Tuesday, May 30, 2017


Last year on Memorial Day, I was haunted by a piece MLB.com's Lindsay Berra wrote about the long history of baseball players who have died in military service.

Berra opened the piece with a quick nod to the proud tradition of ballplayers serving their country, ticking off a few of the more well-known Hall of Famers who had done so, including her grandfather Lawrence Peter Berra; who had attacked enemy positions with rockets on D-Day wearing the uniform of a sailor before he ever attacked a baseball with a bat in the Bronx wearing the uniform of a Yankee.

Then, citing  the scholarly work of Gary Bedingfield -- a British member of the Society for American Baseball Research and former player himself who runs the website http://baseballinwartime.com and authored two books on the subject -- Lindsay went on to note that since the Civil War (when baseball players first began to get paid to play) some 535 men who had played ball at various levels of the sport had lost their lives while on active duty,  and that 12 of them had played in the major leagues.

One of those 12, I've thought about at least once every time I watch a Yankee game.

Before I go on, I must say if you're ever taken by the urge to learn more about the connection between American baseball and service to country -- for a few minutes or a few hours, right around Memorial Day or any other day of the year -- Bedingfield's website is a powerful  place to start. His devotion to the topic is voracious to say the least, and his never-ending quest to find and document every ballplayer who ever served is relentless and meticulous.

For instance, during WWII alone he's confirmed more than 4,500 professional ballplayers left the sport to serve in the military and that at least 130 minor league players lost their lives while serving their country.

With more than 500 extensive individual bios and enough old pictures, personal documents and first-hand accounts  to fill a bricks-and-mortar library, it's a place anyone with an interest in either the national pastime or the history of the military can easily be drawn into and get lost in thoughtful contemplation.

So anyway, there I was a year ago, reading Lindsay Berra's thumbnails of each of those 12 MLB players' stories; each no more than a paragraph or so; each including where they played their baseball, what branch of the military they served in, where they served and  how they lost their lives.

And one of them jumps out at me and hits me in the gut.

"Alexander Thomson 'Tom' Burr, Nov. 1, 1893 - Oct. 12, 1918

Burr was a shortstop and pitcher at the Choate School in Connecticut and attended Williams College in Massachusetts. He signed with the New York Yankees in January 1914. Burr made just one appearance as a Yankee, on April 21 against the Senators. In 1917, Burr served with the 31st Aero Squadron, U.S. Air Service. He was killed on Oct. 12, 1918, during drills at the gunnery school in Cazaux, France, when his plane collided with another at 4,500 feet and crashed into Cazaux Lake."

He had been a Yankee at 20. He'd appeared in only one game. Three years later he was dead in France.  I had to learn more. I dug a little and found a bio written by a SABR colleague of Bedingfield's named Rory Costello.

A Chicago native and right-handed pitcher, Burr was six feet two inches tall, and weighing 190 pounds, as a senior at the prestigious Choate School in Connecticut, Burr allowed no earned runs and only 32 hits in 11 games, with 185 strikeouts and just 18 walks.

He enrolled at Williams College, but before he got to play a single collegiate game several major league teams were already bidding for his services.  Coming from a wealthy family with prospects of his own after college, Burr turned down several teams,  but jumped at the chance to play for Yankees player/manager Frank Chance, a former Cub. the young came knocking, he put off college to give pro ball a try.

Major league scouts said he had a plus fastball and a wicked curve thanks to a congenital condition that left his pitching arm with a pronounced bend.

The Providence Evening News wrote, "He turned down offers from at least three major league clubs, to play under Chance's direction." That report added, "Arthur Irwin [another Yankees scout] says that Burr is one of the best natural pitchers he has ever seen, and predicts a brilliant future for him."

After a successful spring, he made  the big club but the team's rotation that year was healthy and deep, and the daily grind of travel on trains and boredom sitting on the bench during games didn't suit him. He stuck it out until he finally got the call to go into the show -- as an outfielder.

The Yankees had scored two runs in the bottom of the 9th to tie it up and had run out of  position players. As the last man on the bench, the young pitcher was sent out to centerfield to play the 10th inning. No balls were hit to him and the Yankees won the game in their next at-bat before his turn in the order came up.

Shortly after that, he was sent down so he could get more work and stay sharp, but his month of idleness caught up with him and in a handful of minor league games he was wild and had no command of his pitches. A quick return to the Bigs didn't look likely and he was a practical young man if nothing else, judging from his diary entries. So he quit pro ball and returned to Williams to complete his education.

However, when the U.S. entered the war in Europe he left school and returned home to Chicago to enlist, which turned out to be easier said than done. He  got bounced from officer training school when he came down with pneumonia, and then was subsequently rejected when he tried to re-enlist due to his age.

So he made his way to France on his own dime to join the Air Service, graduated flight school, became an instructor, taught other young pilots   and even got to do some pitching, striking out 21 batters of the previously undefeated St. Pierre de Corps post for the Aviation Instruction Center team.

Then he got the call to the front and flew to  the gunnery school in Cazaux for some final air-to-air target practice before heading into combat.

His plane went down there 30 days before the Armistice ending the war was signed. He was 23.

He never got to fire a shot in battle, and he never got to hit or catch a ball in his lone Yankee Stadium appearance.

And now, right around Memorial Day, as I watch young Yankees battle to win ballgames and keep their cherished roster spots and the announcers talk about their bright futures, I can't help but think of Burr.

He was only 20 when he wore the pinstripes, younger than any of the kids playing in today's Yankee game. The papers and pundits all said he had a bright future too.

Turned out they were right.

I hope when all our prospects look back on their lives and careers, they can be as proud of theirs as Burr can be of his.

Waytago rook.

 --Barry Millman
BYB Writer
Twitter: @nyyankeefanfore

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