A major-leaguer for parts of 18 seasons, Smoky Burgess was signed at 17 years old by the Chicago Cubs in 1944. He broke into the majors with the Cubs in 1949 and would go on to play for five different clubs. He consistently hit for respectable batting averages, finishing his career at .295, but never hit more than 21 homers in a season and finished with relatively low career power numbers; 230 doubles; 126 homers, and 673 RBI. Burgess never took the field at any position other than catcher, where he fielded at a .988 clip and threw out 213 of 583 base stealers. To this writerís knowledge, he holds the distinction of being the only catcher to catch more than 9 consecutive perfect innings in a single game when, on May 26th, 1959, he helped Harvey Haddix retire 36 consecutive batters before giving up an unearned run in the 13th to lose 1-0. In 11 seasons between 1954 and 1964, Burgess made six National League all-star teams, even cracking the starting lineup in 1961. By the time he was picked up on the waiver-wire by the White Sox in September 1964, Burgess was used almost exclusively as a pinch-hitter. He would retire after the 1967 season with 145 career pinch hits, a record that wasnít broken until 1979 by Manny Mota. Burgess now sits fourth on the all-time pinch-hits list.
1965 was indicative of Burgessís last years in the league. Burgess appeared in 80 games, but he was third on the catching depth chart behind Johnny Romano and J.C. Martin, and only appeared in five games behind the plate, three as a starter. Burgess pinch-hit 75 times in í65 and made the most of them. He batted .286 on the season, and with 24 RBI in 89 plate appearances, his rate of one RBI per 3.7 plate appearances was better than anyone on the team with more than 10 plate appearances. (Marv Staehle picked up two RBI in seven plate appearances.) His late-game appearances put him at the plate during lots of crucial situations, such as in the 7th inning of the second game of a double header against the Detroit Tigers on May 5, 1965.
The Sox came into the day a half-game ahead of the Twins, who were only playing one game on May 5th. Heading into the night game, White Sox had gone 4-2 since their win on April 27th, including a 4-0 four-hit shutout victory by John Buzhardt earlier in the day. In the nightcap, Joe Horlen and Tigers pitcher Dave Wickersham were locked in a 0-0 contest until the bottom of the 6th when leadoff hitter Dick McAuliffe hit an inside-the-park home run to the cavernous center field of Tigers Stadium. (The wall was 440 feet from home plate just to the left of dead center.) Down one coming into the top of the 7th, Pete Ward walked, Bill Skowron doubled, and Ron Hansen was intentionally walked. Ken Berry was due up, but his .200 batting average prompted Al Lopez to pinch-hit Burgess instead. Burgess stroked a single, scoring Ward and Skowron, and was promptly taken out for pinch-runner Tommy McCraw. The Sox would score two more runs that inning and win 4-1, but all they needed was the one at-bat from Burgess.
The Sox moved to 13-5 and, in sweeping the double-header, improved to one game ahead of the Twins, who also won that day. And if a child had looked at the back of Burgessís baseball card that day, he probably would have simply been impressed at how long heíd been playing. Most kids enamored with baseball cards were under 16 years old, which means the child looking at the back of Burgessís would not have been born when he broke into the big leagues.