With his outstanding assortment of curveballs, John Burke pitched his way out of the treacherous coal mines of Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, into the major leagues. Though he only appeared in four games, Burke spurned at least that many offers to focus on his studies financed with his pitching prowess. While he was still in his athletic prime, Burke walked away from baseball for good to become a Catholic priest.
John Patrick Burke was born on January 27, 1877, in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, the third of six sons born to Irish immigrants Daniel Burke, a laborer, and the former Alice Grant, neither of whom could read or write. Later, the couple adopted a daughter Margaret, born in 1890.1 No occupation is recorded for Daniel Burke after 1880.
John Burke began his working life as a mule driver at Hazleton’s Laurel Hill coal mine, which employed about 800 men.”A mule driver for the mines was usually a young boy who traveled from chamber to chamber, coupling loaded cars to bring out of the mine, while leaving empty cars to be filled. The cars were pulled by one mule or several, depending on the size of the load.”2
At Laurel Hill, Burke also threw his first pitch. As described by Hazleton’s Plain Speaker, “[Burke] was induced to try pitching by Thomas Minford, then a mine foreman at the colliery.”3 Gus Schrom, a Hazleton fire truck driver, was his first catcher and Burke soon joined the Drifton Fearnots of the semipro Anthracite League, where he was “easily the star of the organization.”4
In February 1896, The Hazleton Sentinel reported that “Burke, the best amateur pitcher of the coal regions, has accepted the terms of the Seattle club, of the [New] Pacific League.”5 While there’s no indication that Burke ever made it to Seattle to join the ill-fated Yannigans/Rainmakers (the circuit folded in mid-July), he enhanced his reputation around Luzerne County with his mound work for the Fearnots, Hazleton Pioneers and Freeland Tigers. Burke was one of five players awarded a gold ring by the Fearnots Athletic Association for his outstanding contributions in 1896.6
When Burke was 16, three miners had drowned and been crushed by debris at Laurel Hill when water stored on site to avoid pumping fees rushed into their chamber.7 Though he survived that tragedy, two incidents in the fall of 1896 demonstrated how hazardous working in colliery No. 3 at Hazle Mines could be. “A few weeks ago [Burke] was caught between cars in the Hazleton mine slops, having sustained an internal injury,” reported the Plain Speaker. “On Saturday morning [he] fell under a car and had his leg badly lacerated. He was removed to the hospital.”8 Burke’s brother James had to have his right hand amputated after catching it between two cars the following April.9
By the end of a healthy 1897, Burke had saved enough money to enroll in a classical studies program at St. Bonaventure’s College (now St. Bonaventure University) in Allegany, New York. Shortly after his arrival, Burke wrote home “that he is getting along well and that Hughie] Jennings, the famous Baltimore shortstop, will coach the team in spring.”10 Burke caught the notice of some high profile observers once baseball season started. “Jennings and [former St. Bonaventure’s student John] McGraw, of the Baltimore champion team, expressed their opinions on his worth and pronounced him a comer. They were particularly attracted by his strong throwing.”11
Burke returned from school in time to face the Cuban Giants on July 3, 1898, in Freeland, their annual appearance “welcomed by all lovers of the national sport in this vicinity”12 according to a Hazleton newspaper. While school was out of session, he also joined “the pitching staff of the Dunkirk club [Oil City Oilers in Dunkirk-Fredonia, NY] in the Iron and Oil League and met with much success.”13 Burke also spent some of his break 70 miles northeast of Hazleton with the Honesdale Base Ball Club, “where he met and taught Christy Mathewson … how to curve a ball. From that day on, Mathewson developed rapidly,” reported Hazleton’s Standard-Speaker.14 When teammates Burke and Mathewson posed in the center row of the Honesdale team picture, the latter was 18 and on his way to his freshman year at Bucknell University. The future Hall of Famer would debut in the majors less than two years later.
After another year at St. Bonaventure, Burke pitched the 1899 season for Albany in the New York State League. The Senators went 54-62 to finish sixth in the eight-team circuit, so it was no small feat that “Mr. Burke closed a successful season, having won a majority of games pitched.”15 Before returning to school that fall, he pitched for Honesdale again, where he “made many good friends by good playing and good nature.”16
Burke inked a 1900 contract with the Wilkes-Barre Coal Barons, but the Atlantic League disbanded in mid-June, so he stayed home after refusing to be sold to a club in Dayton, Ohio.17 He signed with the Hazleton Athletics as a pitcher-outfielder in early July18 and continued to pitch for other local clubs, striking out 16 batters in one outing.19 “John Burke has under consideration several offers to pitch for professional teams,”20 The Plain Speaker reported that month. Before July ended, the same periodical said he would finish the season with a team in Jamestown, New York21 but, less than a month later, Burke returned to Hazleton after playing for a club in Dubois, Pennsylvania.22 In his travels from one team to the next, Burke “saved his money so that he could defray the expenses of his education and assist his aged parents.”23
In 1901, Burke declined an offer to pitch for the Boston Beaneaters, feeling he didn’t have enough experience to face major league hitters.24 Instead, he spent most of the summer with the strong, Atlantic City-based All-Collegiate team. “Out of eighteen games pitched for Atlantic City, Burke landed sixteen,” the Wilkes-Barre News reported, adding that he also averaged two hits per game at bat. “One of the games which he dropped was a fourteen-inning contest with the Cuban Giants as his opponents, and the other to the National Leaguers of Pittsburg, whom he held to eight hits”25 on August 14 despite wet grounds and a slippery ball.26
The Plain Speaker reported that Burke “received an offer from manager Connie] Mack to join the Philadelphia American League club, but will not accept, as he desires to remain in the semi-professional ranks until he gets through college.”27 Nevertheless, seven weeks later, the same paper said that Burke had signed with the New York Giants.28
That off-season, the York Dispatch reported that “[Giants owner Andrew] “Freedman — the man who will spend $100,000 to give New York a winning team — during the past week corralled pitcher John Burke of Atlantic City, pitcher Harry McIntire of Toledo, and infielder Jimmy Stafford of Providence. It is not believed that these famous stars cost Mr. Freedman more than $15,000 each.”29 One New York paper reported, “Burke is described as a speedy twirler, a good batter and a fast runner”30, and Giants manager Horace Fogel ordered him to join the team in Philadelphia on April 18. Burke, however, planned to remain at St. Bonaventure until June. If the big-league club balked about it, he would “probably decide to play with Atlantic City, which team will take him any time he is ready to join it.”31 The Giants gave him permission to arrive after the school year.32
Before Burke left college, he acquitted himself well in St. Bonaventure’s annual exhibition against the Eastern League Buffalo Bisons at Olympic Park. The long drive he allowed that broke a fifth-floor dormitory window went foul and he cracked a two-run triple at the plate. Burke would’ve scored on the play as well if third baseman Dave Brain hadn’t intentionally interfered with him while the umpire wasn’t looking.33 The fans howled as Burke and Brain fell to the grass and St. Bonaventure lost a close one.
Burke joined the Giants on June 16, 1902, and was supposed to start on June 21 in Brooklyn, but the game was rained out.34 Instead, he debuted on June 27, starting against the Phillies at Baker Bowl. He struck out Philadelphia’s patient leadoff hitter Roy Thomas twice, didn’t walk anybody, and went the distance, but lost, 7-1, largely because of a bad third inning. New York right fielder [Jack] “Dunn muffed (Shad) Barry’s fly and Philadelphia hit safely seven times, scoring six runs,”35 The New York Times reported. Lefty-swinging Klondike Douglass went 3-for-4 against Burke.
The Giants were in the National League basement. Second baseman Heinie Smith replaced Fogel as manager a few days before Burke’s arrival, and the team endured a miserable 8-43 stretch including the month Burke spent in the majors. When the New York Evening World ran a photo of Burke – identified as “Jack Burke” — and some other young Giants on July 3, the accompanying headline read: “These Players Cannot Be Blamed for Giants’ Defeats”.36
Burke’s next action came on July 13, when he played both ends of a doubleheader in right field against the Orphans at Chicago’s West Side Grounds. After going hitless in a defeat to Carl Lundgren in the opener, Burke singled twice against rookie right-hander Bob “Dusty” Rhoads for his first big league hits in, but the Giants lost again.
Two days later, on July 15 at the Palace of the Fans in Cincinnati, he relieved Christy Mathewson who –despite starting a triple play—departed after only two innings already down by six runs. After winning 20 games as a 1901 rookie, Mathewson lost for the sixth time in seven decisions. Perhaps Mathewson’s slump explains why Hazleton’s Standard-Speaker reported that, during Burke’s reunion with his former Honesdale teammate, “he was coldly treated by Mathewson, a fact that Burke has never forgotten.”37
Burke received 10 days’ notice of his impending release the day after hurling the final six innings of the Giants’ 10-2, Tuesday afternoon defeat. By the weekend, New York’s roster had been altered radically. Following Freedman’s purchase of a controlling interest in the American League’s Orioles, five proven players joined the Giants from Baltimore, including two starting pitchers and three future Hall of Famers. One of the latter was John McGraw, who also became New York’s third manager of the season. “There is no reason on earth why the 1903 pennant should not be seen floating over the Polo Grounds,”38 McGraw insisted. Despite Burke’s St. Bonaventure connection to the new skipper, he was jettisoned from the roster to gain experience while — beginning in 1904 — McGraw’s Giants won five National League pennants in 10 years with Mathewson averaging a 27-11 record annually.
In 1903, Burke returned to professional baseball with the Newark Sailors of the Class-A Eastern League. In his season debut on June 11, Burke beat a Buffalo team starting seven past or future big leaguers with a four-hitter, 1-0. He also scored the only run of the contest after doubling and coming home on a hit by his former Giants’ teammate, Hal O’Hagan.39 Though Sailors’ home games were played nearly 120 miles east of Burke’s hometown, “the many Hazletonians who are located at Elizabeth, Patterson and Bayonne go to Newark and are ardent rooters for Burke and they attend the games whenever they can,” noted the Plain Speaker.40
Newark’s season ended on a strange note. When Burke pinch hit for Big Ed Walsh in the ninth inning against the Jersey City Skeeters, he “was hit on the head by a ball, which bounded out of the grounds. Newark gave the umpire a new ball, but he refused to put it into play. The game was then called.”42 Burke finished the Eastern League campaign with an 11-8 record.43
Before returning to Newark in 1904, Burke starred for St. Bonaventure in their annual April game against the Buffalo Bisons. After pitching the first four innings and whiffing Ernie Courtney and Moose Grimshaw, Burke shifted to the outfield and made a sensational running, one-handed catch to rob Jake Gettman in the seventh. “Jake was so astonished that he laid down on the grass in the vicinity of first base and attempted to think over how it was done,” described the Buffalo Courier.44 Burke batted cleanup on occasion despite hitting only .184 in 33 games. On the mound, he won seven and lost six as Newark finished fourth.
At St. Bonaventure that fall, Burke was a timekeeper45 when the football squad got trounced 37-0 by Oakdale with Athletics’ pitcher Rube Waddell playing fullback for the opposition.46 In the spring, Burke captained the baseball squad. “Capt. Burke put the regulars through a stiff two-hour practice and then lined then up against the reserves for a full nine-inning game,” reported one newspaper.47 Hughie Jennings’s Baltimore Orioles wanted Burke for 1905, but the pitcher was still under contract to Newark who, even though they didn’t want him back, refused to let him join their Eastern League rivals.48 Instead, Burke went to the Class-D Erie Fishermen, where he appeared in 64 games as an outfielder-pitcher and managed the Interstate League club for part of the season. Erie finish second with a 58-39 record.
Burke returned to Newark at the beginning of 1906, but they let him go to the Montreal Royals after he got off to a poor start. There, Burke improved, but finished the year with a 5-7 record.Burke had graduated from St. Bonaventure with honors in 1905,49 but went back that fall to study theology. In June 1907, he joined the Lancaster Red Roses of the Class-B Tri-State League. Now 30, he was no longer a young collegian, but his pitching was better than ever that summer. His 15-5 record for third-place Lancaster led the Detroit Tigers to ask him to join in that club’s fight for the American League pennant in September. “Burke’s ability is well known to manager Jennings of Detroit, who often batted against him in the Eastern League,” explained the Plain Speaker.50
Instead, Burke’s next — and last — appearance on a mound came in front of his hometown fans at Hazle Park on October 10. With the New York Highlanders in town for an exhibition, the opposing pitcher was Tacks Neuer51, a former Hazleton southpaw who’d debuted in the majors six weeks earlier.
Burke had a reputation as “a total abstainer and a gentleman on and off the field”52 and, just before the end of the year, the major reason for his lack of urgency to suit up for a big league team became clear. On Christmas Eve at St. Gabriel’s church in Hazleton, Burke “looked the reverend, dignified prelate in his clerical robes, surprising his many friends”53 as he assisted with services of the Benediction. “He has many offers to join clubs in the National and American Leagues but will be obliged to ignore them all on account of his coming ordination,”54 explained the Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader. “Despite pleadings and inducements offered by McGraw, the call to the priesthood found the Giants losing a great hurler, and the Catholic church gained a very able clergyman.”55
On June 13, 1908, Burke was ordained to the priesthood at St. Bonaventure’s by the Most Reverend Charles Colton, the Bishop of Buffalo. He read his first Mass the following day at St. Gabriel’s Church in Hazleton, before beginning his first appointment, a curate for the summer at St. Michael’s Church in Long Branch, NJ. Next, Reverend Burke held a curate position at the Immaculate Conception Church in Camden, New Jersey, that lasted until 1913. He received his first pastorate at St. Joseph’s in Washington, New Jersey in 1915.With World War I ongoing, Father Burke was sent to Fort Hancock to serve as a chaplain.56
Though Burke’s height and weight were never recorded by any of his teams, his World War I draft registration card described him as tall, with a medium build and gray eyes. By then, he was in his mid-40s and already had gray hair. When the armistice of November 11, 1918, ended the war, Father Burke went to St. Joseph’s Church in Swedesboro, New Jersey, where he was instrumental in building, equipping and paying for a Tudor, Gothic-style church for his congregation of 600, including 110 families.57
Burke’s widower father lived with him in Swedesboro until his death in 1921, when all six Burke brothers were also residing in that town.58
When Rev. Joseph A. Linnane from St. Joseph’s in Keyport died, the Bishop of Trenton appointed Burke to succeed him at that parish beginning November 5, 1929. Father Burke remained there for the rest of his life. During his first three years there, he paid off $17,000 of remaining debt on the convent, built a new rectory, upgraded the lighting, and waterproofed the roofs on church buildings while operating the parochial school built by his predecessor. One contemporary article noted the need for business acumen in addition to spiritual leadership to direct a large congregation like St. Joseph’s.59 “All this wonderful work was accomplished through the prayers, sacrifice, generosity and cooperation of good people,” Father Burke insisted.60
In 1932, Father Burke set sail for 10 weeks abroad in Europe with one of his nieces. In his ancestral homeland of Ireland, he attended the Eucharistic congress in Dublin. His travels also took him to London, Edinburgh, Paris, Nice, Rome, Florence and Naples. When he visited the Vatican, Father Burke received an audience with Pope Pius XI.61
When the Drifton Fearnots celebrated their 50th anniversary in 1936, Rev. Burke sent a telegram expressing his regrets for not being able to attend, but offering his jubilee greetings.62 Ten years later, Pope Pius XII elevated Father Burke to domestic prelate with the title of Right Reverend Monsignor in 1946.63 “Few Catholic priests from the Hazleton region left their home diocese to attain rank in the monsigniori, such as was the distinction that came to Father Burke,” noted his hometown newspaper.64
Four years later, on August 4, 1950, Monsignor Burke died at St. Francis Hospital in Jersey City after a short illness. He was 73. Burke was survived by two nieces, Mary Burke of Keyport and Mary Burkhard of Philadelphia, and his remains are buried in Keyport’s St. Joseph Cemetery.
This biography was reviewed by Paul Proia and Norman Macht. It was fact checked by Kevin Larkin.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also consulted www.ancestry.com, www.baseball-reference.com, www.retrosheet.org and the United States Census from 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930 and 1940.
1 1900 Census.
2 “Miner Recollections: Boys Liked Being Mule Drivers,” Cumberland (Maryland) Times-News, February 19, 2017.
3 “Is Man Who First Caught Burke,” Plain Speaker (Hazleton, Pennsylvania), December 31, 1907:5.
4 “Pitcher Burke To Become Priest,” Trenton (New Jersey) Evening Times, December 30, 1907:9.
5 “Base Ball,” Hazleton (Pennsylvania) Sentinel, February 18, 1896:6.
6 “Drifton Items,” Freeland (Pennsylvania) Tribune, December 14, 1896:4.
7 “The Mine Laws,” Weekly Herald (Shenandoah, PA), April 22, 1893:8.
8 “Caught Beneath a Car,” Plain Speaker, November 9, 1896:4.
9 “Brief Items of News,” Freeland Tribune, April 8, 1897:1.
10 “Getting Along Well,” Plain Speaker, February 1, 1898:4.
11 “Pitcher Heard From,” Plain Speaker, March 12, 1898:4
12 “Cuban Giants at Freeland,” Plain Speaker, July 1, 1898:2.
13 “Ball Pitcher Back,” Plain Speaker, September 19, 1898:4.
14 “Mathewson’s Ingratitude,” Standard-Speaker (Hazleton, Pennsylvania), January 13, 1908:6.
15 “Ball Pitcher Arrives Home,” Plain Speaker, September 7, 1899:4.
16 “Well Known Here,” Tribune (Scranton, Pennsylvania), March 26, 1902:6
17 “Ball Player Home,” Plain Speaker, June 20, 1900:4.
18 “Death Recalls Old Days,” Plain Speaker, August 5, 1950:6.
19 “Base Ball,” Plain Speaker, July 23, 1900:4.
20 “Base Ball,” Plain Speaker, July 23, 1900:4.
21 “Base Ball,” Plain Speaker, July 27, 1900:4.
22 “Base Ball,” Plain Speaker, August 20, 1900:4.
23 “Pitcher to Become Priest,” Trenton Evening Times, December 30, 1907:9.
24 “Burke Will Pitch for Chester,” Plain Speaker, June 19, 1901:1.
25 “Signed With New York,” Wilkes-Barre (Pennsylvania) News, January 14, 1902:8
26 “Pitched Against Pittsburg,” Plain Speaker, August 15, 1901:4.
27 “Base Ball,” Plain Speaker, August 12, 1901:4.
28 “Burke in National League,” Plain Speaker, September 30, 1901:1.
29 “Gossip for the Rooters,” York (Pennsylvania) Dispatch, January 18,1902:7.
30 “Base Ball Factions Stand by the Guns,” Brooklyn (New York) Daily Eagle, January 4, 1902:11.
31 “Ordered to Report in April,” Plain Speaker, March 21, 1902:2.
32 “Will Play with the Giants,” Plain Speaker, April 4, 1902:1.
33 “Bisons Win Close Game,” Buffalo (New York) Courier, April 21, 1902:9.
34 “Base Ball,” Plain Speaker, June 23, 1902:4.
35 “Yesterday’s Baseball Games,” New York Times, June 28, 1902:6.
36 “These Players Cannot Be Blamed for Giants Defeats,” Evening World (New York, New York), July 3, 1902:4.
37 “Mathewson’s Ingratitude,” Standard-Speaker, January 13, 1908:6.
38 “Six of New York Baseball Team Are Released,” New York Times, July 18, 1902:6.
39 “After You, Dear Gaston,” Buffalo (New York) Times, June 12, 1903:10.
40 “They Root for Burke,” Plain Speaker, July 7, 1903:1.
41 “Eastern League Race Between Two Leaders,” Buffalo Courier, August 10, 1903:9.
42 “Base Ball,” Plain Speaker, September 26, 1903:1
43 “Eastern League Averages,” Sun (New York, New York), January 11, 1904:6.
44 “Shortal and Limrie Stars of the Game,” Buffalo Courier, April 24, 1904:28.
45 “St. Bona No Match for Oakdales,” Buffalo Evening News, November 9, 1904:22.
46 “Oakdales and St. Bonas Today,” Buffalo Evening News, November 8, 1904:32.
47 “Auto Club Members in the B.B. Parade,” Buffalo Courier, April 23, 1905:30.
48 “May Go with Jennings,” Plain Speaker, March 10, 1905:1.
49 “Rev. John P. Burke Ordained to Priesthood,” Matawan (New Jersey) Journal, June 13, 1908:1.
50 “Base Ball,” Plain Speaker, September 16, 1907:5.
51 “Neuer’s Team Here October 10,” Plain Speaker, October 3, 1907:5.
52 “Pitcher Burke to Become Priest,” Trenton Evening Times, December 30, 1907:9
53 “Base Ball Pitcher to Become Priest,” Wilkes-Barre (Pennsylvania) Times-Leader, December 27, 1907:10.
54 “Base Ball Pitcher to Become Priest.”
55 “Death Recalls Old Days.”
56 “Rev. John P. Burke Ordained to Priesthood June 13, 1908,” Matawan Journal, June 9, 1933:1.
57 “Msgr. Burke of Keyport Dies at 73,” Daily Record (Long Branch, New Jersey), August 5,1950:2.
58 “Daniel Burke,” Standard-Speaker, August 10, 1921:18.
59 “Monsignor Burke,” Keyport (New Jersey) Weekly, August 10, 1950:4.
60 “St. Joseph’s Church,” copyright 1976:15.
61 “Rev. John P. Burke Returns from Abroad,” Keyport Weekly, August 19, 1932:1.
62 Standard-Speaker, August 4, 1936:14.
63 “Msgr. Burke of Keyport Dies at 73.”
64 “Death Recalls Old Days.”