Time has healed Smoky's shoulder and there is no doubt that he is a better catcher than he was, but as Joe Garagiola told him, "Once you get that bad reputation, it's hard to lose it."
Baseball people are very defensive when it comes to discussing a player's weaknesses. Ask someone who the best catcher in the National League is, and he may answer, Del Crandall. Ask him, then, what it is that Crandall does better than Burgess, and he'll say, wait a minute, there's nothing wrong with Smoky as a catcher. Birdie Tebbetts, who managed Burgess for three years at Cincinnati, insists that Smoky was as good a catcher as Ed Bailey and that the only reason he made Bailey, a .260 hitter, first-string was that Bailey was younger. The most honest opinion of Burgess as a catcher comes from Burgess himself.
"I'm no Roy Campanella," he says. "Campy could do things I can't. He was always able to keep the ball in front of him. He was quick. When pitchers throw the ball in the dirt to me, it always seems to carom off my shins to the left or right. But I'll tell you one thing. I'm not as bad a catcher as most people think."
It might be pointed out that when Harvey Haddix pitched his famous 13-inning game, Burgess caught every pitch.
A part from trying to keep wild pitches from caroming off his shins, Smoky Burgess has few problems. He is a quiet man and off the field he leads a quiet life. He is religious (he is a Baptist). His tastes are simple. He neither smokes nor drinks. His slick brown hair is receding from his forehead, making his face look as round as a baseball. His eyes are brown, too, and when he smiles the smile starts with the eyes crinkling slightly. His hands are small puffs of meat, so that his baseball bat must have an extremely narrow handle.
Smoky, 32, has been married for 14 years. He and his wife Margaret and their two children, Larry, 13, and Donice, 7, live in Forest City, N.C. during the winter. There Smoky owns a service station, operated by his brother Grady during the season. When Smoky comes home from the wars, he goes right to work pumping gas and greasing cars. Proportioned as he is, he fills the mental picture of a gas station attendant more readily than he does that of a .340 hitter.
Smoky was not always overweight. As a youth in Caroleen, a small cotton mill town in North Carolina, he was lean. The day he was 16 he went to work in the mill to help support his family, for his father was sick and his brothers were in service. He was Forrest Harrill Burgess, but folks called him Smoky after his dad, a semipro ballplayer who had been smoke on the base paths. Smoky found time to play sandlot baseball, and in 1944 he was signed by the Chicago Cubs, mostly, he says, because the Cubs were interested in brother Grady. Grady had great promise, it seems, but he just didn't care to leave home.
After a year in the Pony League, where he hit .325, Smoky, still slim, entered the Army. Ah, the Army! They made Smoky a postal clerk.
"I ate too much, and I didn't get much exercise," says Smoky. "I'd just hand the boys out their mail."