When 24-year-old Edward “Moe” Burtschy arrived in Anniston in the summer of 1946, he brought along his powerful right arm, a bushel of potential and something few Southeastern League players had: the experience of surviving a Japanese kamikaze attack on an American aircraft carrier during World War II.
The war had shuttered the SEL, and ’46 ended Anniston’s three-year break from professional baseball. The year would also provide the Rams with their only league championship — a title in which Burtschy, who would eventually pitch in 90 Major League games over five seasons, would play a middling role.
But the overarching story of Burtschy’s baseball career epitomizes 1940s America for the men and women who spent part of that decade in military service. War erupted and lives changed, including Burtschy’s. When he filled out his draft card, he listed his employer as the Columbia Reds, the National League’s Class B farm team in South Carolina. Born in Cincinnati, he enjoyed 14 professional seasons and five MLB stints that encircled his combat experience in the Pacific; neither prevented the other — but could have, had he been one of the U.S. Navy fatalities from the attack on the USS Ticonderoga in January 1945.
One hundred and forty-four sailors died when two Japanese planes struck the Ticonderoga. Burtschy, 24 when he was honorably discharged, served 37 months aboard that ship and returned to professional baseball when the war ended. Though delayed, his route to Anniston’s Johnston Field began the following spring in Biloxi, Mississippi.
Before the war, Burtschy had been a Brooklyn Dodgers and Reds farmhand. After the war, his first opportunity came not with the Dodgers or Reds but with the Pittsburgh Pirates, who sent him to the Mississippi coast to train with the Class AA Birmingham Barons.
Burtschy was on the roster when camp broke. But he pitched only once — a single inning April 29 against Chattanooga — before the Barons sent him to a familiar place, Columbia in the South Atlantic League. That reunion, though, soured quickly: in three appearances, he allowed 19 hits and 14 runs in 16 innings pitched, good for an ERA of 7.88. That he won one of his three appearances hardly mattered.
Disillusioned with Burtschy’s performance, the Reds shipped him back to the Pirates, who assigned him to Anniston. And the late-summer months he spent with the Rams in 1946 likely saved his career and kept him in the prospect pipeline that continually shuttled young players to the big leagues.
What didn’t happen in Birmingham or Columbia — competence — happened immediately in Anniston. Burtschy won his Rams debut, hurling a six-inning complete game in an 8-3 win over Montgomery in which he fanned seven, walked five and gave up just six hits. He also hit a home run over Johnston Field’s left-field fence.
“Anniston uncovered a winning hurler, righthander Bob Burtchey (sic), and the Rams took the second game of yesterday’s doubleheader … ” is how Anniston Star sports writer Jack Scott began his game story the following afternoon. (The Star never settled on the correct spelling of Burtschy’s last name.) Scott described the Ohioan as “amazing” when detailing his home run against the Rebels.
The Rams went 81-59, finishing second in the SEL, and qualified for the playoffs, but Burtschy’s strong start in June didn’t last into the fall. He won seven of his first 10 decisions with the Rams, then dropped four in a row and fell out of favor with Anniston manager Tommie West. He didn’t pitch in either round of the SEL playoffs, against Montgomery or Vicksburg, even though West considered starting him in the decisive Game 7 of the championship round.
Nonetheless, Burtschy did well enough in Anniston to keep his career afloat. His final Rams line: a 7-7 record and a 3.77 ERA in 117 innings pitched. His time in Anniston, lasting only 20 appearances, was over.
It took three more minor-league seasons in the Philadelphia Athletics’ farm system before Burtschy got the call. He debuted for Manager Connie Mack on June 17, 1950, in the woebegone A’s 8-7 loss to Cleveland. He walked the only batter he faced. But he was in the Major Leagues and would rotate off and on the A’s roster for the next six seasons.
Only once did he spend an entire season with the A’s — in 1954, when he went 5-4 with a 3.88 ERA out of the bullpen. Most years he shuttled back and forth between Philadelphia (or Kansas City, after the team’s move west) and its Class AAA affiliate. Arm surgery sidelined him for part of the 1951 season. When the A’s traded him to the New York Yankees in the summer of 1956 — he was 3-1 in the Kansas City bullpen at the time — it essentially ended his MLB career. The A’s always needed pitching; the Yankees rarely had trouble finding it. Burtschy became a Yankees farm hand and never again pitched in the big leagues, retiring after the 1957 season at the age of 35, despite having a respectable career MLB record of 10-6 with a 4.71 ERA.
“He was real modest about it, but he pitched against Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams and all the great players of the 1950s,” his son, Michael Burtschy, told The Cincinnati Enquirer. “We are real proud of him.”
His later years strayed from baseball and into the trucking industry, where he worked as a freight salesman. He died in 2004 at the age of 82. He’s buried in his hometown of Cincinnati.