Just because Smoky Burgess is only 67� inches high, not quite twice the length of his own baseball bat, and because he weighs a jolly 187 pounds, some people consider him fat. Well, he is. Dressed in the white home uniform of the Pittsburgh Pirates, he looks a little like a walking laundry bag. Sometimes the sharks on the Pirates rag Smoky about his 38-inch waistline, but the round little catcher with the size 6� feet shrugs it off in his pleasant North Carolina way.
"If they get on me," he reasons, "that means they're leaving somebody else alone."
Opponents don't kid Smoky much, however, least of all pitchers. You see, Smoky Burgess is a hitter. To Smoky, hitting is a joy, a marvelously uncomplicated process. The pitcher throws the ball and Smoky hits it with his bat. He has been hitting often enough to be averaging a lusty .340, second in the National League, and far enough to be a home run threat. It makes little difference who is throwing the baseball or where it is when he starts to swing. Tom Acker, a Cincinnati pitcher, says: "He doesn't care what you throw up there, just so there's a pitch on the way. I threw to him—too high to be a strike—and he hit it out."
George Sisler, as good a hitter as there ever was, now the Pittsburgh batting coach, was discussing Burgess recently.
"I'll admit he isn't very careful," Sisler argued, "but Smoky doesn't swing as wildly as they say. He has an amazing facility for placing the bat on the ball."
Burgess is especially tough as a pinch hitter. Last month he hit the 10th pinch-hit home run of his career, a major league record. He has hit safely in seven of nine tries this season. One of them, a two-out double in the 10th inning against Cincinnati, gave the Pirates a tremendous lift, for it beat Bob Purkey. Purkey, a former Pirate, had beaten his old team five times without a loss.
"It was the second game of a double-header," Pittsburgh Sportswriter Les Biederman recalls. "Smoky had caught the first game, so he was sitting out the second in the bullpen when Danny Murtaugh called him. Smoky came trotting all the way in, picked up a bat and, still huffing and puffing, stepped to the plate. Purkey threw one pitch—a little outside—and Smoky reached out and stroked it down the left field line. That was the game."
Pitching to Burgess is a headache. There is no accepted method. "The best thing you can do," says Teammate Harvey Haddix, who threw that "perfect game" in May, "is mix up your pitches."
Perhaps you could get Smoky to fish for high pitches, it was suggested. "High pitches?" said Haddix. "The higher you throw to him, the farther he'll hit it."
All of them, then, agree that Burgess is a very good hitter. When you ask them about his catching, however, they hesitate. Opinion is varied. His critics are content to remember him as he was during the early '50s, when his right shoulder was still weak from an Army injury. They cite throws to second that bounced just past the pitcher's mound. He was described as a "real shoemaker."