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CATCHER OF THE WEEK: Smoky Burgess

In this feature, we will help you acquaint yourself with some of the finest practitioners of the most thankless task in baseball to ever don the “tools of ignorance” for our beloved Chicago Baseball teams. This week we feature Smoky Burgess.

The Round Mound on the South Side of town.

“Smoky Burgess was fat. Not baseball fat like Mickey Lolich or Early Wynn. But FAT fat. Like the mailman or your Uncle Dwight. Putsy Fat. Slobby Fat. Just Plain Fat. In fact I would venture to say that Smoky Burgess was probably the fattest man ever to play professional baseball.” – Brendan Boyd & Fred Harris, “The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading, and Bubblegum Book”

Before there was Cecil Fielder, or Prince Fielder, or basically any fat guy who was handy with a bat, there was Smoky Burgess. Forrest Harrill Burgess was born on February 6, 1927 in Caroleen, North Carolina where presumably his first word was “vittles”.

Smoky made a name for himself, playing high school and American Legion ball in North Carolina, where he was spotted by a scout for the Cardinals. He signed with the Cards in 1943, but the contract was voided as he was too young at age 16. Later, Joe Nuxhall would play in the big leagues before his 16th birthday, but at that time it was allowed due to player shortages as the result of World War II.

A year later, Smoky would sign with the Cubs, and he hit .325 in the Pony League as a 17 year old. The following year, after playing 12 games in the Piedmont League, he left the Cubs organization to join the Army. It was here as a mail clerk he said “I ate too much and didn’t get much exercise. I’d just hand the boys out their mail.” So it was here that he gained his rotund shape. Also, while in the Army, he was in a jeep accident that severely injured his throwing arm. This would lead to a career where he would regularly be among the leaders in stolen bases allowed. But he returned to the Cubs farm system, and just kept hitting. He won batting titles in 1947 in the Tri-State League hitting .386, then the Southern Association in 1948 hitting .387.

He then joined the Cubs on Opening Day in 1949, and in 60 plate appearances posted a 268/317/321 slash line. Not great, but nobody on the 1949 Cubs was exactly “great”, outside of Hank Sauer and Andy Pafko, the only two Cubs to hit double digits in home runs that year.

He spent 1950 in the minors before returning to the Cubs in 1951. That year he hit 251/317/315 in a more regular (94 games, 239 PAs). Immediately after the season, the Cubs sent him to the Reds in a four player swap. Two months later, the Reds sent him to the Phillies in a three player deal.

It was in Philadelphia where he blossomed, hitting .296, .292 and .368 in his three seasons there, making the All-Star team in 1954. His .368 in 1954 was the highest in the National League, beating Willie Mays by 11 points, but he didn’t qualify due to not having the minimum number of plate appearances to qualify for the title.

Shortly after the 1955 season began, the Phillies traded Smoky back to the Reds. He made the All-Star team again in 1955, and thrived hitting in cozy Crosley Field. He posted wRC+ of 125, 114 and 137 in his first three years in Cincinnati before falling off to 94 in 1958. He had a reputation for being a liability behind the plate, and with the Reds he shared time behind the dish with Ed Bailey, who was a better glove man but less proficient with the lumber.

Before the 1959 season began, he was traded to the Pirates along with Harvey Haddix and Don Hoak. This was a huge trade for Pittsburgh, as all three players factored heavily in the Pirates’ improbable World Series championship in 1960. Not only was Smoky an All-Star in 1960 (along with 1959 and 1961), but he even got a couple MVP votes. Now, you may remember the Bucs played in Forbes Field back then. What you may not remember is that one unique feature of Forbes Field was the 90 feet from home plate to the back wall. The mind boggles at the porcine Burgess chugging back there on foul balls. Still, he stayed with the Pirates, making one final All-Star team in 1964 before being placed on waivers in September of that year, and being selected by the White Sox.

His time with the Sox was spent being their pinch hitter extraordinaire, putting up a 131 wRC+ in 1965 and a 140 wRC+ in 1966 at age 39. The Sox released him following the 1966 season, but signed him before the 1967 season. He posted a 133/303/250 slash line as a 40 year old grandfather. He retired after the season.

To this day, Smoky’s 145 career pinch hits are good for 4th best all-time in baseball history. You can’t help but wonder how he could have fared had there been the designated hitter in his career. He was the man for the gig, he was just born too soon.

Perhaps baseball’s biggest charitable act toward Smoky is his player profile lists him as 5’8, 185. He earned all his other honors, including being in the Reds Hall of Fame.

Smoky passed away in 1991 at age 64.

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  1. Now THIS was a catcher.

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