A Ram’s claim to fame: a bloody party, a South African trip

John Burrows

John Burrows is one of those players whose resume is basted with the unremarkable, and not even a few weeks pitching in the Major Leagues can change that. Yes, he played briefly for Connie Mack, but he did so during the talent-poor war years and spent most of his professional career performing just good enough to earn another chance in another minor-league town the following year, if not the following month. That’s how he ended up in an Anniston Rams uniform. His story epitomizes utter blandness.

Except for the night he slashed his throat.

Burrows turned 37 on Oct. 30, 1949, only a few weeks after he threw his last professional pitch. During a birthday party that night in Phoenix, where he lived, he slashed his throat with a shard of glass from a broken bottle — and he survived, though the whole incident only gets weirder from here.

A 1949 clipping from the Oakland Tribune.

Burrows — a large man, not far from 250 pounds — ran from the house. Friends tried to hold him down, to help him, but he got away. Deputies said he scaled a barbed-wire fence and swam across the Arizona Canal, an irrigation system in suburban Phoenix, before being found “in a pool of blood” in front of another home. He apparently had sought medical care at several of his neighbors’ homes before he finally stopped.

The deputies told The Associated Press that “they did not learn any reason for Burrows’ act,” and took him to St. Monica’s Hospital, where he underwent surgery and was released four days later.

His self-inflicted wound healed, Burrows in 1952 accepted an all-expenses paid offer from the baseball board of Pretoria, South Africa, to fly to the African continent and “teach all of us how to play the game.” Burrows, then 38 years old, spent four months doing just that.

A 1952 clipping from the Newark Advocate.

In June, he wrote a long missive to Chester Smith of the Pittsburgh Press, reporting that his baseball ambassador tour would take him across “the whole Union of South Africa and Southern Rhodesia.” He also was adamant that baseball was growing in popularity in South Africa and that “the future for the sport is unlimited” there.

“Baseball is getting very popular in this country and the standard is not bad considering that these boys have had very little help,” Burrows wrote. “In Windhoep, which is in Southwest Africa, they have been playing by reading a book. These South African boys deserve a lot of credit. They are anxious to learn more about baseball.

“Everywhere I have been they have asked me to return, and I have agreed to do so. It will be the middle of December before I will be through with this next tour. There will be an American team coming to this country in October. That will be a big step for baseball since the South African people are very sports-minded.”

As for Burrows and his connection to the Rams, it’s tissue-paper thin.

Born in Winnfield, Louisiana, in 1913, the 32-year-old Burrows arrived in Anniston in 1946, just as his career was beginning its unavoidable decline. He was, though, a former Major Leaguer, which provided a bit of panache. He tried out for the Detroit Tigers when he was only 13. (He didn’t make it.) When invited to the Washington Senators’ spring camp in 1933 as an 18-year-old, he quickly earned the reputation for calling everyone “mister,” a bit of verbal reverence that, according to the Chattanooga Daily Times, the big-leaguers thought was hilarious. They then walloped him for 10 hits and 11 runs in 4 1/3 innings of a 15-9 exhibition win over Chattanooga, one of their farm teams.

It took a decade for Burrows to meander through the minors, his stops coming in places like Opelousas, Alexandria, Gladewater, San Antonio, Selma, Chattanooga and Wilmington. He finally debuted in April 1943 for the Philadelphia Athletics in a 5-0 loss to the Senators, his start lasting just 1 1/3 innings. The A’s released him in mid-June and he signed with the Cubs — and wasn’t much better with them, going 0-2 in 23 appearances.

A 1943 clipping from the Philadelphia Inquirer.

After Chicago released him in 1944, Burrows caused a minor ruckus when he refused to report to Nashville, claiming his contract prevented the Cubs from assigning him to a minor-league team. Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis ruled in Burrows’ favor, allowing him to sign with Buffalo, not Nashville. Spoiled by a lack of work, he pitched only five games for that International League team before heading south again, this time to Atlanta.

His 1945 season with the Crackers, though, was splendid — a 19-8 record, a 3.87 ERA. The following spring he even appeared in an exhibition against the New York Yankees at Ponce De Leon Park in Atlanta; the Crackers lost, 7-1, and Burrows gave up a hit and two runs in one-third of an inning.

A 1946 clipping from The Anniston Star.

The Crackers released Burrows on April 19, and 10 days later the left-hander signed with the Class B Rams, whose front office perpetually sought roster upgrades during the season. The ’46 Rams were Anniston’s only Southeastern League champion team, winners of 81 games during the regular season, but Burrows provided almost nothing to their efforts. He went 2-2 in five appearances, winning his debut in relief in a 8-3 victory at Pensacola on May 1. But by early June he was pitching for Thibodaux in the Evangeline League, the second of four teams he’d play for that season.

At age 35, Burrows signed on with Class C Phoenix of the Arizona-Texas League and appeared in 11 games, going 0-3 while giving up a mountainous 30 runs in just 30 innings pitched. That’s how his career ended. Unremarkable, if not forgettable.

Two months later, Burrows found himself standing in front of a Phoenix house, bleeding profusely from a gash in his neck. His South Africa excursion, and his life, were ultimately saved.

John Burrows died in 1987 at age 73. His obituary said he passed away at his home “as a result of a fire.” He’s buried in Coal Run, Ohio.

John Burrows’ World War II draft registration card. (ancestry.com)

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