Ellis Burton was a Cardinals outfield prospect who recovered from a near-fatal car accident to earn a spot on St. Louis’ Opening Day roster in 1960.
Though he enjoyed stellar seasons in the Cardinals’ minor-league system and impressed St. Louis manager Solly Hemus during spring training in 1960, Burton’s stint with the club was short and largely unproductive.
This post is a tribute to Burton, who died Oct. 1, 2013, at 77 near his hometown of Los Angeles.
Burton signed with the Pirates after he was graduated from high school in 1955.
Two years later, Burton “was nearly killed in an automobile crash,” according to The Sporting News. The publication reported that Burton’s car “went over a 115-foot cliff.” Burton broke his collarbone and also suffered a concussion and internal injuries, The Sporting News wrote.
“I was supposed to be in a cast for six months, but I couldn’t keep it on,” Burton said to writer Jack Herman. “I was playing ball again inside of a month.”
Tony Governor, West Coast scout for the Cardinals, long had followed Burton’s athletic career. When the Pirates, concerned about Burton’s ability to recover fully from the accident, made him available in the minor-league draft in December 1957, Governor recommended the Cardinals select him.
Plucked by Cardinals
Paying the $3,500 draft price, the Cardinals followed their scout’s advice, acquired Burton and assigned him to Class AA Houston of the Texas League for 1958.
Burton opened the season as a second baseman. His collarbone still hadn’t healed sufficiently enough to allow him to make long throws. Harry Walker, Houston’s manager, “literally worked hours with (Burton) on improving his throwing,” The Sporting News reported.
Burton recovered well enough to move from second base to the outfield that year.
Meanwhile, Paul Waner, the Cardinals’ minor-league hitting instructor, had noticed Burton often jerked his head around when he batted. “I want your head steady,” Waner said to Burton.
The tip worked. A switch-hitter, Burton hit .286 with a league-high 41 doubles and 22 home runs in 147 games for Houston.
In September 1958, Burton, 22, was rewarded with a promotion to the Cardinals. In eight games for St. Louis, he batted .233 (7-for-30) with two home runs.
Burton spent the 1959 season with the Cardinals’ Class AAA club at Omaha and hit .292 with 26 doubles, 14 homers and 18 stolen bases.
At spring training in March 1960, Burton caught the attention of Hemus. In an article headlined, “Burton, Cardinals Comet, Escaped Death By An Eyelash,” The Sporting News recounted Burton’s 1957 car accident and touted his spring training performance.
“He is one of the most promising youngsters in the St. Louis camp,” The Sporting News wrote of Burton. “He’s as versatile with the glove as he is with the bat.”
Burton opened the 1960 season as a reserve outfielder for St. Louis behind starters Stan Musial, Curt Flood and Joe Cunningham.
On April 16, 1960, Burton gave a glimpse of his potential. Batting leadoff, Burton had two of the Cardinals’ four hits off the Dodgers’ Don Drysdale, who pitched a complete game in a 3-2 victory for Los Angeles. Boxscore
Two months later, June 11, Burton sparked a three-run ninth-inning rally for St. Louis, driving in a run and scoring in the Cardinals’ 7-6 victory over the Pirates. Boxscore
But Burton batted just .214 (13-for-58) in 37 games for the 1960 Cardinals. In mid-June, he was sent to Class AAA Rochester, where he spent the remainder of the season, hitting .257 with 14 home runs.
After the 1960 season, the Cardinals sent Burton to Toronto, then an independent Class AAA franchise, to complete a trade for pitcher Al Cicotte. In his two stints with St. Louis, the Cardinals Comet produced an overall batting average of .224 (13-for-58).
Burton eventually returned to the big leagues and played for the Indians and Cubs. In five major-league seasons, he hit .216 with 17 home runs.
Previously: Clyde King mentored young Cardinals of 1960s