Grave Story: Tom Burr (1893-1918)

Here lies Tom Burr, who appeared in 1 game in center field for the New York Yankees in 1914, though he was signed as a pitcher. He is one of a handful of major leaguers who gave his life in service to his country, dying in a plane crash in France during World War I.

Alexander Thomson Burr was born in Chicago on November 1, 1893. He attended a prep school in Connecticut and then Williams College in Williamstown, Mass. According to his SABR bio, his pitching prowess was already evident, enough that the Yankees and manager Frank Chance beat the Athletics, Pirates and two other teams to the punch by signing him in 1914.

“It is said that our Mr. Burr has terrific speed and strikes out so many batters, that up to this time it has been impossible for any gang of amateurs to give him a trimming,” reported the New York Times in February 1914, referring to him as “Al Burr.” According to the Times, Burr had never lost a game.

Burr joined his new teammates in Spring training in Houston, and he was called a “powerful-appearing youngster” in the papers with a good chance to stick. He and some of his fellow Yankee rookies played a Houston club on March 7. Burr started the game and worked the first three innings, allowing 4 runs. He walked 2, struck out 2 and hit a triple in his only at-bat.

The 20-year-old did well enough to win a roster spot, but when the 1914 regular season started, he couldn’t earn any playing time. The only game he ever appeared in was in a 10-inning, 3-2 win over the Senators on April 21. Even then, his appearance was in the outfield, replacing Bill Holden in a late-inning lineup switch. Burr played in center field for 2 innings, but the ball was never hit his way. His MLB debut didn’t even get mentioned in the recaps.

Tom Burr’s military passport photo. Source: Ancestry.com

On June 28, a little more than two months after Burr’s MLB debut, Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated. By the time World War I broke out all over Europe, Burr was probably focusing more on his control problems than anything else. He’d been sent to the New London club of the Eastern Association, but there are no available statistics for his work there. He also pitched for the Jersey City Skeeters of the International League and worked out of the bullpen. He finished 1914 with a 4.74 ERA, with 20 walks in 19 innings for the Skeeters. That was his first and only season of professional baseball.

Burr was working for the American Radiator Co. in Chicago when he registered for the draft in June 1917. He got his passport in August 1917 to join the American Field Service and departed the country around September 15. Once in France, he switched from serving as a truck driver to the U.S. Air Service. There, he attended flying and gunnery school, per the website Baseball’s Greatest Sacrifice. He was considered to be a “wonderful flyer” and was on his way to the front lines, according to a remembrance posted in the 1920 Williams College yearbook. On Oct. 12, 1918, Lieut. Burr’s plane collided with another plane during target practice, crashing into Cazaux Lake. He was 24 years old. His body was recovered 12 days later, and he was originally buried in France, at the American Expeditionary Forces Cemetery No. 29. After the War, several of those cemeteries were deconsecrated, with many of the exhumed bodies reburied in France. Tom Burr, though, was brought home to Chicago, and he was reburied at Rosehill Cemetery and Mausoleum.

Tom Burr’s original grave in France, before he was brought home to Chicago. Source: The Chicago Tribune, March 30, 1919.

There were a total of eight former major league ballplayers who died in service during World War I. Sadly, most of them died from illnesses contracted while still stateside. Two others besides Burr were killed in action in France. Eddie Grant was killed in action in the Argonne Forest on October 5, 1918. Robert “Bun” Troy was shot during the Meuse Argonne campaign and died from his wounds on October 7, 1918 at a hospital camp near Verdun. All three ballplayers were killed within a week of each other.

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