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An interview with former Royals pitcher Tom Burgmeier

Burgy dishes on life and baseball

Tom Burgmeier, born in St. Paul, Minnesota and raised in nearby St. Cloudm, was an excellent high school athlete. Along with baseball, he competed in wrestling and ice hockey. He led his high school baseball team, Cathedral High, to the 1961 Minnesota State baseball championship. Bugmeier was selected by Kansas City with the 47th pick of the 1968 expansion draft and spent five years with the Royals. Tom was very gracious with his time as we talked about a little bit of everything in an interesting and fascinating look at the life of a baseball lifer.

BL: Coming out of high school, did you envision yourself having a 17-year major league career?

TB: No, not at the time. I don’t think anyone does. In those days, before the amateur draft, teams would scout you, then take us (me and my father) out to dinner and make their pitch. I ended up signing with the Houston Colt 45’s (now Astros). My first season was spent in Modesto. I bounced around the minors, San Antonio, Durham, back to Modesto. Houston released me and Rocky Bridges made a recommendation to sign me with the Angels. Rosie Gilhousen was the scout that signed me (Gilhousen also signed George Brett and Dan Quisenberry). I loved playing for Rocky, he was a great guy. I had a low draft number, so I missed Vietnam. In 1967, I played in Seattle (AAA – Pacific Coast League) and pitched 230 innings. I probably pitched another 45 in spring training that year, plus more in winter ball. I imagine I threw more than 300 innings in 1967. Teams just don’t do that today.

BL: You were known as a great athlete, excellent fielder and a pretty good hitter. Did you ever entertain the idea of changing positions and becoming an outfielder?

TB: You bet, several times. I played some center field in high school and I could go get them as well as anyone. In 1970 the Royals wanted to send me to Omaha to learn to play centerfield. They said I’d be back in a few weeks. I told them to put that in writing, otherwise I’m going to concentrate on being a pitcher.

I always enjoyed shagging balls in batting practice. Me and Soup (fellow pitcher Bill Campbell) would put on a show, catching balls between our legs and behind our backs.

I did play 1/3 of an inning in left field for Boston in August of 1980 (August 3rd) in a game against the Yankees. Zim (Boston manager Don Zimmer) called me in to pitch the 9th. With two outs, he moved me to left and brought in Skip Lockwood to close it out. If Skip couldn’t get the final out and Mickey Rivers had come to the plate, I would have moved back to the mound.

BL: You played some hockey in high school. Do you still follow the game?

TB: Absolutely. Especially the playoffs. I’m a Penguins fan. When I was a kid, dad would flood the backyard and make a rink. We also would play on a local lake – outdoor hockey. I still skate a little!

BL: Growing up in St. Cloud, did you know former Royal (and St. Cloud native) Jim Eisenreich?

TB: I didn’t know Jim growing up. My brother knew him and was always telling me about this guy who could hit everything and had a cannon for an arm. I met Jim about twenty years ago and we’ve become good friends. I see him at some charity golf tournaments. Jim is a great guy and was a helluva ballplayer.

BL: Your career spanned three decades (60’s, 70’s, 80’s). Tell me about some noticeable changes in the game over that time.

TB: It’s a very different game today, a very different mentality of what’s acceptable. The pitchers give up far more walks. There’s far more strikeouts and far more home runs. Did you see the Red Sox-Yankee game in London the other day? Crazy! In my day, a team’s bullpen might have 5 or 6 guys. You had to perform, or they got rid of you. Today a lot of teams carry 12-13 pitchers.

Players in my day also policed themselves better. We didn’t need the help from the umpires, the warnings and ejections you see today. If you got out of line, you got hit with a pitch. You sucked it up and the game went on.

BL: What did you think the first time you saw yourself on a baseball card?

TB: At the time, I never thought much of it. You’re so busy playing. I think by the end of my career, I had 28 different baseball cards, Topps, Fleer, Donruss. I probably still get three a day in the mail, on average for autographs. People send them from all over. I’ve signed in the thousands.

BL: Let’s talk about your Kansas City years. You were there in the beginning (Burgmeier was the 47th pick in the expansion draft, by the Royals).

TB: I was with the Angels and we’d lost some players before I was picked (Don Mincher, Marty Pattin, Paul Schaal, Steve Hovley), so I wasn’t sure I was going to be picked. I was playing ball in Puerto Rico when I found out. We won the championship in Puerto Rico that winter. Coming to Kansas City was exciting. It was a great time and a lot of fun to be part of. I moved to town and rented an apartment on the Plaza.

BL: You were an integral part of the staff from 1969 to 1972. In 1973, you only appeared in six games. What happened there? Were you hurt or was it something else?

TB: It was something else. I was the union players rep and I think that had something to do with it. Jack (McKeon) called me into his office. He told me they were sending me to Omaha to work on my slider. I knew that was bullshit. I could tell as the season wore on, that my time in Kansas City was over, so I asked for a trade. I like Jack, but I knew it was over in KC.

BL Notes:

From 1969 to 1972, Tom Burgmeier was excellent. He posted a 24-16 won loss record while appearing in 190 games and throwing 266 innings for the Royals. He ended this outstanding four-year run with a 3.11 ERA, 27 saves and an ERA+ of 112. Then 1973 happened. Burgmeier went north with the Royals when spring training broke. He appeared in six early season games between April 6th and May 1st before being called into Manager Jack McKeon’s office. McKeon was the new sheriff in town in 1973, having replaced the popular Bob Lemon.

During his short tenure as Royals manager, McKeon managed to alienate many Royals, including stars such as Steve Busby and Lou Piniella. Now it was Tom Burgmeier’s turn. He walked into McKeon’s office to find the manager with his feet up on his desk, smoking a cigar. “Tom, we’re sending you to Omaha to work on your slider.” Like most of us, Tom Burgmeier knew when smoke was being blown up his ass and this was one of those times.

The reality was, Burgmeier was the Royals players union representative. Being a player’s rep in those days was an occupational hazard. Teams often elected one of their star players to be their union rep, knowing that ownership wouldn’t dare trade, cut or demote a star player. As a fan, it’s often disheartening to realize that the General Manager and Owner of your favorite team has other criteria than putting the absolute best team on the field.

The Royals finished the 1973 season in second place, six games behind the eventual World Champion Oakland A’s. Could Burgmeier have made up those six games? Maybe not, but six games over a 162-game schedule is a razor thin margin. Just one more win each month. The Royals lost 20 one run games in the summer of 1973. Burgmeier knew his time in Kansas City was over, so he asked Cedric Tallis and Lou Gorman for a trade. The Royals granted his request and in October 1973, traded Burgmeier to his hometown Minnesota Twins for minor league pitcher Ken Gill. Gill never threw a single pitch for the Royals, or their affiliates, and was out of baseball after the 1974 season. Burgmeier, however, was just finding his stride. The trade remains possibly the second-worst trade of Cedric Tallis’s career, after the Lou Piniella debacle. The common thread is both players were basically run out of KC by McKeon.

BL: Tell us about your time playing under Bob Lemon.

TB: Lem was great, he was one of my top two favorite managers of all time. He had a great sense of humor and was a player’s manager. Bob had the ability to handle people with a civil attitude. He was the best. He treated us like sons. I also enjoyed playing for Joe Gordon, even though Joe knew he would only be in Kansas City for one season. I also enjoyed playing for Ralph Houk in Boston.

BL: Tell us about playing for your hometown Twins.

TB: I loved that time. My dad was still living there, so he got to see a lot of my games. We spent a lot of time fishing; dad knew all the lakes around Minneapolis. After the games, I’d go over to his place and he’d have a fish fry. It was just a great time.

BL Note: While in Minnesota, Burgmeier and Bill “Soup” Campbell formed a lethal right-left bullpen, reminiscent of the right-left combo in Kansas City (Burgmeier and Ted Abernathy). 1977 was Burgmeier’s last season in Minneapolis. He became a free agent and in February of 1978 he signed with the Boston Red Sox, reuniting him with former teammates Campbell and Dick Drago.

BL: Of the five teams you played for, which was your favorite?

TB: Definitely Boston. I liked all the places I played, but Boston was special. We always had competitive teams. The ballpark was always sold out. Fenway was a great place to play. I called it the Postcard park. I still like going back there for games. The press in Boston was much tougher on you than in other cities. They didn’t hesitate to call a spade a spade. If you were playing poorly, they called you out. You had to put aside your ego. Boston also had great fans.

BL: You made your only All-Star team in 1980 (with Boston). You ended the season 5-4 with a 2.00 ERA and 24 saves. You were also excellent in 1971 – 9-7, 1.73 ERA and 17 saves. Which was your better season?

TB: I’d have to say 1980. I was playing in front of bigger crowds and in games that meant something. 19 of my saves that year were in games where I pitched more than one inning. That’s different than today when guys come in and get three outs. Today you have your 7th inning guy. You have your 8th inning guy. Then you have your 9th inning guy. In those days, we had firemen who would pitch 2-3 innings to close out a game.

Right before the All-Star game, we had a four-game set with the Orioles (July 3-6). I pitched in three of those games (6.2 innings total and two saves). In the last game, something happened to my shoulder, so they brought in Bob Stanley to get the last out. I never got stiff after a game, but I could tell something was off. I told Earl Weaver about it and asked that he not use me in the All-Star game unless absolutely necessary. The bum shoulder set me back about two weeks. After the season I flew to LA and had Dr. Frank Jobe examine me. Today, they’d probably do a little rotator cuff cleanup in the off-season and I’d be good as new. After that injury, it always took me longer to get loose.

BL: Tell us about your pitching repertoire.

TB: I mixed it up a lot. I threw some cutters. My fastball would top out at 89-90 mph. I changed speeds a lot. I might throw one pitch at 80, then the next one at 76. I would often drop down and throw ¾ or sidearm, always changing speeds. Command was important. Don’t walk people and keep the ball down. Zach Greinke is about the only pitcher I see today who changes speeds like I used to.

BL note: I mentioned to Tom that I had just seen Kyle Zimmer, a young pitcher with tremendous potential, throw nine straight balls, something I had never seen before.

TB: It happens sometimes. It can be fickle. I once threw eight straight balls, but only gave up one walk. Think about that for a minute.

It was in a game at Milwaukee. I came in when the batter already had two balls. I threw two balls, walked him, but he wasn’t my batter. I walked the next guy on four pitches, then went two balls, no strikes on the next hitter – eight straight balls. The next pitch he hit a ground ball to short, and the game was over. Eight straight balls and only one walk!

I think the max you could throw and only give up one walk is ten consecutive balls. If you inherited a batter with a 1-0 count, threw three straight balls to him (remember, he’s not your batter). You walk the next guy on four balls, then go 3-0 on the third batter, before getting him out. That’s ten straight balls, right? I wonder if anyone has ever done that?

BL: Your career stats were much better than people give you credit for (79-55, 3.23 ERA, 12 saves, ERA+ of 119). With the big money being thrown around at situational pitchers, do you ever think that you were born 40 years too early?

TB: We all do. We all see the money today and think about it. You see a guy today with a 4-8 record who’s throwing 60 innings a season and he’s getting paid $4-5 million per year, yeah you think about it.

BL: Who was the best pitcher you ever saw?

TB: I’ve seen a lot of great ones. Catfish Hunter. Vida Blue. Bret Saberhagen. Zach Greinke. Those guys all had great command at a very young age. The guy who used to pitch for Toronto, Dave Steib. He was a good one.

Dennis Eckersley had phenomenal command. Eckersley used to say he hated relievers, then he becomes one and ends up in the Hall of Fame. Ron Guidry was terrific. Bob Gibson, Jim Palmer, Denny McLain were all great pitchers.

BL: Which hitter gave you the most trouble?

TB: Sal Bando! It seems like I could never get that guys out.

BL Note: Indeed. Sal Bando, in 38 plate appearances against Burgmeier, slashed .548/.632/.742 while going 17 for 31 with 7 walks. Bando also nicked him for 15 RBI, the second highest total of any hitter facing Burgmeier. Reggie Jackson had the most RBI against Burgmeier with 17 but needed 30 more plate appearances to do that.

I see Frank White at some charity golf outings, and he likes to remind me that he hit his first career home run off me.

BL Note: April 6, 1974 – White hit his first career home run, a solo shot off Burgmeier, leading off the 7th inning in a game that the Royals won 23-6. That is not a misprint.

BL: What have you been doing since retiring as a player?

TB: I did some coaching, had stops is Rockford, Illinois, Burlington, Iowa and Eugene, Oregon. I rejoined the Royals in 1997 and from 1998 to 2000 I was their bullpen coach.

In fact, I used to ride my bike to the stadium, a 25-mile ride. In 1999, on my way to the park, on a curve outside the stadium, a guy sideswiped me. Broke my leg. Had surgery and had a screw put into the leg. The doc told me that my days of climbing ladders and tree stands were over. Here I am at 76, still climbing into deer stands! Once the adhesions broke up around the scar tissue, I’ve never had any problems with it.

I play a little golf – my son is a golf pro. He also loves to hunt, so we spend some time hunting and fishing. Kansas is a great state for outdoorsmen. We do some bird hunting – quail, pheasants, turkey, ducks and geese. We make a trip every year out around Hill City, Kansas to hunt birds. I still enjoy bow hunting deer.

My baseball life was great, I enjoyed every minute of it. The only bad day I had in baseball was the day I got hit on the bike!

BL: Tom, thank you for taking the time to talk!

TB: My pleasure!