The other day I learned that Bill Burgess passed away in 2014.
So sad to hear. In the latter part of the aughts, Burgess emerged as a prolific poster to Baseball-Fever, a small kingdom of baseball fans on the web.
I exchanged quite a few emails with Burgess. A native of Brooklyn who moved to the sunny peninsula south of San Francisco, Burgess was very passionate about baseball and an expert on the writers. Mostly we discussed the scribes who covered the Giants in the time of McGraw and Mathewson.
In addition to people like Bill, I depended on Noel Hynd’s book, “The Giants of the Polo Grounds.” I considered it and still do the definitive history on the New York Giants.
In his book, Hynd included some great old black and white photos of the Giants. There’s John McGraw posing reluctantly with Babe Ruth. Some part of the Giants’ legendary skipper no doubt admired the Bambino. McGraw, however, always gave the press some juicy derisive quote about the Yankees beloved slugger, who more than anyone else helped the franchise wrestle the Big Apple crown from the Giants in the Roaring Twenties.
One particular photo in Hynd’s book got my attention. Taken in 1911 at the Polo Grounds, one sees a line-up’s worth of baseball writers assembled before the camera.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but after reading the bios Burgess had written about them, I knew that Hynd’s caption of the photo was, while guilty of a bit of home cooking, no exaggeration.
Some of the finest sportswriters of the day covered the Giants on a daily beat. Herewith the evidence: seated on chairs from left, Sam Crane, Fred Lieb, Damon Runyon, Bozeman Bulger, Sid Mercer, Grantland Rice, and Walter Trumball. Standing at rear are Jack Wheeler and John Foster.
When it comes to capturing a moment in time in the dead ball era, you can’t do much better than this photo. It was by the famed Pach Brothers, whose studio was located near the Flatiron Building in Manhattan.
Those were the glory days for baseball fans in New York, a time when a "crank" could stay informed and even entertained with upwards of a dozen dailies. Even the name of some of the papers - The World, The Sun, The Globe - evoked a sense of greatness (and circulation) they each sought to achieve. Partly helped by the popularity of baseball, these newspapers formed an empire of ink we will never see the likes of again.
With sabermetrics, baseball player’s performance can be evaluated and ranked. With sportswriters, the waters are muddy. Best we can do for now is to see what others say.
Of the nine writers in the photo, four - Rice, Runyon, Mercer, and Lieb - were awarded the J.G. Taylor Award, the highest honor for the scribes. The other five had impressive resumes too.
In his 1934 classic critique, “City Editor,” Stanley Woodward observed that “men like Runyon and Rice brought to the business a grown-up judgment, some sense of proportion, a gentlemanly taste and even some literary quality.”
On occasion, Bill and I discussed these writers. Almost like a mentor, he guided me through a bit of Sam Crane’s career. We both thought Crane deserved a spot at the table of the immortals. After a ten-year career as a second baseman that included the 1887 season with the Washington Nationals, Crane wrote for the New York Press (1890-1898) and the New York Journal (1898-1925). Towards the end of the dead ball era, Baseball Magazine (1918) called him “the dean of American sports writers.”
Across the span of seven years (2007-2014), and until just a week before his passing, Burgess provided biographical data for more than 700 of the writers. As devoted as they come, he also included photographs and articles. Burgess also gave us bios on 22 city editors. My guess is there’s nothing like this illustrated tribute anywhere else.
The photograph of the writers in Hynd’s book kept talking to me. I finally ordered a copy from the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library and Archive. I framed the shiny 12 x 10 copy and mounted it on a wall downstairs, my small de facto Giants Hall of Fame.
More than ten years have passed since their induction. Then several weeks ago, in what the French call a “petit incident,” the frame came crashing down. Broken glass shattered, the messy clean up. Then came the good news. No damage to the photo.
In a few days a new frame went up, this time with a light blue backing. It was all Michael’s had on their shelf at the time.
My philosophy in life is to try and not sweat the small stuff. But the more I looked at the photo’s new home, the more I didn’t like it. Blue is actually my favorite color, but it was anathema to the image.
Earlier this week, the photo slid off the matting. Slightly annoyed, I recalled the days when I would spend good money getting some of my stuff professionally mounted and framed. Not anymore.
The better half and I discussed options. Much to her credit, she went right out and bought another frame. This time a perfect fit and color.
This one is for you Bill Burgess. You’re gone, but not forgotten.
The writers and their paper at the time of the photo in 1911.
(Standing, left to right)
John Wheeler (Herald)
John B. Foster (Evening Telegram)
(Seated, left to right)
Sam Crane (Journal)
Fred Lieb (Press)
Damon Runyon (American)
Bozeman Bulger (Evening World)
Sid Mercer (Globe)
Grantland Rice (Evening Mail)
Walter Trumbull (World)
Note: The man seated on the ground is concessionaire Harry M. Stevens.
There doesn’t seem to be consensus on the boy.