Burrus, Dick

Position: First base
Birthplace: Hatteras

First, Middle Names: Maurice Lennon   Nicknames: Dick

Date of Birth:  Jan 29, 1898    Date and Place of Death: Feb. 2, 1972, Elizabeth City, NC
Burial: New Hollywood Cemetery, Elizabeth City

High School: Elizabeth City High School, Oak Ridge Academy, Oak Ridge, NC
College: N.C. State University, Raleigh, NC

Bats: L             Throws: L        Height and Weight: 5-11, 175
Debut Year: 1919       Final Year: 1928          Years Played: 6
Teams and Years: Philadelphia Athletics, 1919-20; Boston Braves, 1925-28

Career Summary
G         AB       H         R          RBI      HR       BA.      OBP.    SLG.     WAR
560     1760    513      206      211      11       .291     .247     .373     0.9      

Cornelius McGillicuddy, the manager and part owner of the Philadelphia Athletics, was a hard man to impress. Few men would ever match Connie Mack, as he was known to all, as a judge of baseball talent. He would remain in the game for more than 50 years as a player, manager or owner, acquiring nicknames along the way that reflected what his contemporaries thought of his acumen — The Tall Tactician, the Tall Tutor and the Great Old Man of Baseball.

Mack traveled down to Columbia, South Carolina, in June 1919 to check out a talented, 21-year-old minor-league first baseman. Dick Burrus got five hits that day and fielded his position with the grace that reminded Mack of Hal Chase, a peerless first baseman who was in the last year of a 15-year career. Reserved by nature and calculating in his evaluation of talent, Mack was reduced to a gushing suitor.[I]

“When I signed Burrus, I believed I was getting the greatest first sacker the Athletic club ever had,” Mack later remembered. “I said he wouldn’t be just a good player, but a player who will get big, black headlines.”[II]

Mack bought Burrus from the Columbia Comers in the Class C South Atlantic League for the unheard price of $5,000, or about $75,000 in current dollars. He later said he would have gone as high as $25,000, or almost $400,00 when adjusted for inflation.

It was real money, more than most men in Hatteras saw in a decade of fishing. Maurice Lennon Burrus grew up in the remote fishing village on an island of the same name that was a day’s sale from the N.C. mainland. Hatteras Island had yet to be marketed to the world as a part of the famed Outer Banks. Burrus would be the only person from the region to play in the major leagues.

He was the youngest of seven children. Their father, Capt. Dozier Burrus, was a well-respected elder who had been the keeper of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in the mid-1870s, soon after it got its famous black and white stripes. Their mother, Achsah, died when Burrus was five. The family moved to Elizabeth City, North Carolina, on the mainland in 1909 so that the kids could get a better education.

A teacher at the local high school, where Burrus first showed real talent on the baseball diamond, suggested he transfer to Oak Ridge Academy in Guilford County, more than 300 miles west. The private military school had become something of a cradle for major-league players.[1]

Burrus finished high school at Oak Ridge and received a partial athletic scholarship to attend what is now N.C. State University. He arrived in Raleigh in 1916 intending to study textile engineering, but World War I intervened. Burrus was drafted into the Army and spent two years at a base in Georgia.

He returned to State to play the last three games of the 1918 football season — he was on the team that Georgia Tech humiliated 128-0. Burrus played the entire baseball season the following spring and was signed by Columbia when it ended.

Within a few weeks of his signing, Dick Burrus from a far-off fishing village on the North Carolina coast, was heading to Philadelphia as a major leaguer. Mack wanted him at Shibe Park for the first game of a Sunday doubleheader, but Burrus got off the train at the wrong station and arrived during the second game. He walked into the A’s dugout just as George Burns, the team’s star first baseman, launched a deep home run. Mack intended to move Burns to the outfield to make room for his promising rookie.

“Burrus’ first words were, ‘What a hit that was. Who was the batter?’” Mack remembered. “When he was told the hitter was George Burns, the player he had been signed to succeed, his face fell. I will always believe that this entrance licked him. He had been signed to take the place of a man who in his first view of a major-league ball game had hit one of the longest homers he had ever seen. ‘What chance have I?’ he must have thought.”[III]

Burrus hit a respectable .258 that season for a hapless team that lost 104 games. His average, however, dropped more than 70 points after 71 games in 1920. Mack had seen enough and shipped Burrus back to the minors. “He was no more like the Burrus I saw at Columbia than a harmonica resembles a piano,” he said.[IV]

During the next four years, Burrus built a strong minor-league resume. His .365 average and near flawless play at first base in 1924 led the Atlanta Crackers to the Class A Southern Association pennant.

Having earned another shot at the majors, Burrus seemed to be reaching the potential that Mack envisioned. Playing in all 152 games for the Boston Braves in 1925, Burrus hit .340, ranking third in the National League. He rapped out 200 hits, including 50 for extra bases, and drove in a career-high 87 runs.

Hernias, not a destroyed psyche, stopped him. He played another three years in Boston, but hobbled by abdominal hernias, his playing time and numbers decreased each year. Though he hit .318 in 1927, Burrus played in less than half of the Braves’ games. He played two more years in the minors before being released in 1930. His .291 lifetime batting average ranks as ninth among North Carolina players with at least 1,000 at bats.

Burrus owned a restaurant in Atlanta for a time before moving with his wife, Beck, back to Hatteras. He was an oil distributor and fish dealer on Hatteras Island and was elected to the Dare County commissioners.  Burrus died of lung cancer a few days past his 74th birthday in 1972.

His daughters, Dixie Burrus Browning and Mary Burrus Williams, are prolific writers and artists. Dixie Browning has written more than 100 romance and historical novels, mostly about life on the Outer Banks. The sisters have collaborated on several works of fiction under the pen name Bronwyn Williams, a combination of their married names.

Footnote
[1] Oak Ridge’s Coach Earl Holt had already sent pitchers George Suggs, Dixie Davis and Jakie May to the majors. Wes Ferrell and his Hall of Fame brother, Rick, would come later.

References
[I] “Mack Very Fond of Dick Burrus.” Charlotte (NC) News, June 23, 1919.
[II] Ison, Wade. “The Isonglass.” Charlotte (NC) News, April 6, 1931.
[III] Ibid.
[IV] Ibid.