On a June afternoon, the tall and gangling catcher heard the call to pinch hit for Curt Simmons. He played in games with the Phillies before, but only as a pinch runner. This time he’d get to bat. Joe Nuxhall pitched for the Reds that day – a cagey lefty who remains the answer to a trivia question (“Who is the youngest person to play in a major league game?”) – and, unlike many of his earlier starts that season, Nuxhall was winning and pitching well. Picking out a pitch he liked, a quick, well-timed swing lined a shot right back up the middle. Standing at first base, Mack Burk smiled. He was batting 1.000.
In the fifteen games Burk played in 1956, that was his lone at bat. He got to catch in one inning, too. Usually he just pinch ran for Del Ennis or Solly Hemus or Andy Seminick, but such was the life of a bonus baby. From 1953 to 1957, players taken right out of school who signed for larger sums of money had to spend two full seasons on the major league roster – even if that player wasn’t ready for major league action. Matt Burk signed for $40,000 – $10,000 at signing, and the remaining to be delivered every year for the next three years.
Some of the bonus babies panned out. Al Kaline was ready to play in the majors right away. A couple of others were able to do a little here and there until they could contribute regularly – like Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Lindy McDaniel, Clete Boyer, and Harmon Killebrew. Most, however, struggled to find playing time – and Mack Burk was one of those players.
Mack Edwin Burk was born on 21 April 1935 to Edwin Britton Burk and Vernie Vauline (McClain) Burk in Nacogdoches, TX. According to the 1940 US Census, Edwin was a cigar salesman while Vernie was a homemaker. In later years, they moved to the Houston area where Edwin would take a job with Mechanics Uniform Supply. Dad was a baseball fan and played semi-professional baseball, a love he imparted to his son. Mack played for his Stephen F. Austin High School team – but his height (he stood 6-4) also meant that he would play basketball. His play at state tournaments where Burk was a second team all-star that earned Mack a scholarship to the University of Texas in Austin. He chose Texas because he could play both sports.
He just wouldn’t play for long. He played baseball and basketball on the freshman teams. As a sophomore, Burk worked his way into the rotation on a very young basketball team. Earning his first start against the Rice Owls, Burk collided with another player trying to position for a rebound and broke his collar bone. That injury cost him the remainder of the basketball season and the baseball season.
As he had done after his freshman year, Burk would return home and play for a fantastic amateur baseball team sponsored by his father’s Mechanics Uniform Supply company. For a while, he’d play shortstop, third base, or first base, but frequently he would play catcher – despite his long limbs, Burk had a strong arm and quick movements. In 1954 and 1955 Mechanics Uniform Supply won the national American Baseball Congress tournament held in Battle Creek, Michigan. That second year, the scouts paid attention to Burk – he homered twice, batted over .500 in games played in both the regional tournament in Cushing, OK and the national finals in Battle Creek, and came home to several offers to quit school and play baseball.
Teams showing an interest in the lanky catcher included the Yankees, Indians, Giants, Athletics, Tigers, and Cardinals. Bonus offers ranged from $20,000 to $36,000. The winning offer came from a team that had built its Whiz Kids roster on bonus babies – the Philadelphia Phillies. Robert Carpenter, Jr. authorized his scout, Hap Morse, to offer $40,000 and, with his parents watching, Burk signed the deal. One of his best friends also signed a deal that night. Pitcher Jack Schultea, who signed a bonus with the Cardinals in 1954 but was returned after showing signs of a wounded arm, showed enough form with Mechanics Uniform to get a second signing bonus with the Phillies.
As an aside, when the former Longhorn landed the big bonus a writer for the Austin Daily Texan, the student newspaper, asked Bibb Falk about Burk. Falk said that his first year was unspectacular and he remembered little about Burk as a player.
Burk headed to Clearwater, FL for spring training. In the past, previous Phillies bonus babies didn’t receive kind welcomes from the veterans. Tom Qualters took away a roster spot from Jackie Mayo, and many players resented Qualters. One clubhouse attendant deliberately gave him a uniform that was too small, and when Qualters asked for a better fitting outfit, the attendant – nicknamed “Unk” – told him to wear the uniform or leave. Fred Van Dusen refused his bonus so he could play in the minors rather than sit – but the Phillies’ veterans still weren’t very kind to him. He rarely got time in the batting cages, and eventually got just a single plate appearance with the Phillies. Van Dusen was hit by a pitch – and thus never got an official at bat nor played in the field before being shipped to the minors permanently.
Thankfully, the attitude toward bonus babies changed with Burk. Catcher Andy Seminick was already thirty-five years old and didn’t see Burk as a threat to take his job. Seminick paired with coach Benny Bengough to teach Burk how to be a major league backstop. Batting coach Wally Moses regularly gave Burk pointers on keeping his body behind his swing and tried to even out Burk’s long but quick swing – except for a three or four week period where a line drive off Burk’s bat clipped Moses on his left leg just below the hip and chipped a bone.
Burk spent all of 1956 with the Phillies, returned for spring training in 1957 where he was given the unenviable task of trying to catch Granny Hamner’s knuckleball (none of the regular catchers had to do it as often as Burk), but didn’t stay with the team for long. In May, the one-time third platoon cadet at the University of Texas Army ROTC signed up for a six-month hitch with the U.S. Army. Private Burk went to training and missed the rest of the 1957 season. In 1958, Burk returned for his third spring training, but the bonus baby rule had been rescinded. Near the end of spring training, Burk was optioned to Tulsa, but played there only briefly at the AAA level before being optioned a second time to A level Williamsport, PA.
For the first time in his career – his third season – Burk finally got regular playing time. There was a brief break – a series of injuries to catchers required Burk to return to Philadelphia for about a week. He got to pinch hit once, struck out, and then went back to Williamsport once Stan Lopata returned to play. Still, Burk appeared in over 100 games with the three teams, batted .236, and showed some promise. In 1959, he played well enough with Williamsport – .269, a good on base percentage, and seven homers in just 182 at bats – to get promoted to AAA Buffalo, where he was a backup catcher on a team that won the International League championship (one teammate there was Dallas Green). Prior to the promotion, Burk had a two-homer game and a five-hit game – it was a fine season.
Heading into the 1960 season, Burk was at a career crossroads. He didn’t want to hang around in the minors forever – but he didn’t have a job either. Burk remembered sitting in the den with his parents when his dad said he might as well play for one more season. So, Burk went to spring training, earned a job with the Asheville Tourists in the South Atlantic (SALLY) League, and got the most playing time of his career. In 114 games, he batted .281, only fanned 32 times in 451 at bats, had 25 doubles, and drove in 46 runs. Normally a catcher with a line like that would be a prospect. Burk, however, was no longer a prospect.
One wonders what might have happened had Burk’s career gone in a different order. Instead of starting with the Phillies, if he could have started in low A ball, found his game and learned some skills, would he have been playing with the Phillies in 1960 rather than the Tourists? A catcher with some ability to hit would have been a valuable commodity. In Burk’s case, the Bonus Baby rule likely killed his career. He was 25 – in five seasons of baseball he had gone from a major leaguer to the low minors. He once lived his dream, but there was no real future. Burk decided to go home.
Years earlier, Burk invested his bonus money in a cattle ranch with his father, but Burk wasn’t meant to be a rancher. Instead, he took a job in electrical supplies (he spent more than 35 years in the industry), got married, and spent his days in and around the Houston area.
Sam Zygner: “Phillies Bonus Babies, 1953–57”, in Morris Levin, ed.: From Swampoodle to South Philly: Baseball in Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley, The National Pastime, SABR, 2013, pp. 92-97.
“Grays Trail by Two Games, Open Home Stand Tonight”, Lock Haven Express, 1 June 1959, Page 9.
“Eastern League”, Lebanon Daily News, 6 May 1959, Page 10.
“Burk Sworn in Army”, Findlay Republican Courier, 4 May 1957, Page 14.
Borowsky, Ben. “Phillies Are Banking On Bonus Baby Behind Plate”, Bristol Daily Courier, 7 March 1957, Page 17.
“Hamner Impressive With Knuckler”, Dubuque Telegraph Herald, 6 March 1957, Page 13.
“25 Bonus Babies Will Stick Whether They Make It or Not”, Waco News Tribune, 12 April 1956, Page 38.
“Former UT Cager Inks With Phillies”, Austin Daily Texan, 27 September 1955, Page 3.
“Phils Fork Up Wad For Burk”, San Antonio Light, 25 September 1955, Page 49.
“Owls Smash Steers, 79-70” Abilene Reporter News, 9 February 1955, Page 90.
Lewis, Allen. “Anderson, Farrell Lighten Gloom Over Phils’ Injuries”, The Sporting News, 18 June 1958, Page 13.
“Phillie Fodder”, The Sporting News, 13 November 1957, Page 18.
Morrow, Art. “‘Easy Does It’ Robin Shows His Old Form”, The Sporting News, 27 June 1956, Page 18.
“Phil Filups”, The Sporting News, 13 June 1956, Page 13.
Morrow, Art. “Burk, Latest Phil Find, Flashes Dash of Dickey Behind the Dish”, The Sporting News, 7 March 1956, Page 15.
Morrow, Art. “Phils to Keep Inking ‘Good’ Bonus Babies”, The Sporting News, 30 November 1955, Page 23.
“Deals of the Week”, The Sporting News, 12 October 1955, Page 29.