RIP to Bill Burbach, the first player ever taken by the Yankees in the first-ever Amateur Draft in 1965. He died on July 20 from natural causes in the Sycamore Shoals Hospital in Elizabethton, Tenn. Burbach, a Johnson City resident, was 74 years old. He pitched for the New York Yankees from 1969-71. Prior to reaching the majors, he was also part of a milestone in Satchel Paige’s lengthy career.
William David Burbach was born in Dickeyville, Wis., on August 22, 1947, the youngest of eight children in the family. To attend Wahlbert High School in Dubuque, Iowa — the closest Catholic school — he had to hitchhike until he got a drivers license and could make the 19-mile drive himself. He was a three-sport athlete and was good at each one of them. By December of ’63, Burbach had a reputation as one of the best sixth men in Iowa high school basketball, according to The Cedar Rapids Gazette. The following year he made the Quad Cities’ Times-Democrat Big All-State football second team as a tackle, though he also caught a couple of touchdown passes as an end. That was somewhat of a family tradition, as older brothers Carl and Vince were all-state tackles as well, for Loras College in Dubuque. His pitching was just as impressive, but a little more uneven. He regularly played semipro ball in Wisconsin in his summers before returning to Iowa for high school. The schedule wasn’t an easy one for a high school student. He hurt his arm and spent much of his first season as a third baseman. When he returned to the mound, he occasionally battled control issues but could be nearly unhittable. He was 11-1 in his senior season of 1965 and 25-2 over his high school career. He threw a 1-hitter with 17 strikeouts to get Wahlbert into the state championship tournament in May 1965. During the tournament, he walked 6 in a game and hit a batter, “but when his ‘hummer’ came across, it was the kind of live ball scouts like to see,” reported The Des Moines Register.
That June, Major League Baseball held its first amateur draft — a change from the era when teams tried to outbid each other for the top college and high school prospects. The New York Yankees had the 19th overall pick in the draft and selected Burbach. He signed with the Yankees and scout Joe McDermott for a “substantial bonus,” according to reports, and reported to Johnson City, Tenn., home of the organization’s Appalachian League team. His control problems became apparent, as he walked 68 batters in 57 innings and finished the season with a 2-9 record and 6.16 ERA.
Burbach had a strange record in 1996 with the Class-A Greensboro Yankees. He had a 3-14 record, but his 2.19 ERA was one of the best in the Carolina League for pitchers who threw more than 100 innings. Opposing batters only managed 96 hits off Burbach in 144 innings, and he fanned 124. He allowed 60 earned runs, but just 35 of them were earned. Burbuch had some bad defense behind him, particularly at shortstop, but he also must have had some all-time rotten luck, too. That July, the 18-year-old pitcher threw a 10-inning no-hitter against Lynchburg — in a game that was supposed to last 7 innings as part of a doubleheader — and got a no-decision. He was believed to be the first minor-league pitcher to throw more than a 9-inning no-hitter, and he still ended up with a no-decision in a game Greensboro lost 3-1 in 16 innings.
“Our manager, Gary Blaylock, asked me what star I was born under,” said the hard-luck pitcher. Blaylock pointed out that Burbach had lost two 2-0 games and a 2-1 game prior to the near no-no. “The guys are aware they are not scoring for Burbach, and I believe they are having their troubles even more because they are pressing due to this fact,” Blaylock said.
Burbach had one stroke of incredible luck that season. Greensboro started against the Peninsula Grays on June 21, 1966, and Grays owner George Fox brought in the legendary Satchel Paige to pitch. It was a year after Paige threw 3 scoreless innings for the Kansas City A’s, and it is considered to be his last professional baseball game. He was 59 years old at the time — allegedly. Paige started the game for the Grays and, in his 1 inning of work, gave up 2 runs on 4 straight hits. Burbach struck out 12 batters, but he also walked 11 and ended up with a no-decision in a game Greensboro won 4-2. But he is the last pitching opponent of Paige’s professional career. (Paige continued to pitch after that outing, but not in a professional game).
The Yankees, to their credit, looked beyond Burbach’s disastrous win-loss records and saw the potential major-league pitcher. “You should have seen that Greensboro club he pitched for,” said Yankees manager Ralph Houk in 1967. “Anybody who could win three games for it must have been a magician.” Burbach had better luck and/or better run support as he progressed through the Yankees’ minor leagues. He was 10-9 for Double-A Binghamton in 1967, with a no-hitter that he won, and 9-9 for Triple-A Syracuse in 1968.
Burbach was given his first serious chance to make the Yankees during spring training in 1969. Once considered a lock for the pitching staff, he had to outduel fellow rookie John Cumberland for the spot. Burbach won the spot and made his Yankee Stadium debut in an exhibition game with the San Francisco Giants. The first batter he had to face was Willie Mays, who got a long ovation from the New York crowd. “I was nervous anyway and here I was pitching against Mays,” Burbach later related. “After a couple of minutes they began to sit down and Mays finally gets into the batters box and I look down and get my sign from the catcher. I wound up and on my first pitch I plunked Mays right in the side. That was a little embarrassing.”
Burbach made his first major-league start against Detroit on April 11. He got a no-decision after allowing 1 earned run over 6 innings. He faced the Tigers again on April 20 and threw a 5-hit shutout, picking up a 2-0 win. He walked 2 and struck out 7 and even kicked off the scoring in the third inning with a single against Detroit’s Denny McClain. He advanced to third base on a hit-and-run single by Horace Clarke and scored on a force play by Jerry Kenney.
Burbach said he didn’t mind having to face the defending world champion Tigers in his first two starts. “With their hitters, I wasn’t too worried about whether they would hit me. After all, when you face the best, no one expects you to stop them completely.” Still, he allowed just 10 hits and 2 runs (1 earned) over 15 innings against them. The rest of his season was a little more uneven. He completed 2 of his 24 starts and frequently was knocked out of the game within the first four innings of a game. After a couple of early exits in August, Burbach was moved to the bullpen for the rest of the season. He appeared in a total of 31 games, with a 6-8 record and 3.65 ERA. Opposing batters hit .219 against him, but he walked 102 batters in 140-2/3 innings and struck out 82.
After the 1969 season, Burbach elected to play winter ball for San Juan in Puerto Rico instead of attending the University of Iowa. He threw the first no-hitter in Hi Bithorn Stadium that winter, against Ponce. He returned to the Yankees starting rotation to start the 1970 season, but he dropped his first two decisions to Boston and Baltimore, respectively. Washington knocked him out of his next start in the third inning. After starting the game with six straight ground ball outs, the Senators knocked him around for 5 runs, with a 3-run homer by Frank Howard being the big blow. His next start was May 3 against Milwaukee. After allowing 3 runs in the second inning, he walked Russ Snyder to lead off the top of the third inning and then hit Danny Walton. He was taken out of the game, and both runners later scored. He was sent to Syracuse with an 0-2 record and 10.26 ERA.
Burbach’s final games in the majors came at the start of the 1971 season. Working out of the bullpen, he allowed 3 runs (1 earned) in 2-1/3 innings against Baltimore on April 18. He then was brought into the 11th inning against Minnesota on April 24, with the game tied at 8. He walked Cesar Tovar and committed a throwing error on a sacrifice bunt from Rod Carew, putting runners on second and third base. He intentionally walked Tony Oliva, and then Harmon Killebrew broke the tie with a 2-run single. Rick Renick added another run on a sacrifice fly before Burbach got out of the inning. He was charged with the loss. About a month later, the Yankees traded Burbach to Baltimore for pitcher Jim Hardin. Baltimore assigned Burbach to Triple-A Rochester, and he had a 7-2 record as a swingman, albeit with a 4.84 ERA. In February of 1972, Baltimore traded him to Detroit for second baseman John Donaldson. He quit the Tigers in the spring when he was told that the Tigers wanted to go with younger pitchers (Burbach was 24 at the time), but he reconsidered in June, signing a minor-league deal with Minnesota. He pitched in 33 games as a reliever for their Triple-A team in Tacoma, with a 2-1 record, 1 save and a 4.50 ERA. He tried out with St. Louis in 1973 but decided to call it quits for good, at the age of 25.
Over parts of 3 seasons, Burbach had a 6-11 record and a 4.48 ERA in 37 games, including 28 starts. He completed 2 games and had the one shutout. In 160-2/3 innings, he struck out 95 batters and walked 116, for a WHIP of 1.600. Burbach also had a 38-54 record and 3.69 ERA in 7 minor-league seasons.
“I got out of baseball because I saw too many guys still playing ‘AAA’ ball when they were well into their 30s, so I thought I’d better get out and find something better to do,” Burbach said in a 1976 interview. He retired to Johnson City with his family. He got a degree in secondary education from East Tennessee State University but ended up working in sales for Lubrication Engineering, an industrial lubricants firm in Fort Worth, Texas. He later retired from Buffalo Valley Golf Course. He and his late wife Wanda, whom he married in 1985, were avid golfers and frequently played in tournaments together. Burbach was also preceded in death by his daughter Stephanie. He is survived by his son, Zane Vance, and extended family.
Source: Johnson City Press