Even with Career Year, Ramirez has a Long Way to Go for Burns’ Doubles Mark

By any observable metric, Jose Ramirez is on a tear.

After stepping in last year to fill roles in the infield and outfield, Ramirez has blossomed into a legitimate MVP candidate, with 5.3 wins above replacement and a .308 batting average. He’s leading the league in doubles with 47. With the right combination of speed and power, and the way the Indians are playing right now, 60 doubles wouldn’t be out of the question.

It would be a mark unseen in nearly 80 years – and nowhere near the best ever by an Indians player.

That honor goes to George Burns (no, not that George Burns), whose 64 doubles in 1926 were the major league record – eclipsing the former mark of 59 set by Indians player-manager Tris Speaker three years earlier – and remain the mark for a right-handed hitter. It had been a long torturous route to Cleveland – and then BACK to Cleveland – for Burns, who, ironically, was born an hour away in Niles.

Although born in Northeast Ohio, Burns grew up in Pennsylvania. He dropped out of Central High School in Philadelphia to sign a contract to play minor league baseball, and his contract was bought by the Tigers. He broke into the major leagues in 1914, and spent four seasons in Detroit, taking batting tips from Ty Cobb. In 1918, he was sold to the Yankees, who promptly traded him to Philadelphia for Ping Bodie. After two years with the Athletics, Burns was sold to the Indians at the end of May 1920.

The Tribe was leading the American League, but there were only a total of five games between them and the fifth-place Washington Senators. In between were the Red Sox, Yankees, and White Sox. He platooned at first base with Doc Johnston, but played an important role in the 1920 World Series, driving in Speaker for the only run in a 1-0 Indians win in Game 6, the penultimate game of the Fall Classic.

Burns and Johnston platooned again in 1921, and Johnston was released after the season. Speaker coveted Stuffy McInnis, and dealt Burns, Joe Harris, and Elmer Smith to the Red Sox for him.

As the Red Sox’ everyday first baseman, Burns flourished. In 1923, he also completed an unassisted triple play – against the Indians, ironically enough. McInnis was gone from Cleveland after the 1922 season, and Speaker ultimately got Burns back in 1924. Two years later, Burns hit .358 with a league-leading 218 hits, including the record 64 doubles. Plain Dealer writer Jim Flanagan recounted a particularly difficult interview with Roger Peckinpaugh, who had played, managed, and served as general manager for the Indians. Peckinpaugh berated Flanagan with every question, finally saying, “Now if you were to ask me if George Burns had a chance to set a record for doubles and he hit a triple one day and he stopped at second so he would break the record for doubles, I might answer a question like that.” Flanagan complied, and Peckinpaugh said, “How the hell do I know? Only George Burns knows that!”

For his performance, legitimate or not, Burns was a nearly unanimous choice for the League Award – sort of a precursor to the Most Valuable Player award – which seems strange until you learn that the rules of the award forbade repeat winners (Babe Ruth, who hit 47 home runs that year, had won it three years earlier).

Burns was heralded for playing despite injuries, including a cracked rib and a broken thumb, and with Speaker’s departure as manager – amid controversy – there was talk that Burns might be the next manager of the Indians, but the job went to Jack McAllister. Burns was sold to the Yankees after the 1928 season, and ended his career a year later on the roster of the Athletics as they won the World Series. Once again, he was a backup at first for a championship team, this time behind Jimmie Foxx.

Burns’ record was eclipsed in 1931 by Earl Webb of the Red Sox. Perhaps not coincidentally, that was the first year for ground-rule doubles in both leagues. Previously, a ball that bounced into the stands was ruled a home run.

Burns ended his career, like many other Indians players, in the Pacific Coast League, and settled in Portland, Ore., afterward. He felt he was cheated out of the Hall of Fame, and died of cancer in 1978.

Photo: George Grantham Bain Collection of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

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