100 in 100: Rutherford County’s Forrest Burgess, baseball’s ‘Smoky’

Given his nickname from his small mountain town origins, the 18-year major leaguer was a nine-time All-Star

Smoky Burgess, catching while Hall of Famer Stan Musial bats, played 18 seasons in the majors and was a nine-time All-Star. (AP Photo)

North State Journal’s 100 in 100 series will showcase the best athlete from each of North Carolina’s 100 counties. From Alamance to Yancey, each county will feature one athlete who stands above the rest. Some will be obvious choices, others controversial, but all of our choices are worthy of being recognized for their accomplishments — from the diamond and gridiron to racing ovals and the squared circle. You can see all the profiles as they’re unveiled here.

Rutherford County

Forrest “Smoky” Burgess

If ever a baseball player was born to be a designated hitter, it was Smoky Burgess. The problem for Burgess is that the DH wasn’t created until six years after he retired at the age of 40 in 1967.

As it is, the native of Caroleen in the Smoky Mountains still managed to carve out a niche that helped him become one of the best in the history of the game at coming off the bench — usually late in a game — and getting a big hit.

A short, pudgy catcher with modest defensive skills and a throwing arm weakened by a Jeep accident while serving in the military, Burgess produced 145 pinch hits during his 18-year career with five teams, more than any player in baseball history at the time.

Smoky Burgess was one of baseballs top pinch hitters with 145 in his career. (AP Photo)

“You could wake him up at 3 a.m. on Christmas morning, with two inches of snow on the ground, throw him a curveball, and he’d hit a line drive,” former baseball announcer and fellow catcher Joe Garagiola once said of Burgess.

He was a good enough hitter that he was selected to the All-Star team nine times while batting .295 for his career. His .368 average in 108 games with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1954 would have led the National League by a wide margin had he recorded enough at-bats to qualify. Four years later, he helped the Pittsburgh Pirates win the World Series, hitting .333 (6 of 18) while playing in five of the seven games against the New York Yankees. His team won four of those five games, including a dramatic 10-9 Game 7 victory.

A fan of the Yankees growing up, Burgess became a catcher because that was the position his favorite player, Bill Dickey, played. His aggressive approach at the plate was instilled in him by Forrest Hunt, his coach at Henrietta-Caroleen-Avondale High School (also known as Tri-High), who told him “You’ll never be a hitter unless you swing the bat.”

He signed his first pro contract with the Chicago Cubs at the age of 17 in 1944. After his career was put on hold due to a two-year stretch in the Army, he made his major league debut in 1949, appropriately enough, as a pinch hitter. Nearly 1,700 games, 1,318 hits, 126 homers and 673 RBIs later, he became the last player to formally retire who had played in the major leagues in the 1940s.

Burgess returned home after baseball to run his car dealership and serve as a scout for the Atlanta Braves until his death in 1991. He is a member of the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame.