In memory of George 'Tioga' Burns, a first-base great from the Ruth era, later lived for a time in Port Townsend

Tom Camfield
Posted 10/5/12

For some reason, he didn't make Baseball Hall of Fame

I always enjoyed interviewing old timers wherever I encountered them, which occasionally was in the Delmonico on Water Street. With George …

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In memory of George 'Tioga' Burns, a first-base great from the Ruth era, later lived for a time in Port Townsend

Posted

For some reason, he didn't make Baseball Hall of Fame

I always enjoyed interviewing old timers wherever I encountered them, which occasionally was in the Delmonico on Water Street. With George Burns it was both at Bud O'Meara's Roma Inn or high in the grandstands during local Little League games. The following is for readers heavily into following sports--as well as the dwindling number of local old-timers who may actually have crossed paths with George some 40+ years ago.

George H. Burns was born in 1893. He was nicknamed "Tioga" for having come up through his early baseball years in Tioga, Pennsylvania. He eventually came to Port Towsend not long after retiring as a deputy sheriff in Seattle at age 73 in 1967.

He played with five American League teams from 1914 to 1929--the Detroit Tigers, the Philadelphia Athletics, the Boston Red Sox and the Cleveland Indians (twice), plus a brief stint with the Yankees. He played with or against such legends as Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker.

History regards his 1914-'17 years with Detroit as "unremarkable." But in his first season at Philadelphia in 1918, he hit .352 (surpassed only by Ty Cobb's .382 for Detroit). He also led the AL in hits (178) and total bases (236), set a league record with 109 double plays at first base. After "slipping" to .296 the following year, he was traded to Cleveland.

Burns was platooned at first base during his first season at Cleveland in 1920, including during the World Series. That was the year after the Series "Black Sox" scandal involving, among others, "Shoeless Joe" Jackson--who like Pete Rose has been denied consideration for baseball's Hall of Fame. George started game six with the Indians leading the series 3 games to 2. He doubled home Tris Speaker with the only run of the game as Cleveland won 1-0 to take a 4-2 lead in the 9-game series. The Indians won again the next day to capture the franchise's first-ever Series title.

After having again being platooned at first base with Doc Johnston again in 1921, Burns was traded to the Red Sox. He batted .306 and .328 there the next two seasons and was second in the league in doubles in '23. In 1923, he also turned in an unassisted triple play against his former Indian team--only the fourth such feat in major league history and the only one by a first baseman. He caught a line drive, tagged the runner who was off base--then actually ran to second base to slide in there before the runner who had headed for third.

Traded back to Cleveland, he hit over .300 each of the next four seasons and was regularly among the league leaders in doubles. In 1926 he broke Speaker's existing major league mark of 59 doubles (a record he still shares for right-handers). He also led the league in hits with 216 and was second in runs batted in behind Ruth. For his accomplishments that year he was named league MVP, the first Cleveland player to be so honored; and the following May he was presented an automobile and a silver bat containing $1,050 during ceremonies on a day honoring him.

He carried a news clipping of the day with him the rest of his life, showed it to me during one of my informal interviews, and let me borrow it while doing one of a couple of my stories on him in the Leader--where I was pretty much both inside and "outside man at the skunk works" in those days.

In 1928, George broke the existing AL record of 1,608 games at first base, which still ranks third in league history. Still, he was sent to the Yankees late that year. He played only 13 games in New York, however, before rejoining Philadelphia in 1929. He ended his major league career during another World Series appearance that season--in a great but usual way, entering game 5 as a pinch-hitter with his team down 8-3. He went on to hit twice in a 10-inning game won by the Athletics, with whom he posted his second Series championship.

A great deal of the foregoing is taken from Wikipedia, which also records that in his 16-year season, George hit 72 home runs with 951 RBI in 1866 games played. With 2,018 hits. he at that time trailed only two others in league history among right-handed hitters. His 444 career doubles ranked eighth in major league history among right-handers and fifth among all AL players.

After leaving Philadelphia, George played five years in the Pacific Coast League (leading the league in RBI in 1932) and managed in the minor leagues until 1939. He then became a deputy sheriff in Seattle until retiring in 1967. He left Port Townsend after a time and moved to Bremerton, and we corresponded for a number of years. He died Jan. 7, 1978, in Evergreen Hospital (Kirkland) several weeks before his 85th birthday.

George etched himself into my memory in that relatively brief time many years ago. I have later thought both he and Pete Rose belong in the Hall of Fame. I'm not so sure about Shoeless Joe Jackson. Pete gambled on baseball games while a manager after his playing days, but didn't bet against the team he was managing. Jackson and his teammates threw a World Series.

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Sign in a Tea Party picket line: "Give me wealth care, not health care." (thanks to cartoonist/editorialst David Horsey, Los Angeles Times)

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