The Love of the Game
How two men helped turn Denver from a minor-league outpost into a major-league city.
Jim Burris shuffles around the bright Denver-area home that's stuffed with souvenirs of his past and necessities of his present. A table in his family room is blanketed with a dozen or more medicines that come with the territory when you're 84 years old. Another in the kitchen is covered with containers of food: pretzels, crackers, candy, the kind of snacks you'd want to have ready in case the grandkids or great-grandkids drop by. Another table holds several dictionary-size baseball tomes, including the Baseball Encyclopedia. A china cabinet has been converted to a bookshelf, housing rows of baseball
statistics guides, some dating back a century or more. Burris steers his guest into a small office that's papered with remnants of a career spent promoting, publicizing—loving—all sports, but especially baseball. Sprinkled among the dozens of photos are other one-of-a-kind relics: Satchel Paige's business card from his postretirement front-office days; a mock newspaper headline reading, "Billy Martin outguns Wyatt Earp" that Burris and his old friend Martin had made in Tombstone, Arizona; a copy of a handwritten letter from Ty Cobb to Burris when he was working for The Sporting News in the 1940s (the original lives in a bank vault).
And then there are those pictures. A Rockwellesque oil painting of Joe DiMaggio showing a young boy how to swing a bat, and a photo of Burris sitting on a dugout bench next to the great Yankee. In the kitchen, framed with a thank-you note from George H.W. Bush, is a shot of the former Yale first baseman and then U.S. vice president, wearing a Denver Bears uniform and grinning on the bench during an old-timers game in 1984. There are pictures of legends—and friends—such as football's Doak Walker and golf's Ben Hogan, among many others. Given a prime spot in the family room, near the DiMaggio painting, is a black-and-white shot from June 1948. Taken at a banquet, it shows the head table, just in front of Tommy Dorsey's bandstand, where young Burris is leaning over to speak with Babe Ruth a few months before the Sultan of Swat passed away.
His slight frame sporting an orange Broncos sweater, wire-rimmed glasses propped slightly askew on his head, Burris gestures with gently trembling hands toward each picture, pausing to give special attention to the ones that show his friend and mentor, Bob Howsam. Chuckling frequently, he recounts each story with the humility and delight of someone who still can't believe his good fortune. He's rubbed elbows or formed friendships with such greats as Lefty Gomez, Carl Hubbell, Rogers Hornsby, Dizzy Dean, Buzzy Bavasi, and Ford Frick. But the onetime college dropout and lifetime minor-league executive did his most meaningful work here in Denver, helping Howsam build and sustain a little baseball team that could, keeping local interest in the game chugging along just enough to convince the powers that be that Denver was indeed a major-league city, and perhaps offering a lesson in perseverance to its currently struggling franchise.
As the Civil War dawned and chaos reigned on its battlefields, baseball already was becoming popular on the East Coast. Gold-rushing prospectors took breaks from their westward treks to play crude variations of the game at mining camps across the Kansas and Nebraska plains. In March 1862, the Rocky Mountain News announced a meeting "of all persons interested in creating an official baseball club," and in his book The Denver Bears: From Sandlots to Sellouts, author Mark S. Foster traces organized Denver teams back to 1881. Pictures from the era show groups of men—some strapping, some scrawny, about half with Snidely Whiplash moustaches or toting bats as big as wagon tongues—posed together in matching but motley woolen uniforms. One of Denver's earliest squads, the Browns, played at various parks around town before settling in 1882 on the spot that later became the site of Merchant's Park, on what is now the corner of South Broadway and Central Avenue. Denver teams were variously known as the Mountain Lions, Grizzlies, Cubs, and Teddy Bears (so dubbed because of Teddy Roosevelt's popularity). The 1911 Grizzlies finished 111-54, the best record in the history of the Western League, and they won two more league championships in 1912 and 1913. It would be the last baseball title Denver would see for almost 40 years, when Howsam oversaw a postwar baseball revival.