Obituary: Dick Burwell (1940-2023)

RIP to Dick Burwell, who pitched in the majors for parts of two seasons. He died in Arizona on May 1, at the age of 83. Burwell played for the Chicago Cubs in 1960 and ’61.

Richard Matthew Burwell was born on January 23, 1940, in Alton, Ill. He played multiple sports at Litchfield High School, including pitcher/outfielder on the school baseball team. Newspapers reported his height at 6’4″, which is a few inches higher than Baseball Reference lists, so he was an important part of the basketball team. He scored more than 400 points in his senior year and averaged 16 rebounds per game, in fact. He took his athletic prowess to Illinois Wesleyan University in 1958. He stayed there for one year but made an impression as the school’s only three-letter athlete. He was a tackle on the football team, a promising basketball player and also the MVP of the school’s baseball team. Burwell turned in an 11-1 record, with a no-hitter against Lake Forest, four 1-hitters and a 2-hitter. He had a 1.77 ERA and fanned 131 batters in 86-2/3 innings. Every major-league team sent scouts to watch his games, and Burwell credited his time as a football tackle for his baseball success.

“It built up my shoulders and chest, and I was far stronger this spring as a result of my three months’ work under Coach Larson, and my major regret in signing a pro contract is that I won’t be eligible to play football next fall,” Burwell said. As noted, Burwell signed a pro contract with the Chicago Cubs, on May 28, 1959. The Cubs reportedly paid him $50,000, which was the largest bonus ever given by the team to a player to that point in time. He started pitching in 1959 for the Burlington Bees of the Three-Eye League. He struggled there but had some success when he was moved to Class-D Paris of the Midwest League. Burwell had a combined 3-8 record and 4.55 ERA between the two teams, and the Cubs added him to their roster at the end of the season to keep from losing him in a minor-league draft.

Burwell spent most of 1960 pitching for the Wenatchee Chiefs of the Class-B Northwest League. He won 12 games and lost 10 there, with a 4.37 ERA. He struck out an impressive 136 batters in 173 innings, but he also walked 92 batters. The Cubs brought the 20-year-old Burwell to the majors and gave him a start on September 13, 1960, against Cincinnati. His highlight actually came at the plate, as he singled in his first major-league at-bat against Bob Purkey and scored on a Danny Murphy home run. However, he also surrendered a 2-run homer to Gordy Coleman and a grand slam to Eddie Kasko. Burwell lasted 5 innings, gave up 6 runs on 3 innings, and escaped with a no-decision. He pitched in two relief outings for the Cubs to close out the season, and those appearances went much better. Burwell tossed 2-2/3 scoreless innings against the Cardinals on September 23, though he gave up 4 hits and 4 walks. He loaded the bases twice but escaped both jams. He then shut out the Dodgers over 2 innings on October 2, leaving him with 5.59 ERA over 9-2/3 innings.

Source: Salt Lake Tribune, April 6, 1964.

Burwell and fellow pitcher Morris Steevens were among the first players to go to the new Arizona winter instructional league, where he was managed by Charlie Grimm. He returned to Wenatchee in 1961 and again won 12 games, though control continued to be a problem. He had 145 strikeouts and 150 walks in 195 innings. The Cubs brought him back to the majors in September. Burwell didn’t walk any batters in his September 7 appearance against Pittsburgh, but he didn’t retire any batters either. Brought into the fifth inning with the Cubs already down 6-2, Burwell gave up three straight singles to Bill Mazeroski, Al McBean and Bill Virdon, loading the bases. Barney Schultz was then brought in from the bullpen and gave up an RBI double play to Dick Groat, with the run being charged to Burwell. His final appearance came against the Giants on September 17. Cubs starter Jack Curtis was knocked out of the game in the third inning after allowing a 2-run homer to Felipe Alou, so Burwell was brought in to eat up innings. He pitched rather well for 4 innings but was probably kept in a little too long. He started the seventh inning with back-to-back walks of Joey Amalfitano and Willie Mays, and Alou again punished the Cubs with an RBI single. Don Elston reliever Burwell after that and got out of the inning. For his two outings, Burwell allowed 4 runs in 4 innings for a 9.00 ERA.

Burwell remained with the Cubs organization for four more years, though he never returned to the majors. His best season came in 1964, when he split time with Salt Lake City and Fort Worth and won 13 games, with a 2.87 ERA. By 1965, he had been moved to the bullpen for the Dallas-Fort Worth Spurs of the Texas League. He was brilliant in the role, with a 1.91 ERA in 66 innings, as well as 49 strikeouts. But it was the final season of Burwell’s pro career. He was roughed up in spring training and released by the Cubs in 1966.

Burwell had a 66-73 record and 3.70 ERA across 7 seasons in the minors. In his 5 appearances with the Cubs, he had no record and a 6.59 ERA. He allowed 17 hits and 11 walks in 13-2/3 innings, and his only major-league strikeout was a bases-loaded whiff of the Cardinals’ Julian Javier.

After his baseball career, Burwell worked for Coors before moving to Idaho and running Magic Valley Distributing Inc. He retired in 2005 and moved to Arizona for his retirement. He is survived by his wife of 62 years, Susan, and sons Bob and Tom.

Burwell never had a baseball card in his playing career. He was part of a postcard set in 1966 issued by sports card dealer James T. Elder, but he never had his own Topps card… until 2009. A limited number of autographed Dick Burwell cards appeared in the Topps 2009 Heritage set, some solo and some with Cubs players Kevin Gregg or Geovany Soto. There can’t be too many ballplayers who had their rookie card came out when they were 69 years old!

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