Primary Position: Catcher
First, Last Names: Forrest Harrill Nicknames: Smoky
Date of Birth: Feb. 6, 1927 Date and Place of Death: Sept. 15, 1991, Asheville, NC
Burial: Sunset Memorial Park, Forest City, NC
High School: Henrietta-Caroleen High School
Bats: L Throws: R Height and Weight: 5-8, 187
Debut Year: 1949 Final Year: 1967 Years Played: 18
Team(s) and Years: Chicago Cubs, 1949, 1951; Philadelphia Phillies, 1952-55; Cincinnati Redlegs, 1955-58; Pittsburgh Pirates, 1959-1964; Chicago White Sox, 1964-67
G AB H R RBI HR BA. OBP. SLG. WAR
1691 4471 1318 485 673 126 .295 .362 .446 +33.4
Awards/Honors: All-Star, 1954-55, 1959-61, 1964; N.C. Sports Hall of Fame, 1978; Boys of Summer Top 100
A six-time All Star, Smoky Burgess is among North Carolina’s baseball royalty, ranking 14th on the list of the state’s Top 100 players. He played 18 years in the major leagues – only five North Carolinians have played longer – and is second to Rick Ferrell as the top catcher produced by the state. He was also considered one of the best hitters of his generation.
“Smoky could fall out of bed on New Year’s Day and get a hit off Sandy Koufax,” said Joe Nuxhall, a teammate on the Cincinnati Redlegs.[I]
At the tail end of his career, with his catching days over, Burgess became the best pinch hitter in baseball and for years held the record for the most career pinch hits.
His .295 lifetime batting average ranks ninth among North Carolina players with more than a thousand at bats, and he’s in the top twenty in eight other offensive career statistics.
Gus Bell, a pretty fair hitter himself, thought Burgess was in an elite group. “Many, many people have said he was one of the most natural hitters of all time – in the Stan Musial and Ted Williams category,” Bell said of his Redlegs’ teammate. “The feeling was that if Smoky wasn’t a catcher and could have played every day, he would have been recognized as one of the greatest hitters of all time. I still say he was.”[II]
Forrest Harrill Burgess was born in the small community of Caroleen on the Second Broad River in Rutherford County. His roots in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains account for his nickname, whether he inherited it from his father, as some sources claim, or he earned it himself.[III] To be absolutely, school-marmish, correct about it, Burgess hailed from the Blue Ridge Mountains, not the taller Great Smokies farther west. Anyway, Smoky sounds a bit better than Blue Ridge Burgess.
Burgess’s father, Lloyd, worked in a textile mill but was also a standout semipro baseball player. His mother, Ocie, like almost all mothers of her day, stayed home to care for the four children.
Forrest Hunt, Burgess’s baseball coach at old Henrietta-Caroleen High School, but known to all who graced its halls as Tri High, gave his young infielder a piece of advice: You’ll never be a hitter unless you swing the bat.[IV]
It would form the foundation of Burgess’s hitting philosophy. “Any ball I can get a good part of the bat on is a good pitch to hit,” he explained many years later.[v] It was all pretty simple to Smoky: The pitcher threw the ball; he tried to hit it.
Burgess was 16 when he signed his first professional contract with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1943, but the baseball commissioner voided the deal because he judged Burgess to be too young. A year later, he signed with the Chicago Cubs and hit .325 as a 17-year-old in his first minor-league season.
There was a war to attend to, however. Burgess joined the Army in 1945 and two things happened in the military that would forever affect Burgess’s career and public persona. He ran off the road while driving a Jeep in Germany, rolling over three times and shattering his right, throwing, shoulder. He would never throw well again and would routinely rank as among the worst catchers in the league at throwing out base stealers. His weak throwing would contribute to his overall poor defensive skills as a catcher.
Burgess joined the Army as a lean teenager. That’s not how he came out. “I used to be a trim 150-pounder, and in high school I ran the 100 in 10 flat,” he once explained. “Then I went into the Army. I was a mail clerk just outside Munich, and it was a snap. I’d sort the mail the day before and sleep till 11 every morning. I ate a lot of potatoes. I weighed 214 pounds when I got out.”[VI]
Throughout his career, the 5-8 Burgess endured all the adjectives: portly, hefty, paunchy, pudgy, roly-poly. “Smoky Burgess was fat,” an irreverent guide of baseball cards once reported. “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.”[VII]
This was one fat man who could hit. Burgess won back-to-back batting titles in the minor leagues when he returned to baseball in 1947. That led to a spot on the Cubs’ opening-day roster two years later, but Burgess appeared in only 46 games before being sent down. He spent the remainder of that season and the next in the minors.
Back in the majors to stay in 1951, Burgess was traded after the season to the Phillies. In Philadelphia, Smoky Burgess became a major leaguer. He was an All-Star for the first time in 1954 when he hit .368. Burgess fell 55 at bats short of qualifying for the National League batting title, won by Willie Mays, because his manager didn’t play his lefty hitting catcher against lefthanded pitchers. That always irked Burgess. “That stuff about me not hitting lefties is bunk,” he said later after he had moved on from Philadelphia. “They just go percentage-crazy up there.”[VIII]
Burgess then spent four years in Cincinnati, starting in 1955. The team was called the Redlegs at the time so as not to offend patriotic sensibilities in the era of Joe McCarthy. Though he was an All-Star again his first year with the team, Burgess’s offensive numbers slipped in later seasons as his playing time was whittled. To his teammates, he was The Little Round Snowman.
Traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1959, Burgess rejuvenated his career. He was an All-Star for four of his six years in Pittsburgh, hitting .296 and knocking in 265 runs. He was behind the plate when Harvey Haddix tossed 12 perfect innings against Milwaukee before an error allowed a runner to reach first. The Braves would win in the 13th. Burgess went 6 for 18 against the N.Y. Yankees in 1960 in his only World Series appearance.
He spent the last three seasons of his career with the Chicago White Sox where, in the days before the designated hitter, Burgess became a baseball oddity. He was the only man paid to do nothing but hit every once in a while. Burgess was in his late 30s by then and he was no longer even a passable major-league catcher. His Chicago contracts specified that he would never be required to catch in a game. They even allowed him to report late on Sundays so the devout Baptist could attend church services. Some teammates wondered whether the contracts allowed Burgess to sleep on the bench during games. Smoky always denied it.
Burgess became a force off the bench. His 20 hits in the pinch in 1966 tied a 30-year-old American League record. When he retired after the following season, at age 40. Burgess was the all-time major-league leader in pinch hits with 145, a mark that would stand until Manny Mota passed it in 1979.
A man of simple tastes, Burgess returned to Rutherford County, to the small brick bungalow in Forest City where he and his wife of 20 years, Margaret, raised their family. He was co-owner of a Dodge dealership in town before joining the Atlanta Braves as a regional scout and minor-league hitting instructor. He was inducted into the N.C. Sports Hall of Fame in 1978.
Burgess died in 1991 at age 64.
[I] Erardi, John. “The Late Smoky Burgess Could Hit in Pinch.” Cincinnati (OH) Enquire, September 17, 1991.
[II] Bass, Mike. Scripps Howard News Service. “Burgess Could Hit With Best.” Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City, OK), September 22, 1991.
[III] Shatzkin, Mike, editor, and Jim Charlton, creator. The Ballplayers: Baseball’s Ultimate Biographical Reference. New York; William Morrow and Co. Inc, 1990. 134
[IV] Sturgill, Andy. “Smoky Burgess.” Society for American Baseball Research. https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/24804821.
[VIII] Grady, Sandy. “Conversation Piece: They Want More Work.” Charlotte (NC) News, October 13, 1954.