Unlike Alex Reyes, who delivers heat with a smooth motion, Ken Burkhart appeared to be throwing a shot put when he pitched for the Cardinals. Though possessing different styles, Reyes and Burkhart both produced effective results as St. Louis rookies.
In 2016, Reyes became the third Cardinals pitcher to earn a save and a win in relief in his first four career games, according to researcher Tom Orf. The others were Burkhart in 1945 and Dick Hughes in 1966.
Reyes was 21 and a highly-ranked prospect when he achieved his feat in August 2016.
Burkhart was 28 and a longtime minor-league pitcher when he achieved his feat in April 1945.
Time will tell what path Reyes’ career will take. Chances are, though, it won’t follow the direction Burkhart’s career took. After five seasons as a big-league pitcher, Burkhart became a National League umpire in 1957.
Working the farm
Burkhart (the original spelling of the name was Burkhardt) was working as a machinist in Cleveland in the summer of 1937 when he attended a Cardinals tryout camp at Columbus, Ohio. He made enough of an impression for the Cardinals to invite him to their baseball school at Winter Haven, Fla., the following spring.
The Cardinals signed Burkhart, 21, at the 1938 Winter Haven camp and he began an odyssey through the St. Louis farm system.
Burkhart earned 20 wins for Class B Asheville (N.C.) in 1940. A broken left leg in 1942 set him back.
After posting a 15-9 record for Class AA Columbus (Ohio) in 1944, Burkhart was invited to the Cardinals’ spring training camp in 1945. With several pitchers in military service, Burkhart was given a long look by the Cardinals and the rookie won a spot on their Opening Day roster.
“It seemed a long time coming up, but I kept aiming for the top,” said Burkhart to The Sporting News.
On April 21, 1945, Burkhart made his major-league debut in the Cardinals’ home opener, pitching two scoreless innings and getting the win in a 3-2 St. Louis victory over the Reds at Sportsman’s Park.
Following starter Blix Donnelly and Bud Byerly, Burkhart entered in the eighth with the score tied at 2-2 and retired six of the seven batters he faced in his two innings of work. In the bottom of the ninth, Johnny Hopp delivered a RBI-single off starter Arnold Carter, lifting the Cardinals to victory. Boxscore
The next day, April 22, Burkhart pitched 1.1 innings of scoreless relief in Game 2 of a doubleheader versus the Reds.
In his third appearance, April 29, Burkhart got his save.
With the Cardinals ahead, 4-3, in Game 2 of a Sunday doubleheader at Crosley Field in Cincinnati, Burkhart relieved starter Mort Cooper with two outs in the seventh. He shut down the Reds, yielding no runs in 2.1 innings. The Cardinals won, 8-3. Boxscore
Burkhart completed the 1945 season with an 18-8 record and 2.90 ERA in 42 appearances for the Cardinals. He made 22 starts and 20 relief appearances, totaling 217.1 innings pitched. The right-hander was 12-7 with a 2.75 ERA as a starter and 6-1 with three saves and a 3.40 ERA as a reliever.
Burkhart was a combined 6-0 that season against the Cubs (who finished three games ahead of the second-place Cardinals) and Dodgers (who placed third).
“He’s one of the gamest pitchers I’ve ever had work for me,” Cardinals manager Billy Southworth said to The Sporting News. “I’ve had men with more stuff, but none who ever bore down harder all the way.”
His rookie season was Burkhart’s best as a big-league pitcher.
In four seasons with the Cardinals, Burkhart was 27-17 with seven saves and a 3.60 ERA. In July 1948, the Cardinals dealt Burkhart to the Reds for first baseman Babe Young. Burkhart was 0-3 with one save and a 5.40 ERA in two seasons with Cincinnati.
With his pitching career at an end, Burkhart returned to the minors and began a second career as an umpire.
Burkhart was a National League umpire from 1957-73. He worked the 1964 World Series that matched the Yankees and Cardinals. It was the Cardinals’ first World Series appearance since Burkhart pitched for them in 1946.
Burkhart was the home plate umpire when the Yankees won, 2-1, in Game 3 of the 1964 World Series.
In his 1964 book “Stan Musial: The Man’s Own Story,” Musial, commenting on Burkhart as a pitcher, said, “Ken had an idea the plate was wider and the strike zone bigger than he sees them now as an umpire. He had a frozen shoulder, a strange shot-put delivery, and only limited skill, but he had a good competitive heart.”