Lew Burdette: Nitro, West Virginia to Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, to World Series MVP (Part I)

Burdette after besting NY Yankees, Game 7, 1957 World Series.

Lew Burdette was MVP, 1957 World Series; 1956 National League (NL) ERA leader; 2x NL All-Star (1957, 1959); 1959 NL wins leader; with an August 18, 1960 no-hitter to his credit. This blog highlights his 1950-51 Puerto Rico Winter League (PRWL) season—one that helped the Boston Braves acquire him from the NY Yankees, on August 29, 1951, as a “throw-in” in the deal in which the Yankees paid the Braves $50,000 for Johnny Sain. For other details, please see Burdette’s fine SABR bio by Alex Kupfer:   https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/lew-burdette/.  (Kupfer did not mention Burdette’s stint with Mayagüez.) Some pivotal items for Burdette were:

  • 3-0 with a 0.67 ERA in the 1957 World Series, for Milwaukee, versus the NY Yankees.
  • His first pro season, at 20, began with the 1947 Norfolk Tars, the same club where Hiram Bithorn—Puerto Rico’s first big-league pitcher (1942 Chicago Cubs), but not the Island’s first big-leaguer, also made his pro debut at 20.
  • Nervous mannerisms such as fixing his jersey and hat, wiping his forehead, touching his lips, and talking to himself could, in the words of one of his managers, Fred Haney, “make coffee nervous.” Burdette was rumored to throw a spitball.

Part I concludes with Burdette’s 1950-51 PRWL season. Part II will focus on his big-league highlights including MVP, the 1957 World Series.

Burdette after besting NY Yankees, Game 7, 1957 World Series. Photo credit: www.yahoo.com

Nitro, West Virginia

Nitro’s “claim to fame” originated in World War I, after the U.S. Congress passed the  “Deficiency Appropriations Act” on October 6, 1917. This Act provided for the construction of three huge explosive plants, each capable of producing 500,000 pounds of gunpowder per day. The number-one location picked to build the first plant was a wide section of bottomland along the Great Kanawha River, 14 miles below Charleston, West Virginia’s capital city. Simply put, Nitro became a “boom town.”https://cityofnitro.org/about-nitro-west-virginia/history-of-nitro/

Burdette was born in Nitro, on November 22, 1926, and graduated from Nitro High School, in 1944. His high school did not have a baseball team but he starred in football. And he went 12-2 in an Industrial League, before his six months as an Air Force Reservist in 1945. Burdette enrolled at the University of Richmond and pitched collegiately for the 1946 Richmond Spiders.

Whitey Ford’s 1950 Kansas City Blues Roommate and Harvey Haddix’s Mound Opponent

Burdette was a “prankster,” who liked to have fun. So did Whitey Ford, his roommate, part of the 1950 Kansas City Blues season. The 54-99 Blues were one of 15 minor-league clubs in the Yankees’ 15-team farm system. Ford (6-3 W-L, 3.22 ERA, 12 starts) was the Blues’ ace and continued his fine pitching (9-1 W-L) after being promoted to the 1950 NY Yankees. Conversely, Burdette (7-7, 4.79 ERA, 18 starts, nine relief appearances) struggled. The AAA American Association’s best pitcher was Harvey Haddix, an 18-game winner for the 1950 Columbus Red Birds. “Lew was inconsistent that (AAA) season,” recalled Haddix. “He became a solid starter for the Braves a few years later. In 1959 [May 26] he was my opponent—I retired 36 straight Braves; lost 1-0, when (Félix) Mantilla got on base, on an error, and scored the only run…we pitched complete games—a tough loss.” Burdette pitched a 13-inning CG at County Stadium; allowing 12 hits; fanning two Pirates, with zero walks.

Burdette: 1950-51 Mayagüez Indios

Wayne Blackburn was the second choice to manage the 1950-51 “Tribe.” Jackie Robinson was Mayagüez owner Alfonso Valdés’ first choice but this contract was denied by Commissioner Happy Chandler. Jorge Colón Delgado’s history of the Mayagüez franchise clearly indicated that Jackie Robinson nearly became their 1950-51 skipper. Instead, Valdés hired Wayne Blackburn, who led the 1949-50 Carta Vieja Yankees—Panamá Winter League—to the February 1950 Caribbean Series Title. “We got off to a slow start,” recalled Blackburn. “Valdés encouraged me to add reinforcements via a trip to the (U.S.) mainland. I convinced Lee MacPhail Jr., Farm Director of the Yankees, to let Burdette pitch for Mayagüez; Lee was reluctant at first. The [Detroit] Tigers agreed we could bring George Lerchen, from the Toledo Mud Hens, down.”

Here are some Burdette highlights with Mayagüez:

  • Joined them in early November 1950, after the PRWL season began on October 12, 1950
  • Defeated Ponce Lions and San Juan (SJ) Senators in several of his first few starts
  • Met Jackie Robinson, when Alfonso Valdés hosted Jackie and his wife, Rachel, who were in town for the movie viewing of “The Jackie Robinson Story” (SJ owner Rafael Ramos Cobián also hosted Jackie and Rachel Robinson for the SJ portion of this trip.)
  • Pitched an 11-inning CG win over Ponce and Tite Arroyo, November 22, 1950 (Carlos Bernier drove in the tying run and scored the game-winner)
  • Interacted with Rogers Hornsby, Ponce’s MGR, and Luis R. Olmo, Caguas player-MGR
  • Won his fifth game (5-3 record) after a mid-December 1950 win over SJ
  • Improved to 6-3 with a 4-1 victory over the Aguadilla Sharks, on December 19.

Lou Limmer Episode

Limmer wasn’t available to face Burdette on December 19, 1950. He “escaped” from Aguadilla on December 18, by taking an Aguadilla-to-SJ “publico” (jitney) at 3:30 a.m., and catching a flight to New York City. His main concern was getting back pay from 1949-50, and he finally received it. Limmer was a fine PRWL hitter, who led the 1950 American Association with 29 HR and 111 RBI, for the St. Paul Saints, Brooklyn’s top minor-league club, one of its 24 minor-league teams. Limmer opined: “Burdette’s pitching improved with Mayagüez.” Limmer was suspended from playing winter ball but returned to the 1955-56 PRWL to help Caguas win the post-season playoffs. Tables I-II include some of Burdette’s 1950-51 stats.

Table I: Mayagüez 1950-51 Pitchers

L. Burdette8-6.57153
R. Lint4-4.50042
A. Alicea3-6.33315
A. Alonso3-11.21425
A. Perry1-1.50012
W. Morales1-2.33313
D. Roselló1-2.3336
N. Irizarry1-5.16725
C. Conde1-8.11128
W. Fields0-2.0009
Other (7)1-4.25020

Source: 1950-51 Don Q Baseball Cues.

Table II: 1950-51 PRWL Most Wins and K’s

Mike ClarkCaguas14Pete WojeyAguadilla116
Tite ArroyoPonce13José G. SantiagoPonce111
Rubén GómezSanturce13Tite ArroyoPonce94
Manolo CáceresCaguas12Mike ClarkCaguas77
José G. SantiagoPonce11Rubén GómezSanturce61
Roberto VargasCaguas10Roberto VargasCaguas61
Pete WojeyAguadilla10Bill PowellSanturce57
Bill PowellSanturce9Cot DealSan Juan (SJ)55
Lew BurdetteMayagüez8Lew BurdetteMayagüez53

Source: 1950-51 Don Q Baseball Cues.

December 26, 1950, PRWL All-Star Game

Only two pitchers received more fan votes than Burdette—Tite Arroyo and José “Pantalones” Santiago per Table III. Burdette started for the Imports, comprised of Stateside players, with the exception of backup catcher Griffin Tirado. Imports’ MGR George Scales got PRWL permission to add Tirado to the Imports, who were defeated, 5-1, by the Natives (Puerto Rican and Dominican players). Burdette gave up a run in his two innings. Caguas’ Mike Clark took the loss. Table IV is a mythical 1950s PRWL All-Star Team, solely based on single-season BA.

Table III: December 26, 1950 PRWL All-Star Game—Imports-Natives

Imports (1R-6H-1E)LP-Clark#FanNatives (5R-8H-1E)WP-Vargas#Fan
Clint Courtney-CPonce8500Joe Montalvo-CSJ5584
George Crowe-1B&Caguas6441Nino Escalera-1BSJ7059
Gene Markland-2BCaguas6441Carlos Santiago-2BMayagüez7062
Bill Skowron-3BPonce6586Vic Power-3BCaguas7332
Stan Breard-SSCaguas6608Jaime Almendro-SSSJ5632
George Lerchen-LF!Mayagüez6342Luis R. Olmo-LFCaguas4928
Willard Brown-CFSanturce6342Canena Márquez-CFAguadilla4797
Bob Thurman-RFSanturce4092Carlos Bernier-RFMayagüez3822
Lew BurdetteMayagüez7604Tite ArroyoPonce8133
Mike ClarkCaguas5662José G. SantiagoPonce7851
Cot DealSJ5584Roberto VargasCaguas6673
Bill PowellSanturce4905Rubén GómezSanturce5329
Pete WojeyAguadilla3681Manuel CáceresCaguas4862
Bob ThurmanSanturce3562Milton RalatAguadilla-SJ3541
Griffin Tirado-CPonce Luis St. Claire-CCaguas 
Alonzo Perry-1BMayagüez José A. Burgos-3BPonce 
Junior Gilliam-2BSanturce Coco Ferrer-SSSanturce 
Buster Clarkson-SSSanturce Alfonso Gerard-OFSanturce 
Jim Russell-OFSJ Jim Rivera-OFCaguas 
Al Gerheauser-PPonce Pancho CoímbrePoncecoach
Roy HughesCaguascoachMonchile ConcepciónSanturcecoach
Dick SeaySanturcecoachFellé DelgadoSJcoach
George ScalesSanturceMGRLuis R. OlmoCaguasMGR

#Fans voted for POS players-pitchers. &Crowe replaced Lou Limmer. !Lerchen replaced Taft Wright. Sources: The Sporting News, January 3, 1951; 1950-51 Don Q Baseball Cues.

Table IV: PRWL Mythical All-Star Team—1950s—Single-Season BA

Dixie HowellCMayagüez1954-5522776.335
George Crowe1BCaguas1950-51285107.375
Jack Dittmer2BSJ1951-5219965.327
Rance Pless3BCaguas1955-5621773.336
Bill HarrellSSSanturce1957-5820866.317
Roberto Clemente!RFSanturce-C1956-5722589.396
Willie MaysCFSanturce1954-5517268.395
George LerchenLFMayagüez1950-5114353.371
Bob Thurman#PSanturce1950-51309112.362
Totals   1985709.357

Clemente was sold to Caguas, late December 1956. #Thurman pitched and

played RF. Sources: Héctor Barea, 1981, and José Crescioni Benítez, 1997.

Blackburn and Burdette are Released

Burdette ended 1950 with his seventh win—4-3 victory over first-place Caguas, on December 29. Luis R. Olmo, their player-MGR, was impressed with Burdette. “I played for the 1950 Boston Braves,” noted Olmo, who also scouted for them in Puerto Rico. “I alerted [Lou] Perini (principal owner, Boston Braves), that Burdette was a good pitcher.”

Blackburn was fired pre-New Year’s Day and replaced with 1B Alonzo “His Majesty” Perry, in a cost-cutting move. Perry and Lerchen were the team’s best hitters. Burdette won his final game in a Mayagüez uniform, 4-1 over last-place Aguadilla, on January 2, 1951 but unconditionally released 10 days later, with an 8-6 record. Fans and radio commentators “raised a howl.”

Mayagüez GM Babel Pérez, stated, in January 31, 1951, The Sporting News: “Failure of our club to win games was the sole reason for dropping Burdette. He did a good job and his efforts were appreciated by us but he received a letter from the Yankees asking him to report to Spring Training on February 15, 1951, so we decided he ought to take a rest.” Alfonso Valdés added: “Burdette is one of the best players I had on my club. Maybe he feels that we treated him unfairly when we released him but I am sure the rest he will have before joining the Yankees’ spring training camp will do him a lot of good. We saw to it that we didn’t overwork Burdette in giving him pitching assignments, realizing that his future is just ahead with the Yankees. The Mayagüez organization wishes the boy only the best of luck.”

Mayagüez catcher Luis “King Kong” Villodas—Puerto Rico’s first big-league catcher, having played for the 1946 and 1947 Baltimore Elite Giants—had a favorable impression of catching Burdette in 1950-51. “Lew took his starts very seriously,” affirmed Villodas. “I recall a Three Kings Day (January 6, 1951) game against Santurce, when Bob Thurman shut us out [2-0]. Lew gave it his best and was disappointed—and so were we—that we did not score any runs for him.”

Grateful acknowledgment to Lew Burdette for his written responses to the author’s questions, in 1992. Thanks to Joey Black, Wayne Blackburn, Harvey Haddix, George Lerchen, Lou Limmer, Luis R. Olmo, and Luis “King Kong” Villodas. Jorge Colón Delgado, Official Historian, of the Roberto Clemente Professional Baseball League, and Coordinator, of the Puerto Rico Professional Baseball Hall of Fame, did the editing-photo placements, and proofing.

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