Missed it by that Much – The Britt Burns story

“If that kid’s not Rookie of the Year, there’s no such thing,” said White Sox skipper Tony La Russa after Britt Burns made his final start of 1980.

“I think (Joe) Charboneau, (Dave) Stapleton and (Damaso) Garcia… had fine rookie years,” he continued. “But there’s no way anyone had a better year than Burns.”

Unfortunately for La Russa, voters didn’t agree as Burns finished 5th in the R.O.Y. voting, but that did nothing to diminish the fantastic season he had. In his first full season, Britt Burns won 15 games with a 2.84 ERA. He was a 6’5″ lefty and he was destined for stardom.

Early Dominance

Burns grew up in Alabama and established his dominance at an early age. He was a standout in Little League, owing in part to his tremendous size. A growth spurt resulted in him shooting up from 5’10 to 6’2 in less than 6 months. But spurt also caused problems. Growing so quickly resulted in damaged cartilage in his hips. The damage was severe enough that his femur would actually slip out of the socket. The problem eventually required surgery on both hips in which pins were inserted to stabilize the joints. Between the two surgeries he spent nearly a year on crutches and missed a year of school ball when he was 13.

When he finally returned to the diamond he didn’t miss a beat. He threw a no-hitter as a Freshman and he was so impressive that his high school his coach advised him to transfer to a bigger school where he would face better competition. His father worked for Allstate and was able to arrange a transfer to Birmingham so Burns could switch schools. He ended up at Huffman High School, a baseball factory. In the mid-1970s, the school was using videotape for pitchers to break down their deliveries. Burns thrived.

At Huffman he threw four no-hitters, struck out nearly 300 batters in 139 innings and allowed just two earned runs over a two year period. Scouts noticed. The White Sox chose selected him in the 3rd round of the 1978 draft and after 31 innings with Appleton in the Midwest League he made his big league debut. He got pounded. In two starts, he lasted a total of seven and a third innings and surrendered 11 earned runs.

Standout Rookie

Britt Burns
With Burns, Trout and Baumgarten, the Sox were seemingly set

After another brief stint in the big leagues in 1979, Burns made the team out of spring training in 1980 and quickly became a force. In three April starts, Burns allowed just one run while facing the Yankees twice and the Boston Red Sox. He flirted with a no-hitter against Seattle in mid-May and while the Mariners did scratch out four hits, Burns threw his first career shutout and ran his record to 5-2. A six start winless streak may have cost him Rookie of the Year honors. From July 21st through August 7th, Burns went 0-5 but still posted a respectable 3.40 ERA. The offense did him no favors during the stretch, scoring just nine runs.

While he didn’t win Rookie of the Year, Burns was named AL Rookie Pitcher of the Year, an award that was made more special because votes were cast by his fellow players.

“That’s a real honor to be voted by my peers,” he said. “But I’m not going to be satisfied with what I’ve done. I want to get better. This is going to give me incentive to work a little harder and pitch a little better.”

Injuries and Tragedy

Over the next four seasons, injuries to his shoulder, recurring hip problems and the 1981 death of his father in an auto accident plagued the talented lefty. He hit bottom in 1984 when he endured a disastrous 4-12 season. In 1985 he finally broke through, winning 18 games with 172 strikeouts in 227 innings. In December he was dealt to the Yankees in a deal that brought the Sox Ron Hassey and Joe Cowley.

With Burns and Ron Guidry, the 1986 Yankees had two lefties who put up a combined 40 wins the previous season and were thinking pennant. But then Burns’ hip problems flared up again. In two spring outings he posted a 10.80 ERA and his season was over before it began.

”The condition of Britt’s hip is such that it would do him an injustice to ask him to pitch this year inasmuch as it could have a serious effect on his ability to lead a normal life later on,” Yankees owner George Steinbrenner said in a press release. “We don’t want Britt walking around as a cripple later on in life.”

Burns underwent a procedure in which his femur was cut in half and re-positioned in order to fit correctly into his hip socket. A year later he was still hoping to return but the pain in his hip was too great. At 27 years-old he was finished.

It’s hard enough to play the game. It’s even more difficult when your body betrays you.

Jimmy Piersall Loses It… Again

The summer of 1980 was brutal.

A heatwave swept across the southeast which resulted in nearly 150 deaths across seven states. From Alabama to Texas and up to Missouri, people looked for any relief they could find. The search became more difficult when temperatures caused roads to buckle in many states. Wichita Falls reached a record 113 degrees and Little Rock, Arkansas saw temps of more than 100 degrees as well, which was cited by the Poultry Foundation as the cause of death for nearly two and a half million chickens.

Perhaps the only thing hotter than the weather was the temper of White Sox broadcaster and part-time outfield coach Jimmy Piersall. Prior to the Sox July 2nd home game against the Angels, Piersall sought out Arlington Heights Daily Herald writer Bob Gallas to “discuss” his story about Piersall’s dismissal as the a part-time unpaid outfield coach.

As a player, Jimmy Piersall had a much-publicized mental breakdown that became the basis for the 1957 film, Fear Strikes Out, starring Anthony Perkins.  A two-time All-Star selection, Piersall’s mercurial behavior made him tough to deal with for both teammates and management.

Tony La Russa and the Sox felt it was a conflict of interest for Piersall to coach players and then go to the booth and criticize their play, so after polling the players he informed Piersall of the decision.

Adding to the intrigue was the fact that Sox Owner Bill Veeck had been trying to get rid of Piersall as a broadcaster because he felt he was too critical of the players. Piersall responded that he could say whatever he wanted, including taking shots at Veeck’s wife, Mary Frances, on a local radio show, calling her “a colossal bore” and suggesting she should stay in the kitchen.

Piersall was upset about losing his coaching position but when Gallas’ article made it public knowledge, Piersall confronted him in the clubhouse and the two exchanged words. Piersall backed away as if to leave, then spun and started choking Gallas.

“Jimmy jumped him; I saw it because it was right in front of the trainer’s room,” said Sox trainer Herm Schneider. “Gallas started turning blue in the face. Ross (Baumgarten)… and a security guard finally pulled Piersall off. Gallas certainly didn’t swing first. He was taken completely by surprise.”

Jimmy Piersall’s troubles didn’t end there. Once Veeck was informed of the incident, he sent his son, Mike to the broadcast booth to confront Piersall.

“When I walked in, I gave him a dedicated introductory statement as to my intentions,” said the younger Veeck. “I didn’t want it to look like Cowens’ sneak attack on Farmer. I said I wanted him to look at someone his own size.”

No sooner did Mike Veeck enter the booth and “announce his intentions” were he and Piersall involved in a scuffle that took Piersall’s broadcast partner Rich King and two writers to break up. In addition to potential embarrassment to his father’s baseball team, Mike Veeck’s intensity was most certainly ratcheted up by Piersall’s comments about his mother.

Piersall left the stadium and spent the night in a local hospital with what Sox officials termed, “exhaustion.”

The first half of the season was not kind to Daily Herald baseball writers. In spring training, Dave Kingman dumped a bucket of ice water on Daily Herald writer Don Friske. Kingman called the incident “a joke,” but Friske didn’t take it as such.

Ross Baumgarten

About the only person not affected by the pregame fracas was Baumgarten. After breaking up a fight in the clubhouse, he then threw a one-hit complete game shutout. The only hit Bumgarten surrendered was a seventh inning single off the bat of Rod Carew, who was given a reprieve after left fielder Wayne Nordhagen dropped his foul pop fly.

“It hit me in a bad spot,” said Nordhagen. “Right in the hand – U.S. Steel.”

The outing proved to be a highlight in an otherwise dismal season for Baumgarten, who finished the year 2-12. It wasn’t a good year for Veeck and the White Sox, but there was often a lot of excitement on the South Side.

June 20th, 1980 was weird

Flea goes for 3 and other oddities

“Is it a full moon or somethin’?”

That’s what my mother-in-law says when weird stuff happens. June 20th, 1980 must have featured multiple full moons because some bizarre crap went down. On the field, it began in Boston when the Red Sox hosted the California Angels.

The Angels were decimated by injuries but the lineup still featured Rod Carew, Carney Lansford Joe Rudi and Bobby Grich, so Boston starter Steve Renko could be forgiven for looking past the Angels shortstop. Standing 5’5” and weighing just under 150 pounds, Freddie “The Flea” Patek wasnt the kind of player to strike fear in the heart of opposing pitchers, but that didn’t stop him from putting on a prodigious power display on this evening.

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Patek stepped to the plate in the bottom of the 3rd against Dick Drago (Renko had already been knocked out of the game) and hit a three run shot to give the Angels a 10-0 lead.

He homered again to lead off the Angels’ 5th, and after grounding into a double play in his next at bat, Patek came to the plate in the 8th inning, again with Harlow on base, and he homered again, this time off Jack Billingham, to give the Angels a 17-0 lead.

He had a chance to become just the eleventh player in major league history to hit four home runs in a game, joining the likes of Lou Gehrig, Mike Schmidt and Willie Mays, when he came up in the 9th inning, but Bill Campbell struck him out.

“The whole thing is just amazing to me but it happens,” Patek told reporters after the game. “The fourth time up I was just trying to hit the ball and stay with what I know. I just wanted to hit the ball somewhere, but I struck out.”

Al Cowens vs. Ed Farmer

On the same night that Patek was putting on a power hitting display at Fenway, Detroit outfielder Al Cowens put on a display of an entirely different sort in Chicago. The Tigers and White Sox were tied in the top of the 11th inning when Cowens stepped in against Chicago relief pitcher Ed Farmer.

Farmer was looking to keep the Tigers off the board in hopes of picking up a win. Cowens was looking for revenge. The two were facing each other for the first time since the previous May when a Farmer pitch sailed inside and shattered Cowens’ jaw.

Al Cowens
Cowens got lost on the way to 1st base

This time around Farmer’s pitch was over the plate and Cowens grounded out. But as the ball bounced to shortstop Todd Cruz, Cowens must have gotten lost on the way to first base and charged the pitcher’s mound, causing a bench-clearing brawl.

American League President Lee McPhail acted swiftly, suspending Cowens for seven games and fining him an undisclosed amount. But that wasn’t the only trouble he faced. Farmer filed charges in Cook County Circuit Court, and a judge issued a warrant for Cowens’ arrest on an assault-and-battery charge.

When the Tigers returned to Chicago in August for a two-game series Cowens did not make the trip due to the outstanding warrant. Ever the instigators, White Sox fans hung a huge banner in the outfield that read, “Cowens the Coward.”

The two eventually buried the hatchet in September when the White Sox traveled to Detroit. They met at home plate to exchange lineup cards and Cowens apologized for charging the mound. Farmer accepted and later dropped the criminal charges he had filed.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s over and done with,” Farmer told the media.

“I’m relieved,” said Cowens. “So much has been made of this. Every time I turned around there were headlines about it. The whole thing has been tough, but it’s a dead issue now.”

St. Louis Cardinals vs. Each Other

Nineteen-Eighty was a rough year for the St. Louis Cardinals. They began June 9.5 games out of first place and had just finished a two-game series against the Astros in which they scored zero runs when their team bus pulled up to the Stouffer’s Cincinnati Towers early in the morning of June 20th.

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A foul mood must have been prevalent because a shoving match broke out between pitcher John Fulgham and first baseman Keith Hernandez as they stepped off the bus. Fulgham had been out with a sore shoulder (which turned out to be a torn rotator cuff) and Hernandez had been giving him grief about it. There was also bad blood between the two because Hernandez reportedly had laughed after Fulgham gave up a home run in Montreal earlier in the season.

Teammates were able to separate the two before punches were thrown, though one report said the “brawl” spilled onto the sidewalk and involved as many as 10 members of the team.

Leonard-DuranIt was probably just a coincidence that the two baseball fights took place on the same day that Roberto Duran defeated Sugar Ray Leonard in front of more than 46,000 people at Olympic Stadium, home of the Montreal Expos.

Then again, maybe it wasn’t.