Ernest Burke, 79, pitcher, outfielder in Negro Leagues

February 05, 2004|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Ernest Burke, a pitcher and outfielder for the Baltimore Elite Giants of the old Negro Leagues who became an anti-drug role model for young baseball players and students, died of complications from kidney cancer Saturday at Good Samaritan Hospital. The Pikesville resident was 79.

One of the first black Marines to serve in the Pacific during World War II, he began playing professionally in 1946 for Baltimore's segregated team. He played four seasons here, then three more with the St. Jean team in the Canadian Provincial League in the early 1950s - one year attaining a batting average of .308.

"He just loved to talk to children and students," said his wife of four years, the former Sandra Dolan.. "He told them of his experiences as a Negro Leagues pitcher and his time as one of first black Marines in World War II. He told them to keep themselves up on a pedestal and don't be pulled down to a lower level. He received thousands of letters from students expressing that he made a difference in their lives."

His team, the Elite Giants, was not allowed to play at the old Baltimore Stadium on 33rd Street, a situation that rankled Mr. Burke after his service in the war.

Instead, he and his teammates played at Bugle Field at Federal Street and Edison Highway.

In a 2002 interview with The Sun, Mr. Burke recalled how out-of-town games brought their own indignities.

"We rode in a school bus 200, 300 miles," he said of the travels along the East Coast. "You'd get out of the bus and stretch, and your bones would crack."

And racial prejudice was often waiting at the other end of the trip. Some towns and cities did not allow blacks to use changing facilities, so the players often dressed in their uniforms behind highway billboards.

At an Atlanta restaurant, an ugly scene once underlined the hostility. As the players were leaving, Mr. Burke recalled, "we saw people break the dishes, glasses and teacups on our table."

After leaving baseball, Mr. Burke became a heavy-equipment operator with the Henry J. Knott Construction Co. He retired in the early 1980s after 30 years. He then became a tennis instructor.

He supplemented his pension by attending trading card shows, where he signed autographs and sold Negro Leagues paraphernalia. Mr. Burke made many appearances at area schools, public gatherings and the Babe Ruth Museum.

"We never had any trainers to teach us how to slide or pitch," Mr. Burke said, "Each team was like a family. We would help and correct each other if needed. That's what made us so good. We could move mountains."

He appeared at the 1999 Orioles FanFest at the Baltimore Convention Center. "There are so many young people who have never heard of the Negro Leagues," Mr. Burke said that day. "I really shock them when I say where I played and who I played for."

He also took part in the opening of a 50th-anniversary exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in 1997 on Jackie Robinson breaking the major league color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

"He was a very warm person who was dedicated to educating the young," said Baltimore artist Robert R. Hieronimus, a friend and longtime booster of Negro Leagues history who was a board member with Mr. Burke of the Negro League Baseball Players Association.

"He was able to talk to children about staying off of drugs," Mr. Hieronimus said. "They believed him because he was a real fighter. He would to go to schools, for free, and talk from the kindergarten all the way up through the university level."

Mr. Burke was born in Havre de Grace (although he sometimes said his birthplace was in the nearby town of Perryville) and moved to Quebec as a teen-ager after his parents died. He returned to the United States to enlist in the Marine Corps during the war and played baseball on segregated Marine Corps teams in the Pacific against white teams.

He recalled getting three hits off an opposing pitcher who had played in the major leagues, and the pitcher advised him to try out for a Negro Leagues team, something Mr. Burke had not considered seriously.

Mr. Burke played for the semiprofessional Havre de Grace Black Sox team, and was scouted at Baltimore's Bugle Field by the Elite Giants, the team of eventual Hall-of-Famers Roy Campanella and Leon Day.

"We have lost another one," Mike Gibbons, director of the Babe Ruth Museum, said of Mr. Burke's death. "He was a superlative human being."

In 1995, Mr. Burke traveled to Cooperstown, N.Y., to see the posthumous induction of Mr. Day, who was a Baltimore resident, into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

"It's more special for me to see a black person come out of the Negro National League and get into the Hall of Fame than to have a black person come out of the major leagues and get into the Hall of Fame," Mr. Burke said at the time.

"I have no bitterness for what I went through," Mr. Burke told The Sun three years ago, recalling the prejudice of his baseball days. "I chalked it up to experience."

A funeral Mass will be offered at 10 a.m. today at the Episcopal Church of St. Mark's on the Hill, 1620 Reisterstown Road, Pikesville, where he was a communicant.

Survivors, in addition to his wife, include three daughters, Valerie Hester of Stafford, Va., Janis Covington of Chicago and Roslyn Burke of Washington; and five grandchildren. A previous marriage ended in divorce.

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