Originally published on the Society for American Baseball Research.
Perfect execution usually equals success in baseball. For Jim Burton, one slider that dipped low and away sent him into the pantheon of World Series goats.
Jim Scott Burton was born to Hubert and Alyce Burton on October 27, 1949, in Royal Oak, Michigan, a suburb 15 miles north of Detroit. Hubert Burton was a plant supervisor when Jim was born. He later owned a tool and die business. Growing up in Michigan with two brothers, Robert and Jeffrey, Burton enjoyed playing team sports, particularly baseball in the summer and hockey in the winter, as well as hunting and trapping. He developed his arm strength by pitching a lot when he was young, though it was not his plan to become a major-league baseball player one day.
The young lefty won championships in Little League, Youth League, and American Legion. When his Detroit Federation team won the All-American Baseball Association tournament in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in 1969, Burton won recognition as the team’s most valuable player.
Burton was awarded six letters in football and basketball while attending Rochester High School in Rochester Hills, Michigan. But scouts began to take notice of Burton’s baseball ability and his hometown Detroit Tigers chose him with their 26th-round pick in the 1967 amateur draft. Still not envisioning a baseball career for himself, Burton declined the Tigers’ offer and enrolled in the University of Michigan. While playing in Ann Arbor, Burton shattered records and advanced from a middle-round pick to the head of the class.
By the end of his college career, Burton had struck out 288 batters in 228 innings, shattering the previous Wolverines record. He tossed a no-hitter against the University of Wisconsin in 1971, the first one thrown by a Michigan pitcher in 88 years. Burton graduated in 1971.
One of the biggest winners in college baseball in his senior year with a Michigan-record 1.48 earned-run average, Burton was named to The Sporting News’ 1971 All-American baseball team along with Ohio University’s Mike Schmidt and Burt Hooton of the University of Texas. With his record-breaking college career coming to a close, Burton was a highly-regarded prospect. The Boston Red Sox chose the Michigan hurler in the first round (fifth overall) in the 1971 secondary draft.
Burton kicked off his professional career later that month, pitching for Pawtucket (then of the Double-A Eastern League), throwing a three-hitter against Quebec City in a 7-0 victory. He retired the first 15 batters before issuing his only walk of the game. Burton kept his no-hitter into the seventh inning. He became a feared pitcher in the Eastern League, shutting down offenses and being called “Pawtucket’s prize southpaw” by The Sporting News.
Burton’s scoreless streak stretched to 25 innings before Andre Thornton of Reading hit a two-run home run off a hanging curveball in the eighth inning to beat Burton and Pawtucket, 3-1, on July 5. Burton was undeterred and continued blazing a scorching path through the league for a team that sat near the bottom of the Eastern League. He finished the season 7-5. “I feel now like I’m starting to make progress,” Burton told The Sporting News.
Burton remained in Pawtucket in 1972 and made the Eastern League All-Star team along with teammate Rick Burleson. He was the first Eastern League hurler to win 10 games and was rewarded in August with a call-up to Louisville of the Triple-A International League. While Pawtucket struggled at the bottom of the league, the Louisville club was fighting for a pennant. In his first start, Burton shut down Syracuse as Dwight Evans slugged his sixth home run in a month to give the Colonels a 6-1 win.
Though Burton was playing for a better team, the improved talent in the International League slowed the 6-foot-3-inch pitcher’s progress. Burton was 2-4 with a 4.78 ERA in six appearances for Louisville, which topped the circuit. After a stint in the Florida Instructional League, Burton’s 1973 campaign further delayed his rise in the Red Sox system. He played out the full year in Double-A and struggled with back injuries, compiling a 4-11 record with an ERA of more than five runs per nine innings. He gave up more walks than strikeouts and more hits than innings pitched.
After a slow start in 1974 with Pawtucket (now the Red Sox’ Triple-A affiliate), Burton resurrected his career, throwing a two-hitter and striking out 18 against Charleston in June. In Pawtucket, Burton was known as much for his community service as for his slider. Before an August game against Syracuse, the Big Brothers Association of Rhode Island honored Burton along with pitchers Craig Skok and Rick Kreuger and player-coach Tony Torchia. Frank Lanning, sports cartoonist for the Providence Journal-Bulletin, said, “These young men are just passing through this community, but whatever their athletic future, their sense of civic responsibilities will make them assets wherever they live.”
The Pawtucket team suffered from a bipolar offense, even though it sported future superstars Fred Lynn and Jim Rice. The team led the league in home runs but finished sixth (of eight teams) in runs. Burton’s final record in 1974 (7-13) did not impress, but his comeback in the second half placed him back into the major-league club’s future plans.
After pitching for Arecibo in Puerto Rico during the winter, Burton went to spring training with a chance to make the 1975 Red Sox. The baseball fields of Winter Haven, Florida, were an exciting place in the spring of ’75. The two young rookies Rice and Lynn showed promise and the Red Sox already enjoyed an experienced team that had recently fallen just short of the pennant.
Though the team was loaded both with offensive pop and experienced starters, the bullpen needed help and the team watched their young arms closely. Burton’s hopes of making the team were quickly squelched when he was sent to the minor-league camp in March. While playing for manager Joe Morgan in Pawtucket, Burton continued to advance. After six starts, he was among the league leaders in ERA (1.24). His injury problems seemed behind him and he told The Sporting News in May that he was effectively using the corners of the plate. “If I make a mistake, I want it to be called a ball. I don’t want to make mistakes over the plate,” Burton said.
Burton’s wildness, which had been primarily responsible for keeping him out of the major leagues, seemed a thing of the past. He struck out more than double the number of men he walked. While Burton prepared for his June 8 start against Tidewater, Boston reporters wrote about the young lefty in Pawtucket. His recall seemed imminent.
“Sure it was disappointing,” Burton told The Sporting News about the wait. “But a lot of times things appear in the newspapers that don’t quite work out that way, so I just began to accept it. But with the way I’m pitching, I’m sure I’ll make it up there. It’s just not going to happen that quickly.”
Burton was wrong. It would happen immediately after his masterpiece against the Tides. The lefty needed only 100 pitches to no-hit the Mets’ farm club. Only twice did he even go to a 3-and-2 count, showing his newfound control. For nine innings Burton kept the Tides guessing. Mixing his pitches well, Burton struck out ten before just 600 fans at McCoy Stadium in a game that took one hour and 45 minutes. The only baserunner was shortstop Mark DeJohn, whom Burton hit with a pitch in the fourth. The Sporting News reported that the Pawtucket twirler had “mastered the art of nibbling at the corners of the plate.” After the game, Burton said, “I feel like I’m ready to pitch in the big leagues. I have a good idea of what I’m doing out there on the mound and I feel like my concentration is better now.”
Burton’s success was not lost on the Red Sox, who called him up the next day to fortify their pitching corps. After a one-two-three appearance as a reliever against Texas at Fenway Park on June 10, manager Darrell Johnson gave Burton his first start on June 12, and he lost to the Chicago White Sox, giving up six runs in 5⅓ innings. In another start four days later, he excelled while pitching 9⅓ innings against Detroit. Taking on another lefty, Mickey Lolich, Burton surrendered six hits and two runs in a game the Sox won 6-2 in 12 innings.
Burton was hammered in a June 23 start against Cleveland and didn’t get out of the first inning. He picked up a victory in relief on July 11 and got one more start, in August (a no-decision), but was otherwise used exclusively out of the bullpen the rest of the year. Burton shined as a reliever. In 25 relief appearances, his ERA was 2.58. His strikeout-to-walk ratio was almost three to one out of the bullpen. He gave up more hits than innings pitched, but the young hurler wriggled out of trouble because of his newfound control and pitch selection.
The Red Sox players understood Burton’s importance, later voting him a full World Series share. After the Red Sox swept the powerhouse Oakland A’s without Burton ever throwing a pitch in the American League Championship Series, they took on the Cincinnati Reds.
Burton remained in the bullpen for the first two games, in Boston, but hurled in Game Three, more than three weeks after the last time he had pitched. He threw to two batters, Ken Griffey and Joe Morgan, after relieving Rick Wise in the fifth. He walked Griffey and Morgan hit a sacrifice fly. With that, Johnson yanked the lefty for Reggie Cleveland. Burton did not pitch in Games Four, Five, and the historic Game Six (Carlton Fisk’s dramatic home run), but the lefty reliever was summoned in Game Seven.
With the game tied in the top of the ninth and Jim Willoughby having been lifted for a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the eighth, Darrell Johnson chose the only lefty remaining in the bullpen, Burton, rather than stopper Dick Drago. Drago had thrown three innings in Game Six. Johnson saw the left-handed Ken Griffey and Cesar Geronimo, the first two hitters of the inning, and decided to play the lefty-versus-lefty percentages rather than go with Drago.
In Doug Hornig’s book The Boys of October, Burton relayed his feelings warming up in the Fenway Park bullpen. “Warming up, my whole body went numb. It was surreal, like an out-of-body experience. In those days, they’d send a golf cart to bring you in, and when it came for me, I knew I couldn’t ride in it. I had to trot in from the bullpen just to feel my feet on the ground. Otherwise, I might have floated away.”
Burton’s arm was stiff and sore from cold and inactivity. “I wasn’t ready. I’d hardly pitched all the previous month. I was rusty. When I was warming up, I couldn’t get loose. I could tell I didn’t have anything,” he said. The two batters he faced in the third game represented his only work in 33 days, since September 20.
Feeling nervous and rusty is not the prescription for success and Burton promptly walked the leadoff man, Griffey. Expecting a bunt and trying to keep Griffey close, Burton threw over to first. When he finally delivered to Geronimo, the center fielder sacrificed Griffey to second. Dan Driessen grounded to second for the second out, sending Griffey to third. With the switch-hitting Pete Rose up next, Johnson visited the mound and advised Burton to keep the ball away from Charlie Hustle. Burton gave Rose a diet of curveballs that remained outside the strike zone and the Red ran down to first base with a base on balls.
With runners on first and third and two outs, Burton’s job did not get easier. Up stepped Joe Morgan, who would be named the 1975 National League Most Valuable Player. Morgan recalled in his book Joe Morgan: A Life in Baseball that he was working with Lew Fonseca on keeping his weight back as long as possible on breaking balls. With a 1-and-2 count, Burton and catcher Carlton Fisk decided on a late-breaking slider low and outside. The pitch was where Burton wanted it – a pitcher’s pitch. Against most players, the young lefty would have walked off the mound to a raucous ovation, but he was taking on the National League’s Most Valuable Player.
Morgan reached out with his bat, swiping at the sphere spinning down and away from him. “I knew I did not get good wood on the ball. I could feel the dead heaviness of the ball against the bat. I saw a blur of white heading toward center field and as I ran I watched it hit the ground,” recalled Morgan in his autobiography.
Morgan told reporters after the game that he would not have hit the ball a couple of years earlier. Burton made his pitch and Morgan acknowledged that the late-breaking slider was nasty, but that brought little consolation to Burton or to Red Sox fans, who had waited nearly 60 years for a World Series title. The Reds had taken the lead and Johnson removed his young pitcher, who left the Fenway Park mound for the final time.
Speaking to reporters after the game, Burton tipped his cap to Morgan: “The pitch that Morgan hit was a very good pitch, a slider low and away, right where I wanted it. Give the man credit for hitting it. I don’t think I could’ve made a better pitch. I can’t say, ‘Gosh, I shouldn’t have thrown that pitch’ or ‘I should’ve thrown it to another location.’”
In the high drama of the baseball clubhouse after the game, Burton placed his pitch and the ultimate result into perspective. “I’m not going around hanging my head about it. It’s not like I killed a person,” Burton told reporters.
Looking back nearly 30 years later, Burton still believed he made the right pitch. “It was the best slider I ever threw. A great pitch. I put everything I had into it. Everything. It was right at Morgan, and you can see him initially bailing out on it. … Then, when he realized it was going to be over the plate, he just kind of threw his bat at it,” Burton told Hornig.
Though Burton’s outing would be placed alongside other disappointing finishes for the Red Sox, the team publicly spoke in glowing terms about their 26-year-old rookie. “I know this,” Ed Kenney, the minor-league director, told The Sporting News after the World Series. “You haven’t seen what Burton can do yet. He’s a lot better than anyone gives him credit for.”
There were trade rumors in the offseason involving Burton, but when spring came he was back in Winter Haven fighting for a job. The club figured Burton would either share left-handed bullpen duty with Tom House or possibly fill the fifth starter role.
While 21-year-old phenom Don Aase impressed in spring training, Burton struggled in Florida. The Sporting News said he “can’t seem to live down giving up the winning hit in the ninth inning of the World Series.” His struggle allowed 20-year-old Rick Jones to fill the second left-hander slot in the bullpen and Burton, who gave up 17 hits in three appearances, was assigned to Pawtucket.
Burton said he was surprised by the demotion. “The equipment manager at spring training took my stuff and put it into a cardboard box. I thought that epitomized me. One day you’re a celebrity, the next day you’re anonymous. One day you’re in the majors – all first class – then you’re here in the minors where it’s sort of dog eat dog,” Burton told the Washington Post in 1978.
His struggles continued in Pawtucket and reporters openly wondered if Burton was done. “Physically, I’m really OK. It’s just a matter of some mechanical things that I have to get straightened out. Like on the curveball, I have to get more in a groove on my release point. The trouble is that all this should be natural and I shouldn’t really have to think about it. When you start thinking on the mound about exactly how you’re throwing, then you get into trouble,” he told The Sporting News. Burton led the International League in starts, but also struggled with his control, outpacing other hurlers in walks and runs given up while compiling a 5.59 ERA.
The next season, after pitching for Bayamon in Puerto Rico over the winter, Burton bounced back after being briefly sent to the Pawtucket bullpen because of wildness. He led the Pawtucket staff in innings, strikeouts, and fewest hits allowed per nine innings. Down the stretch, he went 4-1 with a 1.54 ERA as Pawtucket raced to the International League title. The Red Sox rewarded Burton with a call-up in September. Nearly two years after his career-altering pitch to Joe Morgan, Burton threw 2⅔ scoreless innings of relief against the Orioles in Baltimore on September 17, 1977.
Burton had clawed his way back to the majors, but his descent would not take nearly as long. He couldn’t know that the brief stint against the Orioles was his final appearance in the major leagues. The Red Sox traded Burton to the New York Mets for infielder Leo Foster during spring training in 1978. Burton was going from a team with talent to one that floundered in the aftermath of the blockbuster trade that sent the franchise’s best player, Tom Seaver, to the Reds.
The Mets transferred Burton to Tidewater where he struggled with his control. He was sent further down the ladder to Lynchburg in the Class A Carolina League. For Burton, this was a new experience. As a highly touted prospect seven years earlier, he had bypassed Class A and started in Pawtucket fresh out of college.
Speaking to the Washington Post in 1978, Burton acknowledged that he was concerned about heading to Class A because he had heard horror stories about players getting “buried down here.” “It was hard to come here, but not as hard as people might think,” he said. “It doesn’t matter that it’s A ball. What matters to me is how I’m throwing. I know what I have to do to pitch in the major leagues. I do feel I’m coming back. My confidence has been battered around a lot, and a lot of it is mental. It’s something that I can regain. I don’t think I’m that far from it.”
Pitching in the low minors with guys who would never even have a sniff of the majors, Burton stood out – he was the guy who gave up the World Series-winning hit to Joe Morgan. Burton recalled warming up on the mound in Salem, Virginia, while the public-address announcer gave the crowd that day’s trivia question, “What pitcher in uniform tonight lost the seventh game of the 1975 World Series?”
“You hope that people will have a little sensitivity. But you can’t expect that. You can’t crusade for that because nobody wants to listen. That’s what being a professional is all about. You have to take the comments and the criticisms,” Burton told the Washington Post.
Burton did get to pitch for a major-league team again, but it was for the Mets in an exhibition game against the Norfolk Tides of the International League. He went five innings and surrendered eight hits and four earned runs. Tired of ongoing physical difficulties, including an elbow problem, Burton hung up his spikes and returned to Michigan, retiring from baseball in 1978.
The transition from ballplayer to regular citizen was difficult for Burton, who spent four years trying to find his way. “A lot of athletes struggle with re-assimilating. And I did, too, in that my sense of identity and self-worth were tied up with athletic success,” he told Hornig. A friend told him about the possibility of opening a commercial printing business in Charlotte, North Carolina. Intrigued by the idea of running his own business, as his father had done, Burton moved south and found his place. “It wasn’t until I began running my own business that the separation became permanent. It’s so time-consuming that it finally forced the transition,” he said. He ran the business for more than 30 years.
In addition to spending time with his family, which included three daughters, and running his business, Burton spent time traveling to Haiti for missionary work. He helped open a print shop for locals and printed educational materials for the schools.
His time in Haiti also provided him with a different perspective. Giving up a game-winning hit in the World Series isn’t quite as important after one sees life in the Third World. “You look back and you realize that baseball is such a small part of your life when you think about it. There’s so much that’s more important,” Burton told Hornig.
Burton died on December 12, 2013. He was survived by his wife, Janet; their three daughters, Heather, Sarah, and Julie; and two granddaughters.