Obituary: Pete Burnside (1930-2022)

RIP to Pete Burnside, who pitched for four different teams over 8 seasons in the 1950s and ’60s. He died on August 26 at the age of 92, with his family by his side. He was married to his wife, Suzette, for 58 years, and they had three children — Beth, Jim and John. Burnside played for the New York/San Francisco Giants (1955, 1957-58), Detroit Tigers (1959-60), Washington Senators (1961-62, 1963) and Baltimore Orioles (1963). Following his playing career, he became a teacher in Illinois for his alma mater, New Trier High School in Winnetka.

Peter Willits Burnside was born in Evanston, Ill., on July 2, 1930. He was a guard on the New Trier basketball team, but he gained state prominence as a left-handed pitcher. He was a staff ace on the Winnetka Post American Legion Team that won the Cook County title in 1947. He threw a 2-hitter against Argo Summit to win the title and then fanned 12 in the opening game of the state tournament against eventual state champs Belleville. He went 10-1 for New Trier in 1948 and threw a no-hitter against Morton. Burnside was named a suburban All-Star and drew the attention of a number of pro scouts.

Source: St. Cloud Times, March 17, 1959.

Burnside spent a year attending Dartmouth University but elected to sign with the Minneapolis Millers in the summer of 1949. The scout who signed him was ex-pitcher Tom Sheehan (tip of the hat to Rod Nelson for that information). The Millers, part of the New York Giants organization, assigned him to the St. Cloud Rox of the Class-C Northern League. The 19-year-old possessed a good fastball and a sharp-breaking curveball, but control was a concern. In his only start for the Rox in ’49, he walked 8 batters in 1-2/3 innings and forced in 3 runs before he was pulled. The Giants sent him back to Chicago to have a doctor examine his sore back, and he didn’t pitch further that year. Burnside’s first few seasons look a little Dalkowski-esque. In his first start in 1950, he walked 5 batters in the first inning and retired just two. He threw 105 innings in 1951 while pitching for Ottawa and Knoxville and walked 117 batters. However, he also had some brilliant moments. While pitching for Knoxville on July 23, Burnside threw a 2-hitter in a win over Spartanburg, and both hits were bloopers that fell short of being caught. He walked 10 but struck out 11. He knocked off Spartanburg again on August 11, with 11 walks and 11 strikeouts. Because Burnside continued his education at Dartmouth, his first few seasons in the minors have just a handful of appearances during the summer. The decision sped up his education but cut into his time for being coached and developed as a future major-league pitcher.

The Giants stuck with Burnside through his wildness because there was a gem of a pitcher there. Famed Minnesota columnist Halsey Hall, who’d seen almost every pitcher in baseball going back to the 1910s, was amazed by the young lefthander. “Now these watery orbs of mine have seen quite a few fastballs, including those of Walter Johnson, [Lefty] Grove and Bob Feller,” he wrote in a 1951 column. “They probably threw faster, but I never saw a more LIVE fast ball. It darted, it dipped, it hopped like a bourboned-up butterfly. And his curve? It snaps.” Millers GM Rosy Ryan felt that Burnside’s problem was he was too nice. “If we can put a little bulldog into him to go with his natural stuff, he’s a Polo Grounds pitcher. There isn’t anybody who has a right to hit what he can throw,” he remarked.

Burnside missed the 1953 season to serve in the U.S. Army. He served at Ft. Leonard Wood and led their baseball team to the annual National Baseball Congress amateur tournament. The Hilltoppers won the tournament after being runners-up in ’52. Burnside was a different pitcher — either due to maturity, coaching or a recent operation on his back that relieved some ongoing pain. The Sporting News reported on one game where the lefty struck out the first 17 batters he faced. By the time he returned to professional baseball in 1954, his wildness a largely a thing of the past. He wasn’t a master of control — he walked 120 batters for the Dallas Eagles in 1955, but he also struck out 235 in 255 innings. Burnside won 18 games for the Eagles, and the Giants brought him to the majors at the tail end of the season.

Burnside made his debut on September 20, 1955, with a start against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Giants scored 11 runs in the first 3 innings, but Burnside walked 6 batters and allowed 7 runs (2 earned) before he was pulled in the fourth inning. His second start came on September 25 against Philadelphia, which was the final day of manager Leo Durocher’s career with the Giants — he had announced his resignation a day earlier. Burnside gave him his last Giants win with a 7-hit, 2-run complete game in the first half of a doubleheader. He didn’t strike out a single batter but walked just 3 in the 5-2 victory. The Giants dropped the nightcap 5-2 and ended the Durocher Era by hitting into a game-ending triple play in the ninth inning.

Burnside spent most of the next two seasons back with the Minneapolis Millers, the team that had originally signed him. He broke his foot in the spring of 1956 and was slow to recover with Minneapolis. He won 5 games and didn’t put together a winning streak until July. “It took a long time to get everything coordinated after that long layoff,” he said of the recovery from the injury. He made the Giants staff out of spring training in 1957 and was brilliant in his first start against the Pirates. He allowed just 3 hits and 2 walks in a 1-0 shutout. “What a pickup he gave us. I can hardly wait to see him again,” enthused new manager Bill Rigney. Unfortunately, Burnside was knocked out of his next start in the first inning — something that happened in 4 of his 9 starts with the Giants in 1957. He was sent to the minors in June with a 1-4 record and 8.80 ERA. When he next resurfaced with the Giants at the start of the 1958 season, the team had relocated to San Francisco. Aside from a 2-inning start against the Cardinals in April, Burnside was used out of the bullpen — infrequently and without much success. The final straw came on June 4, when he was brought into a game in the ninth inning against the Milwaukee Braves to protect a 7-4 lead. The first batter he faced, Wes Covington, hit his first pitch for a game-tying home run, and the Braves won 10-9 in 11 innings. Less than an hour after the game ended, Burnside was sent to Phoenix of the Pacific Coast League. He won 11 games there and had his contract purchased by the Detroit Tigers after the season.

Source: Detroit Public Library Digital Collection

The Tigers tried a different tack with Burnside in 1959 and used him exclusively out of the bullpen as a mop-up reliever. He got off to a poor start and was bombed by the New York Yankees on June 4, allowing 5 runs in 5 innings, including home runs by Whitey Ford and Elston Howard. Then five days later, he threw 6-1/3 shutout innings against Boston, striking out 7 batters — including Ted Williams twice. Burnside never really graduated from his mop-up role, as the Tigers won in just 4 of his 30 appearances. But he secured holds in 3 of those wins and ended his first full season in the majors with a 1-3 record and a save, with 49 strikeouts and 25 walks in 62 innings. The Tigers tried him as a swingman in 1960, and he made 15 starts to go with 16 relief outings. The team had 20 doubleheaders on its schedule, so the customary four-man starting rotation needed the help. Burnside ended up with a 7-7 record and had back-to-back complete game wins against the Kansas City A’s and Yankees in July.

Burnside was on the move again after the season, as the expansion Washington Senators (today’s Texas Rangers) picked him in the December draft. He made 33 appearances for the 100-loss Senators in 1961, including 16 starts. He finished with a 5-9 record through a combination of bad luck and bad pitching. He had a great game against Boston on May 12, for instance, allowing 2 runs on 2 hits. Unfortunately, Boston starter Bill Monbouquette nearly tied a major-league record by striking out 17 Senators, and the Red Sox won 2-1. In other games, Burnside exited early after allowing a bunch of runs or had ineffective relief outings, and his ERA soared past 7 in July. In September, with little left to lose, he reworked his delivery, and he found something that worked. Over his final 6 starts, he worked into the eighth inning five times, with a complete game loss to the Yankees and two shutouts against the Kansas City A’s. He was 3-3 with a 1.80 ERA in those starts, giving him a 4-9 record and 4.53 ERA on the season. During 1961, he was one of three pitchers who surrendered 3 of Roger Maris’ record-setting 61 home runs. (Jim Perry and Frank Lary were the others.)

“The old joke that year was the Yankees would come to town and ask if I was healthy and going to pitch,” Burnside recalled years later.

Burnside started the 1962 season as a part of the Senators’ starting rotation. He picked up a win on April 13 with 5 innings of work against Cleveland. His next win was a 4-hit complete game against Boston on May 1, in which he struck out 7. Unfortunately for Washington, they had lost every single game between those two wins — a 13-game losing streak that left them buried in last place for the rest of the season. Burnside fared well as long as he remained a starter. However, manager Mickey Vernon began working him out of the bullpen as well, and he struggled in the role of a swingman. He had a disastrous start against Detroit on August 24, in which he pitched 2 innings and surrendered a grand slam homer to Steve Boros and a 2-run blast to Rocky Colavito. The 11-1 defeat left the pitcher with 11 losses on the year against 5 wins, with 6 complete games as a starting pitcher and a couple of saves as a reliever. He was exiled to the bullpen for the rest of the year and ended up with a 4.53 ERA — 5.00 in 20 starts and 2.72 in 20 relief outings.

Jim Piersall, Senators manager Mickey Vernon and Pete Burnside celebrate snapping a 13-game losing streak early in the 1962 season. Source: The Windsor Star, May 2, 1962.

The Tigers traded Burnside to Baltimore in December of 1962, along with infielder Bob Johnson for infielder Marv Breeding, pitcher Art Quirk and outfielder Barry Shetrone. Burnside might have seen more action with the Orioles had it not been for the surprise development of lefty Dave McNally, who pushed his way into the starting rotation as a 20-year-old rookie. The addition of McNally gave the O’s three lefty starters, including Mike McCormick and Steve Barber. Furthermore, a good spring by veteran southpaw Dean Stone added to the left-handed pitching surplus, and Burnside was the odd man out. He made 6 appearances with Baltimore and had an 0-1 record and a 4.91 ERA. He was released by the team when it needed to reduce its roster size in May and was picked up by the Senators a couple of weeks later. He stayed with the team for the rest of the season, giving him enough days in the majors to qualify for Major League Baseball’s pension plan. He was an effective reliever for a few months but ran out of gas around mid-August. Over his final 14 appearances, he only had one game where he was unscored upon, and his bad second half of the season left him with a 6.03 ERA between his two teams.

Burnside, right, gives instruction to pitcher Roger Benko during his time as a coach at Northwestern University. Source: Chicago Tribune, April 10, 1966.

In 1964, Burnside signed with the Hanshin Tigers in Japan. He played for two seasons there, accumulating a 10-22 record and a 3.09 ERA. Hanshin reached the championship finals in 1964. Burnside made his only appearance of the series by starting Game Five. He threw 6 scoreless innings, allowing just 5 hits in the 6-3 win. Unfortunately, Osaka won the next two games to win the Japan Series. Burnside was released after the 1965 season and ended his playing career.

Over parts of 8 seasons, Burnside appeared in 196 games, including 64 in relief. He had a 19-36 record with 7 games, as well as 14 complete games and 3 shutouts. He had an ERA of 4.81 and a FIP of 4.44. He struck out 303 batters and walked 230. His WHIP was 1.475, and his career ERA+ was 83.

Burnside didn’t get married to Suzette until 1964. “Look at my playing record. I never stayed in one place long enough to get married,” he quipped in 1960. When his playing career ended, he returned to Illinois and earned his master’s degree in education at Northwestern University. He also worked as a pitching coach for the Wildcats baseball team. He joined the faculty of New Trier High School in Winnetka in 1967 as a physical education teacher and baseball coach. It was the start of 25 years at the school as a teacher, coach and advisor. According to his obituary, he also helped to develop a course called “Lifeline,” which was a self-driven student wellness plan.

Burnside retired from New Trier in 1994 and spent much of his retirement exploring Wisconsin’s Northwoods, as he had done in his childhood. His two sons, Jim and John, followed in his father’s footsteps with their own successful high school coaching careers. “We are all a little different, but it is all stemming from what he taught us as a coach,” Jim Burnside told The Record. “The bottom line we keep central is the idea of kids first. It’s about them, it’s about who they are. That really rubbed off on us as coaches.”

For more information: Donnellan Family Funeral Services

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9 thoughts on “Obituary: Pete Burnside (1930-2022)

  1. As usual, your article makes for very interesting reading.
    One correction. The 1962 picture of Pete, Jimmy Piersall and his manager
    indicates that Whitey Lockman was the skipper that season. The manager
    was Mickey Vernon.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Sam,
        I see you made the correction to properly identify Mickey Vernon as the manager
        in the picture. The correction must also be made in the paragraph directly above
        the picture where Whitey Lockman is denoted as the manager.

        Continue to do your great work!!

        Liked by 1 person

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