Happy Birthday, Buster Burrell!

Frank Burrell was a catcher of the 1890s who caught a young Amos Rusie and a young Christy Mathewson and eventually earned a modicum of fame as he was, if only briefly, the oldest living major leaguer until his death in 1962.

Burrell was born in Weymouth, MA to Andrew Burrell and Eliza Hayden on 22 December 1866 (unless you believe the Massachusetts birth and marriage records that suggest it was 1867).  Andrew Burrell was listed as a boot maker and mechanic in different US censuses, while Eliza Hayden was Andrew’s second wife.  Andrew had four children – one by his first wife, Roxana Joyce, named Alice, then three with Eliza – Frank, Albert, and Fred.  Along the way, Frank earned the nickname Buster which suggests that the small but thick young man carried with him an air of toughness.

Burrell remembered playing baseball around 1888 in Haverill.  By 1891, the first baseman and catcher is listed as a member of a “strong baseball team” with the South Quincy Athletic Association following a season with the Medfords.  By mid-summer, he was courted by the New York Giants where he signed a contract for the final two months of the season to see if he was good enough to play in the majors.

“Burrill has made a good impression among the New Yorks… Catcher Burrill, the new Giant, is a small man for the position, and resembles Morgan Murphy, of the last year’s Boston Brotherhood team.”

Elmira Star-Gazette, 01 August 1891, Page 8.

The rookie catcher may have made a good first impression – until the games started.  His first game was on August 1, 1891 against Brooklyn where the New York Sun suggested he didn’t make a strong first impression.  Over the next nine weeks, he’d appear in 15 games, get just 5 hits in 53 at bats, and allow 11 passed balls to go with 14 errors.

“Burrill has been industriously endeavoring to convince New York baseball patrons that he is not a catcher, and it cannot be denied that his efforts have been crowned with success. He “fights” the ball in receiving it, and gets rattled on the slightest provocation. He, without the slightest assistance, gave two runs to the Philadelphias, and by his unsteady work kept the young pitcher on pins and needles. There seems little reason to doubt that ten or twelve years’ experience in some minor league team would be a good thing for Burrill, considering his poor work behind the bat.”

“Again Honors Were Easy.”, New York Sun, 24 September 1891, Page 4.

Returning to Massachusetts, where his reputation was already strong and likely bolstered by his two month stay with the Giants, he gained the experience he needed and then took a chance on himself by signing a contract with Minneapolis in the Western Association for 1894.  Oddly, the timing was just off – Boston needed a catcher and they were aware of Burrell’s reputation and allegedly ready to make Buster an offer.

Buster Burrell, who did such good work for Fall River last season, was wanted, but he has signed to go to Minneapolis in the Western League. This is where Burrell missed the chance of a lifetime. It was his own fault, as he knew some time ago that the champions would give him a chance, and a chance with a hustling crowd like these men is worth several seasons in the uncertain west, with very weak management.

“Baseball Notes”, Boston Globe, 13 January 1894, Page 2.

The Boston Club is trying to get a catcher to fill Charley Bennett’s place. This will be no easy matter, and the directors would be pleased to see Manager Selee, as they wish to send him on several missions… “Buster” Burrell who did such good work for Fall River last season, was wanted, but he has signed to go to Minneapolis in the Western League.

“Bennett’s Place Is Hard to Fill”, Chicago Inter Ocean, 14 January 1894, Page 8.

In Minneapolis, Burrell played nearly every game – likely setting a league record for games caught.  Once hit three homers and a single in a game on May 13, 1894 off Joe McGinnity.  Chicago and Cincinnati both tried to draft Burrell, but Brooklyn somehow managed to corral him.

Per Charles Byrne: “Burrell is stockily built, is a promising young player, a heavy batter, and is fast on the bases. He is much like Zimmer and Clements, inasmuch as he can catch an entire season through without rest, barring of course any accidents. He holds the record in the Western League as a backstop.”

“Good News For Cranks”, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 21 September 1894, Page 5.

He hardly played in 1895, so Brooklyn sent him to the minors for 1896, only to call him back.  Burrell had a solid spring training in 1896 and got more work. After playing in just 12 games in 1895, Buster played in 62 games during the 1896 season, batting .301 with 11 doubles and three triples in 206 at bats. A note in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (29 July 1896) says he hit the sick list in the summer, after he had spent much of the spring and early summer behind the plate. He fell back to .243 in 1897 and was involved in a transaction that sent Burrell to Syracuse for 1898.

After that, he wandered down the minor league levels (Binghamton, Lewiston, Lowell) until his career ended with Lowell in 1901.

Burrell married Mary Borden on 04 November 1896.  She was the daughter of James Borden and Mary Fitzgerald.  The remained married for the rest of their lives, but had no children.  For several years, Frank’s brother Fred lived with them.  Buster took a number of different jobs over the last fifty years of his life, including chauffeur, laborer at an arsenal, and cement sales.

When it was determined that he was the last living member of the old Giants and the oldest living ball player, he was interviewed by the Boston Globe.  He remembered catching Rusie and Matty – Rusie threw harder and Mathewson, fresh out of college, was a wild but successful pitcher at Taunton.  “He was wild as a hawk.  He’d strike out 10 or 12, but maybe walk five or six.”  As for the biggest difference in the game, he said it was the ball parks. “The ball parks then were as big as race tracks. You don’t see many inside-the-park home runs these days.”

Frank A. (Buster) Burrell, 95, the oldest living former major league baseball player, died Tuesday. He started his baseball career in the old New England League and later played with the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers.

“Buster Burrell Dies”, Hackensack Record, 10 May 1962, Page 49.

Sources:

“Amateur Column.”, Boston Globe, 06 July 1891, Page 3.

“Will Keefe Stay Here?”, New York Sun, 30 July 1891, Page 4.)

Elmira Star-Gazette, 01 August 1891, Page 8.

“Again Honors Were Easy.”, New York Sun, 24 September 1891, Page 4.

“Base Ball Notes”, Boston Globe, 19 July 1892, Page 5.

“Baseball Notes”, Boston Globe, 13 January 1894, Page 2.

“Bennett’s Place Is Hard to Fill”, Chicago Inter Ocean, 14 January 1894, Page 8.

“Good News For Cranks”, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 21 September 1894, Page 5.

“Baseball”, Minneapolis Star Tribune, 16 June 1895, Page 21.

Ashby, Ted. “Oldest Ex-Giant Has Solution for Ted: ‘He Oughtta Quit'”, Boston Globe, 19 May 1960, Page 19.

“Buster Burrell Dies”, Hackensack Record, 10 May 1962, Page 49.

1870, 1880, 1900, 1910,  1920, 1930, 1940 US Censuses

Massachusetts Birth Records; Marriage Records

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s