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How A Home-Run Order Was Filled: SMOKY BURGESS

         

    The speculation began midway through the 1956 season: Could the Cincinnati Reds break the National League record for most home runs in a season?

 

The 1948 New York Giants had established the record, hitting 221, but with such sluggers in the Cincinnati lineup as Ted Kluszewski, Gus Bell, Wally Post and a rookie named Frank Robinson, it appeared the Reds had a chance to catch the Giants.

 

As the season wore on, the Reds got closer and finally, on the last day of the season, they were within striking distance. Late in their final game against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field, the Reds stood one short of tying the record.

 

Manager Birdie Tebbetts was aware of the record and looked down at Smoky Burgess sitting on the bench. He motioned for the substitute catcher to go to the plate as a pinch hitter. He told Burgess that he wanted a home run. Tebbetts' instructions were to swing from the heels, go for gusto, make it all or nothing. It was an unusual request because most of the time a manager will simply tell his pinch hitter to get his bat on the ball. Not this time with the record near at hand, though.

 

With that in mind, Burgess went to the plate. "I remember it well," Smoky Burgess said not too long ago when he was in Cincinnati for a reunion of the 1956 team. "He told me to hit a home run."

 

And that's exactly what Burgess did. He sent a towering smash over the right field fence which became the record-tying round-tripper and the Reds went into the books alongside the Giants, both with 221 home runs.

 

"That was an unusual situation," Burgess added. "That was the only time I ever went to the plate in my entire career trying to hit a home run and actually doing it. Other times I went up trying to hit the ball out of the park, but didn't do it then. That was the only time."

 

That home run was the seventh time that year he came off the bench to pinch-hit, but before his career was over, this left-handed hitter would make a name for himself as one of the game's best.

 

    When he retired in 1967 after an 18-year career in the major leagues, Burgess was baseball's all-time leading pinch hitter, collecting 145 pinch-hits. That record has since been broken by Manny Mota.

 

Pitchers knew one thing when Old Smoke came lumbering up to the plate: he'd get his cuts. He wouldn't stand there and watch a lot of pitches go by.

 

He ended his career with the Chicago White Sox and they took advantage of his pinch-hitting ability. During his final three years, he went to the plate more than 200 times as a pinch hitter and came through 49 times. In both 1965 and 1966 he led the majors in total pinch-hits with 20 and 21.

 

Not all players can be good pinch hitters. It takes a special knack. And Smoky Burgess had it.

 

         
       

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