry Wright left Boston after 11 years. Burdocks’s old friend and teammate John Morrill became the manager in 1882, season, and Jack seemed to have rallied that season, ranking second in fielding average with .932.
Despite his troubles, 1883 was Burdock’s banner year. In Boston on September 8 he got the game-winning hit in the 11th inning for a 4-3 victory over Providence that helped spur the team to a winning streak which gave the Red Stockings the National League championship. He ended the season ranked second in RBIs with 88 (in 96 games), fourth in batting average with .330, and fifth in on-base percentage with .353. His slugging average was .475. He played in all but two of the team’s games. The only dark spot in an otherwise bright time occurred when Burdock began the season in the unusual role of manager for the Red Stockings’ home games, taking over for his friend John Morrill (and possibly at his recommendation), with Morrill serving as manager when the team was on the road. The position wasn’t a very good fit for someone of Burdock’s volatile personality, however. The Red Stockings lost their first 12 games and, even though the team reached second place in the standings by July, with 30 wins and 24 losses, it was clear that Burdock should concentrate concentrating on playing. Morrill took over again as full-time manager, adding 33 more wins and only 11 losses to the Beaneaters’ record and winning the championship.
By March 1884 Jack, Kate, and the children were back in Brooklyn. He played in an exhibition game to “open the season” at Prospect Park on March 23. From then on, the family would remain in Brooklyn permanently and Jack would room in Boston during the season. Perhaps Kate decided to move back “home” to be near her extended family for support, with four small children and a fifth on the way, or had her husband’s drinking and carousing begun to cause distress? Or perhaps the move back to Brooklyn was indicative of Burdock’s chafing under the hated reserve restriction and his desire to get out of his Boston contract. In any event, 1884 wasn’t his best year. On June 10, at Boston’s South End Grounds, Providence center fielder Paul Hines, stealing second base, crashed hard into Burdock and knocked him unconscious. After 15 minutes, he slowly came to and was greeted with thunderous applause. But Burdock, who seldom missed a game in the early years of his career, played in only 87 of the team’s 116 games that season. It’s unclear whether the reason was binge drinking, injuries, or both. Whatever the reason, Burdock still managed to rank second in fielding average with .922.
In the next three seasons, because of injuries and binge drinking, Burdock played in only about half of the Red Stockings’ games each year. Not surprisingly, he didn’t make a top ranking in fielding or batting in any of those years. He was knocked unconscious during a game again in 1886, this time by New York Giants pitcher Tim Keefe. He was hit by suspensions for his drinking. The New York Clipper reported in September 1886: “Burdock has been suspended for the remainder of the season. He has undoubtedly played his last game with the Bostons. This announcement will be received with sadness by the base ball world. Barring none in his day, ‘Birdie’ was the kingpin second baseman. It is his fault he does not hold the position to-day. He has been his worst enemy. … Here is a man, a model player in his position, who could have readily commanded $2,500 a season as long as he was able to play ball up to the professional standard, who has sacrificed everything, character, health, money and friends, to indulge in liquor. As Puck says [in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream], ‘What fools these mortals be.’ ”
Burdock was still with Boston in early spring of 1888, his contract having been renewed on March 21. In mid-April the New York Sun reported: “Burdock, Boston’s second baseman, was not in condition to play last Friday. He drank something which did not agree with him, so it is said, and was sent home in a carriage. The escapade caused considerable talk in baseball circles.” Clearly, the “something which did not agree with him” was rum. And finally, the New York Times reported on June 29: “Burdock and Sutton were released by the Boston Club yesterday.”
Burdock was quickly signed by his hometown Brooklyn Bridegrooms of the American Association. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle summed up the general feeling in his hometown thus: “July 13, 1888 – President Byrne has no need of more than sixteen men now that he has Burdock. … The St. Louis Republican says that Burdock has made a good beginning with the Brooklyn Club, and his many admirers will be delighted to see him continue to do so well. His batting has been weak, but he will improve as he becomes more familiar with the Association pitchers. He said that he had tried for five years to get his release from Boston. He liked the city, but had no use for the triumvirate that runs the club. Burdock is the only Brooklyn player the club has on its team – that is, native and to the manner born.”
This hopeful new beginning was marred on July 21. Before the start of a game against the Athletics, Burdock was presented with a gold badge and a floral pillow by his friends and admirers. However, at the conclusion of the game, he was arrested on a charge of having assaulted a 16-year-old store clerk in December of 1887. He “was paroled on President Byrne agreeing to produce him in court on Monday.” The trouble didn’t seem to affect his play in the next day’s game. He was calm enough to make a “neat double play” ending one inning, hitting a safe grounder to short to drive in a tying run “amid loud applause,” and making another “handsome double play” later in the game.
Throughout August, Brooklyn continued to fall in the standings. Burdock struggled to control his binge drinking and continued to make good plays in the field and coach some of his less experienced teammates, but the team continued to lose games because of weak batting. Then on September 2, 1888, the New York Times reported: “John J. Burdock, the second baseman of the Brooklyn Ball Club, who was arrested for assaulting Miss Tillie Brown and attempting to kiss her, was acquitted yesterday in Justice Massey’s court in Brooklyn. The plaintiff failed to appear. The court advised Burdock to stop drinking and play ball. He was laid off a few days ago for inability to bat the ball.” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle was unhappy with the decision to let Burdock go, writing the day after his court appearance: “Burdock’s home run hit (the day before) will probably keep him in the nine now, where his headwork services have been badly missed. Were he to strike out every time he goes to bat his value as an infielder would compensate for it. But Burdock is a team player at the bat, and can make good sacrifice hits. To replace him with a mere slugger would be a great blunder.” Nevertheless, Burdock was unemployed again in January of 1889. It was the beginning of the end. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle sportswriter suggested that he would “make an excellent captain for a minor league team.” He tried unsuccessfully to arrange backing for the creation of a new Hartford team and was signed by the New Haven club of the Atlantic Association, playing the last three months of the season for them. However, he left the team early in 1890 over a contract dispute and signed with Jersey City, where he remained for only one season.
Burdock suffered personal tragedy in January 1891 when his youngest sister, Nellie, died of smoke inhalation in a fire in New Haven at the age of 23. He played briefly with the amateur Salem club and then ended his baseball career by playing three games as a substitute for the Brooklyn Bridegrooms, for a fee of $50. The old Boston fans still supported him, though. After one of the three games he played with Brooklyn, the New York World reported on July 22, “The crowd went wild when Burdock went to bat and cheered steadily for two minutes. …” This was Burdock’s last major-league game. Only three original National Leaguers, Cap Anson, Paul Hines, and Jim O’Rourke, had longer major-league careers than Burdock.
In October 1893 Burdock was in Justice Haggerty’s court in Brooklyn for public intoxication. He served two days in jail. By July 1895 he was employed as assistant groundskeeper of the Prospect Park parade grounds. On July 15, 1896, Jack and Kate’s 4-year-old son, James, fell from a fourth-floor window at their home in Brooklyn and suffered a fractured skull. He was in a coma for days and remained hospitalized for two weeks, but recovered. A benefit game was held a few weeks later to help pay the medical expenses.
In 1910 Burdock was working as a painter, with eight children still living at home. Ten years later, at the age of 68, he was still working as a painter for the city and was caring for his 22-year-old disabled son, George, who had been injured by mustard gas in the World War. Kate died on July 29, 1920, at the age of 64. Jack remarried rather too quickly after Kate’s death to suit his adult daughters, who refused to speak to him for several years. His second wife, Alice Acor Dowd Burdock, was 24 years his junior, a widow with two children living at home. On the 1930 federal census, his occupation was listed as “inspector” and he was living with Alice and her 21-year-old daughter, Lillian Dowd. (George was being cared for in a veterans hospital on Long Island by this time). Jack remained a binge drinker until the end of his life. One of his granddaughters recalled that Alice would not allow him to drink “in the house,” so he would sometimes go up to the attic and drink for a couple of days. He died of heart failure on November 27, 1931, at the age of 79. He was survived by his second wife, Alice; 11 children; 26 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. He was buried next to Kate in Brooklyn’s Holy Cross Cemetery.
Edward Achorn, Fifty-nine in ’84 (New York: HarperCollins, 2010).
David Nemec, The Great Encyclopedia of 19th-Century Baseball.( New York: Donald I. Fine Books, 1997).
Preston D. Orem, Baseball (1845-1881) From the Newspaper Accounts. (Altadena, California: self-published, 1961).
Mark S. Sternman, “Jack Burdock.” In Frederick Ivor-Campbell, Robert L. Tiemann, and Mark Rucker, eds. Baseball’s First Stars. (Cleveland: Society for American Baseball Research, 1996).
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Chicago Inter Ocean
New York Clipper
New York Sun
New York Times
Baseball Hall of Fame Library