Jesse BurkettJesse Burkett
Worcester (Mass.) Sunday Telegram, Jan. 11, 1953, p7.
CHAT WITH JESSE BURKETT
by LAWRENCE FEIDLONG BEFORE we came to Worcester we had heard of Jesse Burkett. And during our 10 years here we have heard his name mentioned quite often. So we decided to visit this man who had achieved a coveted niche in Baseball's Hall of Fame.
He lives on the top floor of a three-decker at 189 Grove street, and when we rang the bell his housekeeper, Mrs. Ann C. Grace, let us in.
She ushered us through the living room, through the kitchen, into the bedroom where he was propped up on pillows in bed, for he no longer is able to walk because of hardening of the arteries of the legs.
We immediately felt the power of his challenging eyes -- eyes clear blue and wide set -- which he had fixed on us in his aggressive way.
Since we had made no appointment, he didn't know who we were, nor why we were there. But when we said we were from the Telegram he extended his hand and we thought his eyes softened a bit.
Then, in his brusque way, he moved to take command of the situation -- which is his way -- shooting this quick question at us:
"You a baseball writer?"
When we said "No" he seemed disappointed.
We said we nevertheless wanted to write a story about him, and in doing so addressed him as "Mr. Burkett," at which point he cut us short, saying:
"Why the mister? Jesse is my name."
So thereafter we called him Jesse.
THE GREAT JESSE, who played major league ball 15 years, later became manager of the Worcester club in the New England League, and after that coach at Holy Cross and Assumption College, was the first Hall of Fame player we had ever met.
Here was a man who had gloried in action, who had played baseball for all it was worth, and who now had been confined to bed for 18 months.
Our visit made him happy, for he enjoyed telling about the old days, and he was free with his praise of other players.
"There were better players than me," he said.
He told us about Brookfield's Connie Mack, who visited Jess in 1951, and about Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner and a host of other baseball notables.
"Connie (who is 90) keeps up pretty good, don't he? I've known him for 50, yes, 55 years. He's been a great fellow for baseball. He's very religious.
Jesse is religious, too.
On a bureau near his bed was a crucifix. Hanging from the crucifix was his silver rosary beads. And around his neck was a religious medal.
Of all the players in baseball, Ty Cobb commands Jesse's greatest respect, and of Ty he said:
"Cobb could do anything around the plat -- hit, bunt, drag the ball. He could field and throw, do everything. He'd fight at the drop of a hat. He was just breaking in (the big leagues), when I was going out."
Jesse recalled, with shining eyes, the time he went rabbit hunting with Wagner near Pittsburgh.
"He was quite a ballplayer, that boy," he said. "Had a good pair of hands on him."
WE ASKED JESSE about his stormy career in baseball -- he had a caustic tongue and an irascible nature -- part of the fight in him that made him a baseball great.
"You got to be a battler," he said, "if you don't they'll walk all over you. After you lick three or four of them they don't show up any more looking for a fight."
Yet now, in these later years, he has the greatest respect for people with even dispositions.
And in this happy category he places J. A. (Bob) Quinn, director of the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, N. Y.
"They couldn't put it in any better hands than those of Bob Quinn," he said. "He's got a lot of patience. He's a wonderful fellow."
He paused after saying this, his mind seeming to dwell on what he had said about Bob Quinn being a man of patience and a wonderful fellow, and then he slowly and thoughtfully made this comment"
"What's the use of being any other way?"
Jesse was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1946.
But he never has seen it.
WE ASKED JESSE what city he liked best in the big league circuits.
"Oh, I wasn't crazy about cities," he said. "All I was thinking about was baseball, baseball."
He laughed heartily when he recalled playing baseball as a kid in Wheeling, W. Va., where he was born.
"They couldn't get me in for supper," he said. "I played till dark."
It was this love of the game, plus an intense spirit that always kept pushing him, along with his great ability, that gave him his meteoric place in baseball history.
His amazing eyes helped him too, for he still can read without glasses, in fact has never worn a pair except the sun glasses he used on the ball field.
Jesse was the first player ever to hit .400 or better for three years, batting for .423 in 1895, for .410 in 1896, and for .402 in 1899.
Only two other players have been able to do this -- Ty Cobb and Rogers Hornsby.
And professional baseball began back in 1871.
JESSE SIGNED his first baseball contract in 1888, when he was 18, as a pitcher for Scranton in the Central League, at a salary of $85 a month.
The next year he joined the Worcester club in the Atlantic League, at $125 a month.
The following year, 1890, two important events occurred in his life.
He married a Worcester girl, Miss Nellie McGrath, who died three years ago.
And he was sold to the New York Giants, who farmed him out to the Lincoln, Neb., club in the Western Association, where he was switched from pitching to the outfield because of his remarkable hitting abilities.
"I made my reputation in Lincoln," Jesse said.
He certainly did, for he was hitting the ball all over the lot, and before the season was over Cleveland grabbed him and he was on his way to stardom.
His highest salary in his years in the majors -- from 1890 to 1905 -- was $5300, which was big money in those days.
IN TELLING of his life Jesse related a little known incident.
He was 12 years old and had learned to swim like a fish in the Ohio River which flows by Wheeling.
A little girl fell out of a skiff into the river. The river was muddy and nobody could see the bottom.
Adults stood by doing nothing.
So young Burkett dove in to try to find her.
"I crawled about the bottom," he said, "but I couldn't see anything. Finally one of my hands touched her and I brought he to the surface. He heart was still beating but they couldn't bring her to."
We were very much surprised, at this point, to see tears in his eyes. He seemed not to like this display of emotion, for he said abruptly:
"What did you say?"
He quickly changed the subject, saying:"You see this little finger?" the little finger of his right hand. "A fly ball hit that finger one day. And did it hurt. It bothered me for years. But it doesn't hurt now. The pain has gone away."
JESSE IS FOND of candy, and he likes sugar, too.
He consumes 10 teaspoonfuls of sugar a day between what he puts in his cereal, his glass of orange juice, his breakfast coffee and his three cups of strong tea.
He is fond of ice cream, too, but only one kind, vanilla, and won't eat any other flavor.
Jesse told us he never took up smoking, nor chewing either.
He said he did smoke, just once, not tobacco but corn silk, when he was a very young kid.
"It made me sick," he said, "and I never tried smoking again."
As to drinking, he said:"Oh, I'd take a glass of been now and then.
©, reprinted with permission of the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.
From the vertical file of Ohio County Public Library, provided by the National Baseball Hall of Fame library.
Picture of Burkett and Connie Mack from the article (80 K jpeg)
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