The Love of the Game

How two men helped turn Denver from a minor-league outpost into a major-league city.

April 2007

Burris did all he could to drum up interest with the variety and volume of his promotions, but gimmicks such as All-Kids Night and various giveaways only went so far; eventually the fans wanted to see results on the field. Realizing this, he would frequently change the working agreements the Bears had with major-league teams to ensure that he always was getting the best players possible; during Burris' 20-year tenure, the Bears were the AAA farm team for more than a half-dozen different major-league franchises. "We had some success on the field, but I was selfish in the way I went about it. The town really belonged to the Broncos even then," he says. "When I could see that [our parent club's] AAA player supply was running a little short—and they all do—I was a little, I hate to use the word, ruthless, about changing our working agreements to go with what I thought the best situation was. My motivation was to stay in business and pay our bills."

Man with a Plan

Burris tailored his teams to Denver's geographic advantages, realizing that to have any success and attract fans the Bears would need to score runs. "To be honest, nobody ever talked about the altitude; we just took it for a fact that there would be a lot of runs scored here," Hirsch says. "Burris was smart enough to know he had to go further than most people did to get an attraction people wanted to see. So they always had big first basemen who could hit 40 homers here even if they never did much in the majors."

Burris also provided the organization with a short-lived but memorable jolt of electricity in 1968. Most baseball fans can recall TV images of a furious Billy Martin lunging at Reggie Jackson in a Fenway Park dugout or screaming at countless umpires, but few of them realize Martin cut his managerial teeth right here in Denver. Martin was coaching in Minnesota when Burris approached Twins owner Calvin Griffith with the idea of hiring Martin to run the Bears. "Griffith said, 'This guy has trouble controlling himself and you want to put him in charge of 20 of our best young players?'" says Burris, who stuck to his guns and got Martin to accept the job a few days later, taking an underachieving team and engineering the first of his many trademark turnarounds. "When he took over we were in last place, but by the end of the season he had the guys thinking they were as invincible as the '27 Yankees," Burris says.

Going into the season's final day, the Bears had climbed out of the cellar and needed a win to finish above .500. The day before the game, Martin called Burris and asked if the team would put up the money for a beer party to reward the players for all their hard work. Burris gladly agreed, not realizing that Martin intended to have the party the night before the last game. The evening's revelry didn't stop the Bears from winning 11-2, prompting the opposing manager to tell Burris, 'That hung-over bunch of yours just beat the hell out of us.'"