Silent George Burns: A Star in the Sunfield

This article was written by Richard Puff

This article was published in the 1983 Baseball Research Journal


It might have been just a case of being in the right place at the right time. But whatever it was, it brought George Joseph Burns to professional baseball and eventually led him to a brilliant career as an outfielder in the National League.

Burns was in the grandstand with his father at the Utica, N.Y., Athletic Field on October 18, 1908, all set to watch the Class B Utica Harps play a Syracuse team in an exhibition game. The contest was held up because the Harps’ catcher failed to appear. “Bus” Nicholson, an alderman from Utica, who knew Burns’ prowess on the baseball diamond, suggested he be hired to handle the backstop duties for the game.

Burns, who was born in Utica on November 24, 1890, gladly agreed and in no time was suited up for the game. The records of the game are lost, but Burns was congratulated heartily by the fans for a good game. Charley Dooley, the Harps’ manager, was equally pleased and offered Burns a contract after the game. Three years later, Burns was sitting next to John McGraw on the Giants’ bench learning all he could from one of the game’s greatest masters.

But the transition wasn’t that easy. Burns was a catcher with Utica in 1909 and 1910 and his talents went unrecognized. It was the 1911 season that proved to be the turning point in his career. Charley Carr had come from the Indianapolis team to take over the helm of the Harps. He brought with him Dan Howley, who took full charge of the catching duties – putting Burns back on the bench.

One day Ward Bastian, one of the team’s outfielders, was hurt and Carr, realizing Burn’s speed was being wasted behind the plate, asked him if he would like to play in the outfield. “I don’t know,” Burns told him, “but I’ll try. I can’t do much worse than get hit in the head.”

Throughout his years playing sandlot and amateur ball, he was always a catcher or moundsman. “I never had played in the outfield as a kid – always wanting to be a pitcher or a catcher so that I could get as much action as possible,” he said in a 1924 interview. Burns thought he’d give it a try anyway.

The move sent Burns to stardom, but not exactly from the first day. During his first game roaming in the outfield, Burns almost did get hit in the head by a fly ball. He ran in on a line drive, misjudged it and just managed to get his head out of the way as the ball got to him.

“For a time I was bothered by line drives, but soon I began to judge them accurately,” he remembered years later.

Burns soon excelled in the outfield and his hitting also improved. He was permanently placed in right field and soon began thrilling Utica fans with spectacular catches. He also was made lead-off man on the squad. He finished the 1911 season batting .289 and stealing 40 bases.

Sometime during the 1911 season, John “Sadie” McMahon, a former pitcher and teammate of McGraw’s with the Baltimore club and at the time a scout with the Giants, saw Burns play and noticed his capabilities. McMahon followed Burns around the league without the young player’s knowledge. Late in the season, McGraw was convinced of Burns’ potential and bought him from the Harps for $4,000.

Burns quickly traveled to New York to play, but was kept on the bench by McGraw so he could learn as much about the game as possible. Burns managed to get into six games as the Giants wound down the season winning the league championship. His first game was on October 6 when he played center field in place of Fred Snodgrass. He failed to get a hit off of the Phillies’ George Chalmers.

The first of Burns’ 2,077 major league hits came during the last game of the Giants’ season. Facing Brooklyn’s Pat Ragan, he stroked a single. It was his only hit that season in 17 at bats. Burns was not eligible for the World Series that year since he spent so little time with the team. The Giants lost to Connie Mack’s Athletics in six games.

Burns returned to New York in 1912 from his home in upstate New York where he worked as a cigar maker in his father’s shop. Again, he stayed seated on the bench still learning all McGraw had to teach him. The Giants’ regular outfield that year was Josh Devore in left, Snodgrass in center and Red Murray in right. Burns was the last of the subs, having to play behind Beals Becker and Harry “Moose” McCormick.

The speedster appeared in only 29 games in 1912 and batted .294. For the second year in a row, the Giants took the league championship and went into the Series facing the Red Sox. And for the second consecutive year they lost, this time in eight games, and Burns did not play.

Things began to click for Burns in 1913. McGraw figured his youngster from St. Johnsville waited long enough and deserved a chance to start in his outfield. McGraw moved Devore to the bench before he traded him to the Cincinnati Reds, and inserted Burns into left field at the Polo Grounds. A short time later, he was moved over to right field, switching with Murray.

During his first year as a regular, he batted .286, stole 40 bases and missed only four games. He ended in third place in the race for total hits with 173, second in doubles with 37 and fourth in stolen bases.

Soon Burns was moved back into left field which was known as the sunfield in the Polo Grounds because of the blinding sun which shone in that area. The sun never bothered Burns and he soon became known as the greatest sunfielder in the history of the Polo Grounds.

To help shield his eyes from the sun, Burns used a special cap with an extra long bill with blue sunglasses attached to it. When he came to bat, the special cap would come off in favor of one with a short bill.

Burns was not only known as the best fielder in the Polo Grounds, but also throughout the league. Burns credited his ability to get any ball hit his way with his knowledge of the hitters and listening to the sound the ball made when it jumped off a bat. “If you can tell from the sound just about how far the ball with travel you can turn your back on it and run, confident that when it comes down you’ll be there to meet it.”

During his years with the Giants, Burns gained great recognition for not only his fielding (the great sports writer Frederick Lieb said in a column that a Burns muff was so rare that it was talked about for weeks) but also for his baserunning and hitting. Five times he led the National League in runs and twice he paced the loop in stolen bases. As a lead-off batter he certainly received his chances at the plate. In 1915 and 1916 he led the league in at bats and in five other seasons he came to bat more than 600 times. His keen eye helped him to pace the pack in bases on balls five seasons.

Burns was one of the steadiest everyday players of his day. While with the Giants, he set a record, which has since been broken, by appearing in 459 consecutive games as an outfielder. The string stretched from the beginning of the 1915 season until just before the Giants took on the Chicago White Sox in the 1917 World Series, when McGraw decided to rest his star outfielder. While he rested, he joined fellow outfielder Benny Kauff and second baseman Buck Herzog in scouting the White Sox for the Series.

One of Burns’ greatest series was the 1921 World Series against the cross-town rival Yankees. He batted .333 while leading the team in hits with 11. He belted out four hits in the third game against four Yankee hurlers and his two-run double in the fourth game was the margin for a Giant victory. All the games of the 1921 series were played at the Polo Grounds.

Using a Buck Herzog style bat – 42 inches long, weighing 52 ounces with a very small handle wrapped with about six inches of tape – the 5-foot, 7-inch, 160-pound righty belted out hits at a rate of 169 per season while a regular in the Giants outfield. His hit totals would have been higher except for the large number of bases on balls he received.

While Burns was a quiet and reserved man, he still had quite a following in New York. A section of the left-field bleachers became known as “Burnsville” where his loyal fans cheered him on. Even the New York Police recognized his greatness. Burns’ brother, Jack, now 73, recalled when their father was driving to a game at the Polo Grounds. A little behind schedule, Mr. Burns had to drive a little faster than the speed limit and was ultimately pulled over by one of the city’s finest. When he explained he was Burns’ father and was hurrying so as not to miss any of that day’s game, the officer instantly allowed him to be on his way.

Burns was also tagged with the moniker of “Silent George” by his teammates and New York sports writers. Well-behaved and soft spoken, Burns was never ejected from a game in his career. He was also recognized as one of the best pool players ever to put on a baseball uniform. Players barred him from games unless he played left-handed. He was declared one of the best boxers in the game, too.

Before the 1918 season got underway, a New York sports writer asked McGraw who was the greatest player after the immortal Christy Mathewson that he managed. Without hesitating, McGraw answered, “George Burns! He is a marvel in every department of play, a superb fielder, a wonderful thrower, a grand batsman and with few peers in baseball history as a run scorer. Best of all, Burns, modest and retiring to an extreme, is the easiest player to handle that ever stepped upon a field.”

“That boy has more natural playing strength than any outfielder I’ve seen in a number of years,” McGraw later added. “He may never be a Ty Cobb or a Tris Speaker, but by playing strength I mean he is more proficient in all the things required of an outfielder.”

McGraw was not the only baseball notable throwing compliments at Bums during his day. Eddie Collins called him “the most dangerous and best all around star on McGraw’s splendid team.” Hughie Jennings said, “He is as good a player as ever drew on a spiked shoe. There’s nothing he doesn’t or cannot do well on a ballfield.”

John B. Sheridan, the well-known sports writer of the day, praised Burns highly in a 1920 Sporting News article where he rated the top 25 outfielders of all time. Burns placed fourth on the list, being surpassed only by Tris Speaker, Ty Cobb and James Sheckard in that order. He was rated above such standouts as Willie Keeler, Harry Hooper, Duffy Lewis and Hugh Duffy. “I am one of those who think that Burns has been greatly underrated in New York and elsewhere. . . . He is one of the great outfielders of all time. I have never seen him play a bad game of baseball,” Sheridan wrote.

High tribute was paid to Burns after he was shipped off to the Reds on December 6, 1921, with Mike Gonzalez and $100,000 for third baseman Heinie Groh. The trade at the time was called the biggest deal since the Yankees got Babe Ruth from Boston.

On June 10, 1922, the Giants were scheduled to raise their 1921 World Series championship flag at the Polo Grounds. The day, in which the team was scheduled to play the Reds, was declared “George Burns Day.” Fifteen minutes before the game was to begin, Burns was called out to home plate where Commissioner Kenesaw Landis stood waiting among a group of players from both teams, John Heydler, president of the National League, and several team officials. Landis praised Burns for his years of play while the crowd of 31,000 stood and cheered. Then Landis presented him with a platinum watch encrusted with diamonds, a gift from the Giants.

He also was given a silver cigarette case from his admirers, the New York sports writers. All the while Burns blushed and dug his spikes into the dirt.

Burns then led the procession of Giants to center field where the championship flag was raised.

During the game, Burns let a ball drop in front of him in centerfield instead of catching it to begin a double play that snuffed out a Giants rally in the seventh inning. The Giants, though, went on to win the game in the ninth.

Burns’ trade to the Reds greatly saddened him because he had hoped to finish his career with the Giants. “I surely do hate to leave New York,” he said after the trade was announced. “That’s baseball, you’re here today and gone tomorrow.”

He played three seasons with the Reds, manning center and right fields. Playing in every Reds games his first two seasons with the team, he continued to hit as he did with the Giants, batting 285 and .274, respectively.

On November 12, 1924, after a disappointing season in which he batted .256 and stole only three bases, the Reds gave Burns his unconditional release. Rumors said he would end his playing career and assume a manager’s position with a Pacific Coast League team. But Burns had other ideas. “When you’ve played ball for a long time as I have and when you like baseball as much as I do, it isn’t easy to quit,” he said.

Offers came in from various minor league clubs to both play and manage, but while Burns was flattered with the offers, he still wanted to play in the majors. The right offer finally came on February 24, 1925, when he signed with the Philadelphia Phillies. Burns appeared in 88 games that season batting a respectable .292 while playing left field. One of the high points of the season came early in the year when Burns gathered two hits in one game to put himself over the 2,000 mark in career safties. Ironically, the game was against the Giants.

Burns requested and was given his release from the Phillies at the end of the 1925 season. The next five years found him traveling across the country with a different minor league team each year as a player and manager. In 1926, he played in 163 games with Newark of the Class AA International League. He batted .301, led the league in doubles with 49, and stole 38 bases. The following two seasons he was player-manager with Williamsport of the Class B New York-Pennsylvania League where he hit .295 and .327.

Near the end of the 1928 season he took over the Hanover Club in the Blue Ridge League (Class D). In only 18 games, Burns ripped the ball at a .354 pace. In 1929, he played with Springfield in the Eastern League, hitting .301 in 110 games. He finished his professional career in San Antonio (Class A Texas League) with his lowest yearly average (.197) in 1930.

Burns’ last appearance in a major league uniform was as a coach with McGraw’s Giants in 1931. After the season, he returned to central New York where he ran his father’s pool hall. Later he became a payroll clerk in a tannery in Gloversville. Meanwhile, he kept active in local baseball by playing first base with town teams.

In 1937, Burns was remembered by three sports writers on the ballot for induction into baseball’s Hall of Fame. The following year he again received three votes, with one vote given to him in 1939 and also in 1949. Remaining his usual modest self, Burns said he never was bothered by the fact he wasn’t tapped for inclusion in the Hall of Fame.

Before Burns died in 1966 at the age of 75, he told his brother he finally realized how lucky he was to have played in the major leagues. “I guess the Lord just made me a ball player,” he said.

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