This article was written by Andy Sturgill
“Smoky Burgess was fat. Not baseball fat like Mickey Lolich or Early Wynn. But FAT fat. Like the mailman or your Uncle Dwight. Putsy Fat. Slobby Fat. Just Plain Fat. In fact I would venture to say that Smoky Burgess was probably the fattest man ever to play professional baseball.” – The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading, and Bubble Gum Book.
“You could wake (Burgess) up at 3 a.m. on Christmas morning, with two inches of snow on the ground, throw him a curveball, and he’d hit a line drive.” – Joe Garagiola1
Smoky Burgess did not possess the physique of a Greek god, nor even that of the average major leaguer. Standing in at a pudgy 5’8”, Burgess was saddled with such unflattering descriptions as “a walking laundry bag”2 and “barely fit enough to play for the Moose Lodge softball team.”3 Physical conditioning aside, nobody debates that Smoky Burgess could hit at any time, against any pitcher, in any situation.
Forrest Harrill Burgess was born on February 6, 1927 in Caroleen, North Carolina, a town in Rutherford County in the western portion of the state. Burgess was born to Lloyd Luther Burgess and Ocie Lewis Burgess. His father spent his professional life as a weaver in the textile industry, but was also a standout semipro baseball player. Varying sources offer varying explanations as to the origin of the name “Smoky”, with credit being given to the Smoky Mountains in the area of Burgess’ birth, a nickname his father had, his lack of speed on the basepaths, and the fact that he did not smoke tobacco. Whatever its source, the name stuck and he was “Smoky” to everyone except his wife Margaret, who always called him Forrest.
Burgess grew up as a fan of the Yankees and especially their catcher Bill Dickey, primarily because Smoky was able to get their games on the radio in North Carolina. He attended Tri High School in Caroleen where he played the infield and led off. His high-school coach Forrest Hunt, who had caught in the minor leagues for the Yankees, gave him a piece of advice that influenced his approach to the game for the rest of his career: You’ll never be a hitter unless you swing the bat.4 In addition to playing for the high-school team, Smoky played for the Shelby and Forest Hills American Legion teams from 1942-44. Smoky signed with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1943 but was determined to be too young by Commissioner Landis, and the deal was voided.5 A year later he accepted a contract offer from the Chicago Cubs, but Smoky later claimed that this was in large part because the Cubs were interested in signing his brother Grady.6
Signing bonus in hand, Burgess purchased a new Mercury to ride around Forest City. [Forest Hills? Forest City?] He stopped in Roses Dime Store and asked a few of the female employees if they’d like to go for a ride. The girls were told to get back to work by their supervisor, Margaret Head, who Smoky then approached about joining him for a ride in the car. He found out where Margaret lived and waited for her at her house after church the following Sunday. Margaret went for a ride with Smoky – for five hours – and the two were married a year and a half later.7
Burgess made his professional baseball debut with a .325 batting average for the Lockport (NY) Cubs of the Pony League as a 17-year-old in 1944. In 1945 he played in only 12 games for the Portsmouth Cubs of the Piedmont League before he joined the war effort and enlisted in the Army at Fort Bragg at the end of May. He missed the rest of the 1945 season and all but the last game in 1946 while he was away in the service. It was also in the service that two happenings took place that shaped the rest of his baseball career. The first was a single event in 1946. As a jeep driver in Germany the vehicle Burgess was driving ran off the road and rolled over three times, smashing his right, throwing, shoulder in the process. When he returned to the minors his arm was still so damaged that he could barely throw a ball back to the pitcher and he was moved from behind home plate to the outfield. Even after the arm healed enough for him to return to catching, Burgess routinely ranked among the league leaders in stolen bases allowed. The other issue for Smoky from the Army was that he entered as a lean young man and was not nearly as lean when he left. He was given an assignment as a mail clerk, which he described by saying, “I ate too much and didn’t get much exercise. I’d just hand the boys out their mail.”8
When he returned to the minor leagues fulltime, Burgess proceeded to win back-to-back batting titles, capturing the Tri-State League crown with a .387 mark for Fayetteville in 1947 and the Southern Association title with a .386 mark for Nashville in 1948. Smoky made his major-league debut for the Cubs on Opening Day in 1949, pinch hitting and making the final out against Rip Sewell in the North Siders’ 1-0 loss to the Pirates. Smoky hit a ball hard to right field, one he thought would leave the yard and tie the game, but the wind at Wrigley knocked the ball down and Dixie Walker made the catch to end the game. Burgess appeared in 46 games for the Cubs in ‘49, compiling only 60 plate appearances in very limited duty.
He returned to the minors for the entire 1950 season before coming to the majors for good in 1951. He hit .251 in 94 games for the Cubs, and after the season was traded to the Reds in a four-player deal. Two months later, before ever suiting up for Cincinnati, Burgess was traded again, this time to the Philadelphia Phillies in a seven-player swap.
To this point Burgess’ career was fairly nondescript, but one man who was happy to see Burgess join the Phils was star pitcher Robin Roberts, who sent Smoky a telegram upon the completion of the trade expressing his pleasure that he would not have to face Burgess any more.9
Burgess played three-plus seasons in Philadelphia, and during this time developed into an excellent major-league player. He hit .316 in 327 games for the Phillies and was named an All-Star in 1954 and 1955. He posted a .368 batting average in ‘54, which would have won the batting title but he did not have enough at-bats to qualify. Smoky led Phillies regulars in hitting all three full seasons he spent with the club, and the team declared him the “unofficial batting champion for 1954.”10
Any player that hits .368 over the course of a major-league season is obviously a good hitter. Smoky’s approach, dating all the way back to high school, was to go up to the plate and be aggressive. He was not particularly concerned with finding a good pitch to hit, explaining, “Any ball I can get a good part of the bat on is a good pitch to hit. Ninety percent of the hitters will get as many hits on balls as they do on strikes.”11 To Burgess, hitting was a simple, straightforward process: the pitcher threw the ball and Smoky tried to hit it. Tom Acker, a 1960s pitcher, said of Smoky, “He doesn’t care what you throw up there, just so there’s a pitch on the way. I threw to him—too high to be a strike—and he hit it out.” The great George Sisler, at the time Burgess’ hitting coach, said of Smoky, “I’ll admit he isn’t very careful. He has an amazing facility for placing the bat on the ball.”12
Smoky was known primarily as a hitter during his playing career, but his abilities behind the dish were a bit suspect. Total Baseball rates his defensive contribution to his teams as -96 fielding runs, and he routinely ranked among the league leaders in passed balls, stolen bases allowed, and errors by a catcher. Despite the numbers, Burgess was a decent fielder, but he was slow with a subpar arm after his accident in the service. Perhaps the most accurate assessment of Burgess’ defense came from Smoky himself when he opined, “I’m no Roy Campanella… But I’ll tell you one thing. I’m not as bad a catcher as most people think.”13 Whether it helped his defense or not, Burgess was also renowned in the game as a world-class heckler, with Phillies centerfielder Richie Ashburn a favorite target.
Smoky’s personality seemed befitting of a pudgy catcher. He was a simple man of simple tastes, who ran a service station back home in North Carolina in the offseason. He neither smoked nor drank and was a devout Baptist who regularly attended services, at one point inspiring his teammates to make up alternate lyrics to the song “Get Me to the Church On Time” encouraging Smoky to make sure he was OUT of church in time to help his club that day.14 His easygoing nature allowed him to slough off barbs from teammates, saying, “If they get on me, that means they’re leaving somebody else alone.”15
Seven games into the 1955 season Burgess was traded back to the Reds with two others for Andy Seminick and two other players. Seminick had originally gone to the Reds in the trade that sent Burgess to the Phillies in the first place. He spent the rest of ‘55 and all of the next three seasons in Cincinnati, hitting .290 in 395 games for the Redlegs, as they were known for a time in that era because of concerns about the connotation of “Reds” in the era of McCarthyism. He generally split catching duties with Ed Bailey, a better defender than Smoky who didn’t hit as well. While with Cincinnati, Burgess had a couple of memorable moments. In July of ‘55 against the Pirates, Smoky had the game of his life, going 4-for-6 with three home runs and nine RBIs in the Redlegs’ 16-5 win. He was behind the plate against the Braves on May 26, 1956 when three Reds pitchers combined to hold the Braves hitless for 9 ? innings before the Braves won the game in the 11th inning. Burgess’ last big moment with the Redlegs came on the next-to-last day of the 1956 season. Visiting the Cubs, Cincinnati was one home run shy of the new single-season major-league record for home runs by one team. Sent up to pinch hit in the eighth inning, Smoky was told by manager Birdie Tebbetts, “Home run or nothing.”16 Burgess dutifully complied, hitting Sam Jones’ first pitch out to tie the record.
In January of 1959, Burgess was traded again, this time to the Pirates as part of a seven-player swap. The three pieces that went to Pittsburgh – Burgess, along with Don Hoak and Harvey Haddix – were all key players in the Pirates bringing home the World Series title in the epic seven-game series against the Yankees in 1960. While the deal worked out well for the Pirates as a whole, it also rejuvenated Burgess, who added to his already-stellar set of professional accomplishments. He hit .296 in almost six full seasons for the Buccos, making the All-Star team four times. He twice hit over .300, posting a mark of .328 in 1962. Giving credence to his defense, he also posted the top fielding percentage among NL catchers in both 1960 and ‘61, joining the fielding percentage title he won in 1953 with the Phillies.
Three years to the day after he caught three Cincinnati pitchers that held the Braves without a hit for more than nine innings in a game his team lost, Smoky took the field behind the dish in support of Harvey Haddix. Haddix had a game for the ages, retiring 36 Braves in a row in 12 perfect innings before an error allowed the first runner to reach base. Milwaukee won the game later in the 13th inning.
The 1960 World Series between the Pirates and Yankees is of course remembered for Bill Mazeroski’s series winning home run in the bottom of the ninth of Game Seven. The Series was Smoky’s only playoff appearance, and he performed admirably, hitting .333 (6-18) with a double and two runs scored in five games. Interestingly, the Pirates were 4-1 in games Smoky played in the Series, and in the two games that he did not play the Pirates lost, 10-0 and 12-0. Years afterward on the speaking circuit, Burgess liked to say that his single to lead off the seventh inning of Game Seven, not Mazeroski’s home run, was the most important hit of the Series. Why? To hear Smoky tell it, “I got a hit off of Bobby Shantz. It was the tying run so (manager Danny) Murtaugh put (Joe) Christopher in to run for me… Hal Smith, who replaced me, hit the home run to tie it (in the eighth)… Now which base hit was the most important in the 1960 World Series? Maz’s? No, Maz wouldn’t have gotten up if Hal Smith hadn’t hit the three-run homer that tied it up. But how did Smith get into the game? If I hadn’t gotten the base hit off of Shantz and been a slow runner, I’d a still been catching, so which hit was the most important?”17 Smoky’s recollection was a little off, as Smith’s home run actually put the Pirates up 9-7, but the spirit of the story he told remains.
Smoky remained a regular with the Pirates until 1964 when he appeared in the field in only 44 games before the White Sox selected him off waivers in September. He spent the next three full seasons with the Pale Hose, but only appeared in the field in seven games. Instead, Smoky embraced his role as a part-time player by becoming the game’s premier pinch hitter. His 20 hits in the pinch in 1966 tied the league record set by Ed Coleman in 1936.
Taking to his full-time role in the pinch, Burgess attributed his success to hard work studying pitchers, especially how pitchers worked hitters similar to himself, as well as his aggressive mindset in the batter’s box.18 In contrast to more modern pinch hitters who hit endless balls in a cage or do hours of cardio, Smoky described his pre-at-bat routine by saying, “I didn’t do anything.”19
His role as the pinch ace for the White Sox so clearly defined, he often stayed out in the bullpen to catch pitchers until the seventh or eighth inning, knowing he would never be used earlier. As his career wound down, Smoky’s concerns away from the baseball field included his own health (he had issues with ulcers throughout his career), his family’s health (his wife had major back issues and his teenage daughter was diabetic), his outside business interests (he owned a Dodge dealership back home in North Carolina), and education (he completed coursework in Business Administration from the International Correspondence School). Outside interests aside, Burgess hit .286 and .313 in his first two full seasons with the White Sox, before slipping badly to a .133 average in 1967. He decided to hang it up after the ‘67 campaign, by now 40 years old and a grandfather. He knew it was time to move on because he pulled a muscle in his side in May and it took him all season to recover.20
Had Smoky come along only a few years later, his career likely would have been extended even further because of the advent of the designated hitter. As it is, when he retired he was the all-time major-league leader in pinch hits with 145, but has since been passed by Manny Mota in 1979, and now sits fourth behind Mota, Lenny Harris, and Mark Sweeney. He passed the former mark of 113 formerly held by Red Lucas, who had played with four teams in the 1920’s and ‘30’s. Smoky was a threat not just to get a hit in the pinch, but to knock the ball out of the park. His 16 pinch-hit home runs were good for second place on the all-time list (behind Jerry Lynch’s 18) at the time he retired, and as of 2011 he’s tied for fifth place with Gates Brown and Willie McCovey, behind Lynch, John Vander Wal, Cliff Johnson, and all-time leader Matt Stairs.
Upon leaving the playing field, Burgess ran a car dealership back home in North Carolina before joining the Atlanta Braves organization. He worked in various capacities for the Braves, serving as a scout, hitting instructor, and minor-league coach for more than a decade and helping players such as Bruce Benedict, Rafael Ramirez, and Dale Murphy reach the big leagues. He was inducted into numerous Halls of Fame, including Halls for North Carolina Sports, North Carolina American Legion Baseball, and the Cincinnati Reds. He trimmed down and participated in Old Timer’s games, saying of a ball he hit against Ryne Duren in an Old Timer’s game “I had to wait until I was retired to hit the hardest ball of my life.”21 He returned home to Forest City, keeping his uniform from the 1960 World Series, a bronzed catcher’s mitt, and the bat he used to set the pinch-hits record as his most cherished relics from a very good big-league career. He returned to Pittsburgh in 1990 for the 30-year reunion of the World Series championship team, but passed away not long after, on September 15, 1991 back home at Rutherford Hospital, before being laid to rest at Sunset Memorial Park in Spindale, NC. He was survived by his wife, Margaret, son Larry, three brothers, three grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.
Reflecting on his career some 20 years after it ended, Smoky recalled, “Everything went well, I have no regrets. I don’t know a thing I would have changed. If I hadn’t played baseball, I would have probably had to work in the cotton mills. That’s real hard work. I’m certainly glad I had baseball.”22
This biography is included in the book “Sweet ’60: The 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates” (SABR, 2013), edited by Clifton Blue Parker and Bill Nowlin. For more information or to purchase the book in e-book or paperback form, click here.
Thanks to David Vincent for his assistance with pinch-hit home run data.
Other than the sources cited in the notes, the author also consulted Ancestry.com, Baseball Digest, Baseball-Reference.com, and The Sporting News.
1 Rick Cushing, 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates, Day by Day. (Pittsburgh, PA: Dorrance Publishing, 2010), 46.
2 Sports Illustrated, June 22, 1959
3 Jim, Reisler, The Best Game Ever; Pirates vs. Yankees, October 13, 1960. (Cambridge, MA; Da Capo Press, 2007), 4-5.
4 Baseball Digest, December 1963
5 Rich Westcott, Diamond Greats: Profiles and Interviews with 65 of Baseball’s History Makers. (Westport, CT; Meckler Books, 1988), 344
6 Sports Illustrated, op. cit.
7 Rutherfordweekly.com. “The Time Has Come To Honor One of Our Own.” March 31, 2011.
8 Sports Illustrated, op. cit.
9 Bob Cairns, Pen Men: Baseball’s Greatest Bullpen Stories Told by the Men Who Brought the Game Relief (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992), 118
10 Rich Westcott and Frank Bilovsky, The Phillies Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition. (Philadelphia; Temple University Press, 2004), 343.
11 Paul Votano, Stand and Deliver: A History of Pinch Hitting. (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2003), 115.
12 Sports Illustrated, op. cit.
14 Bill James, The New Bill James Historical Abstract. (New York: Free Press, 2001) , 393.
15 Sports Illustrated, op. cit.
16 Cushing, 47.
17 Cairns, Pen Men, 123.
18 James, op. cit.
19 Thomas Boswell, “Smoky’s Children.” Why Time Begins on Opening Day. (New York: Penguin, 1985), 201-6.
20 The Sporting News, December 23, 1967
21 Boswell, op. cit.
22 Westcott, 345.