“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.
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.
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.