Just because Smoky Burgess is only 67½ inches high, not quite twice the length of his own baseball bat, and because he weighs a jolly 187 pounds, some people consider him fat. Well, he is. Dressed in the white home uniform of the Pittsburgh Pirates, he looks a little like a walking laundry bag. Sometimes the sharks on the Pirates rag Smoky about his 38-inch waistline, but the round little catcher with the size 6½ feet shrugs it off in his pleasant North Carolina way.
"If they get on me," he reasons, "that means they're leaving somebody else alone."
Opponents don't kid Smoky much, however, least of all pitchers. You see, Smoky Burgess is a hitter. To Smoky, hitting is a joy, a marvelously uncomplicated process. The pitcher throws the ball and Smoky hits it with his bat. He has been hitting often enough to be averaging a lusty .340, second in the National League, and far enough to be a home run threat. It makes little difference who is throwing the baseball or where it is when he starts to swing. Tom Acker, a Cincinnati pitcher, says: "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."
George Sisler, as good a hitter as there ever was, now the Pittsburgh batting coach, was discussing Burgess recently.
June 21, 1959
"I'll admit he isn't very careful," Sisler argued, "but Smoky doesn't swing as wildly as they say. He has an amazing facility for placing the bat on the ball."
Burgess is especially tough as a pinch hitter. Last month he hit the 10th pinch-hit home run of his career, a major league record. He has hit safely in seven of nine tries this season. One of them, a two-out double in the 10th inning against Cincinnati, gave the Pirates a tremendous lift, for it beat Bob Purkey. Purkey, a former Pirate, had beaten his old team five times without a loss.
"It was the second game of a double-header," Pittsburgh Sportswriter Les Biederman recalls. "Smoky had caught the first game, so he was sitting out the second in the bullpen when Danny Murtaugh called him. Smoky came trotting all the way in, picked up a bat and, still huffing and puffing, stepped to the plate. Purkey threw one pitch—a little outside—and Smoky reached out and stroked it down the left field line. That was the game."
Pitching to Burgess is a headache. There is no accepted method. "The best thing you can do," says Teammate Harvey Haddix, who threw that "perfect game" in May, "is mix up your pitches."
Perhaps you could get Smoky to fish for high pitches, it was suggested. "High pitches?" said Haddix. "The higher you throw to him, the farther he'll hit it."
All of them, then, agree that Burgess is a very good hitter. When you ask them about his catching, however, they hesitate. Opinion is varied. His critics are content to remember him as he was during the early '50s, when his right shoulder was still weak from an Army injury. They cite throws to second that bounced just past the pitcher's mound. He was described as a "real shoemaker."
Time has healed Smoky's shoulder and there is no doubt that he is a better catcher than he was, but as Joe Garagiola told him, "Once you get that bad reputation, it's hard to lose it."
Baseball people are very defensive when it comes to discussing a player's weaknesses. Ask someone who the best catcher in the National League is, and he may answer, Del Crandall. Ask him, then, what it is that Crandall does better than Burgess, and he'll say, wait a minute, there's nothing wrong with Smoky as a catcher. Birdie Tebbetts, who managed Burgess for three years at Cincinnati, insists that Smoky was as good a catcher as Ed Bailey and that the only reason he made Bailey, a .260 hitter, first-string was that Bailey was younger. The most honest opinion of Burgess as a catcher comes from Burgess himself.
"I'm no Roy Campanella," he says. "Campy could do things I can't. He was always able to keep the ball in front of him. He was quick. When pitchers throw the ball in the dirt to me, it always seems to carom off my shins to the left or right. But I'll tell you one thing. I'm not as bad a catcher as most people think."
It might be pointed out that when Harvey Haddix pitched his famous 13-inning game, Burgess caught every pitch.
A part from trying to keep wild pitches from caroming off his shins, Smoky Burgess has few problems. He is a quiet man and off the field he leads a quiet life. He is religious (he is a Baptist). His tastes are simple. He neither smokes nor drinks. His slick brown hair is receding from his forehead, making his face look as round as a baseball. His eyes are brown, too, and when he smiles the smile starts with the eyes crinkling slightly. His hands are small puffs of meat, so that his baseball bat must have an extremely narrow handle.
Smoky, 32, has been married for 14 years. He and his wife Margaret and their two children, Larry, 13, and Donice, 7, live in Forest City, N.C. during the winter. There Smoky owns a service station, operated by his brother Grady during the season. When Smoky comes home from the wars, he goes right to work pumping gas and greasing cars. Proportioned as he is, he fills the mental picture of a gas station attendant more readily than he does that of a .340 hitter.
Smoky was not always overweight. As a youth in Caroleen, a small cotton mill town in North Carolina, he was lean. The day he was 16 he went to work in the mill to help support his family, for his father was sick and his brothers were in service. He was Forrest Harrill Burgess, but folks called him Smoky after his dad, a semipro ballplayer who had been smoke on the base paths. Smoky found time to play sandlot baseball, and in 1944 he was signed by the Chicago Cubs, mostly, he says, because the Cubs were interested in brother Grady. Grady had great promise, it seems, but he just didn't care to leave home.
After a year in the Pony League, where he hit .325, Smoky, still slim, entered the Army. Ah, the Army! They made Smoky a postal clerk.
"I ate too much, and I didn't get much exercise," says Smoky. "I'd just hand the boys out their mail."
It was in the Army that he became the Smoky Burgess baseball knows. Very round. And when, in 1946, he returned to civilian life, his figure remained Army.
Back in baseball, Smoky hit .387 and .386 in successive seasons in the minors and in 1949 was brought up to the majors, though it wasn't until 1951 that he stuck around for good. Since then he has played for Chicago, Philadelphia, Cincinnati and now Pittsburgh. With Philadelphia in 1954, he hit .368, but he lacked the necessary times at bat to qualify for the batting championship. On Cincinnati's powerful 1956 team, Smoky pinch-hit the home run that gave the Reds a new record, 221 in one season. Last winter the Reds acquired Frank Thomas from Pittsburgh. In return, the Pirates got Don Hoak, Harvey Haddix and 187 pounds of Smoky Burgess.
Smoky's weight has never concerned him much, but it has bothered some of his managers. When he was traded to Philadelphia, Steve O'Neill ordered Smoky on a diet. Obediently, Smoky lost weight, down to 171, but he became so weak he could hardly swing the bat. His average looked as though it were on a diet. Reluctantly, the Philadelphia front office let Smoky eat as he pleased. Up went his weight. Up went his average.
When Birdie Tebbetts got his first look at Smoky in a Cincinnati uniform, he was all set to jump on him about his poundage. But every time he saw Burgess, Burgess was working. A week went by with Tebbetts poised, ready to drop the boom. But Smoky was always hustling. One day Smoky came up to Tebbetts after practice.
"Birdie," he said, "I just want to thank you. You're the first manager who didn't try to get me to lose weight."
Last winter when Smoky signed his contract with Pittsburgh, he stipulated that he did not want anyone trying to thin him out.
"I told them I'd give them my all, but that if they made me lose weight, I'd be nothing."
Pittsburgh never said a word. And the way Smoky Burgess is hitting, they probably never will.