On the prowl for Eugene Burns

Several months ago, I received a call from Tim Newman in Austin, a local baseball historian with an interest in the early Texas League. Tim was hoping I had some information on Gene Burns, a pitcher he had found played for Paris in 1902. I had no record of Burns having played in Paris; however, William Ruggles, long-time Texas League statistician, did note him as appearing with the team. So, I did a little more investigation.

 

As it turns out, if Gene Burns did play with Paris in 1902, it was for a very brief period and he was never listed in a box score. He did, however, play in the Texas League in future years. He appeared briefly with Fort Worth in 1902, followed by a stint with Houston in 1903. His best year came in 1904, though. While shuffling around the league, Burns posted a 24-9 won-loss record. He returned to Galveston in 1905, finally ending his career with Waco the following season. Complete statistics for Gene Burns are as scarce as information about the man himself. He did, however, pitch the first no-hitter in the history of the short-lived South Texas League.

 

Statistics and achievements on the field are interesting, at least to baseball historians, but Gene Burns is also a great example of what goes into the hunt for a long-forgotten personality who left little hint as to his life and what eventually became of him. As is often the case, a tiny nugget of information buried in the page of an old newspaper printed in tiny typeface provided the break in solving the case of Eugene Burns.

 

In early 20th century newspapers, ballplayers are only occasional listed with both their first and last names. At most, one will find a first and middle initial with a last name or sometimes just a nickname. This makes tracking down old Texas Leaguers extremely difficult, especially when a name as common as “Burns” is the subject of the search. After scouring the internet and newspaper archives, though, I finally hit pay dirt with an issue of The Galveston News in 1904. Most of the season the newspaper had included statistics on a player named “Burns,” but buried within a one paragraph article on the sports page I found gold. Gene Burns, the paper noted, worked in the off-season as a wholesale grocer in Fort Worth. With that bit of information, Burns’ life came into focus.

 

Eugene Frank Burns was born August 6, 1882, in Kansas. Unfortunately, his date of birth makes it difficult to track his heritage. He obviously would not be listed in the 1880 census records, and by 1900, he apparently had left home. The secret to his parents would like be held in the 1890 census, but those records were lost long ago in a fire.

 

Even though we can’t tell where Burns came from, there is a wealth of information on what he did over the course of his baseball career and life. In 1907, Gene married Effie E. Burns, a native Texan whose mother also hailed from Texas and her father from Arkansas. The following year, Effie gave birth to the couple’s only child, Eugene Arthur Burns (the small family another difficulty in finding information). The family resided in Fort Worth, where during the off-season, Gene Burns worked in the grocery business for a period spanning at least 35 years. By 1942, he had gone to work for the Texas Ice and Refrigeration Company also based in Fort Worth.

 

Following his baseball career, Burns remained involved in the sport on an amateur level, serving as an umpire in Fort Worth. But his focus remained on the grocery business that earned a good living for his family. By 1940, young Eugene had moved to Arizona where he became a rancher until World War II, when he enlisted in the Marines and served as a sergeant.

 

Eugene Burns died in Dallas on June 23, 1963 of a heart attack while battling colon cancer and high blood pressure. Effie went to work for Contact electronics following his death. She died April 6, 1979, and is buried beside her husband at Grove Hill Memorial Park in Dallas. Interestingly, the couple’s son died in 1972, just nine years after his father. He, too, died while undergoing treatment for colon cancer.

 

So, there’s an inside look into what it takes to track down a long-lost ballplayer who perhaps only Tim Newman of Austin was aware existed. Thank you, Tim, for offering the challenge. The hunt is the most entertaining part of the chase.

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