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