The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

June 15, 2013

Farmer Burns — Ashtabula’s first major leaguer

Sports Editor

— Third of a series...

Two weeks ago today, one of the first man born in the city of Ashtabula to play in a Major League Baseball game celebrated his 137th birthday.

Then again, odds are, he wasn’t around to blow out the candles at such an age, but no one is sure.

For while we know James Joseph Burns was born on June 2, 1876 in Ashtabula, there is no record of his death.


What we do know, however, is that the man known more so as “Farmer Burns,” perhaps attributed to his birthplace, made one appearance in a major-league game.

That happened on July 6, 1901, a Saturday, when the right-hander was brought into a game by manager Patsy Donovan of the St. Louis Cardinals to pitch the ninth inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Robison Field in St. Louis.

The inning did not go well for Burns, a stocky 5-foot-7, 168 pound southpaw. He  allowed two hits, walked one and surrendered an earned run.

That turned out to be the only major-league appearance for Burns, coming at age 25.

The Ashtabula native didn’t head to the majors after leaving his home. Instead, he headed to Washington and Jefferson College in Washington, Pa. However, he did graduate, spending only one year at the college, in fact — 1898 — though he was the first player from Washington and Jefferson to appear in a major-league game.

Two years after leaving Washington and Jefferson, Burns began his professional baseball career.

He spent the 1900 season with for Grand Rapids, Mich. of the International League and the Toledo Mud Hens of the Interstate League.

At Grand Rapids, Burns appeared in five games, four of which were starts and he completed all four of those games. He posted a 2-3 record, working 49 innings and allowing 35 hits and 29 runs (there was no differential between earned and unearned runs kept by league statisticians). He walked 25 and struck out 21, hitting three batters and throwing five wild pitches.

Burns was not a terrible hitter at Grand Rapids. In 22 at-bats, he had five hits, all singles, for a .227 batting average. He scored a pair of runs.

He then made the move to Toledo, where he appeared in two games, both starts, losing both, going the distance in one. He finished 0-2, working 13 innings and allowing only two hits and one run, striking out three and walking seven.

Burns finished his only season in the minors at 2-5, with 49.0 innings pitched, 35 hits allowed, 29 runs, 21 strikeouts and 25 walks.

Like many aspects about Burns, it is not known where he was pitching in the summer of 1901 before he got the call to come out of the bullpen against Philadelphia on July 6.

What is known, though, is he actually went to the plate in the bottom of the ninth of his one appearance in a major-league game.

And the guy who was also nicknamed “Slab” made the most of his at-bat. He drew a walk, stole a base and scored the Cardinals’ final run in a 14-9 loss to the visiting Phillies.

St. Louis finished 76-64 in 1901, fourth in the National League, and Burns never made another major-league appearance and, unfortunately, faded into the baseball Twilight Zone, never to be heard from again.

Wherever he rests today, happy belated 137th birthday to James Joseph “Farmer” Burns, the first man from Ashtabula to play in a major-league game.

McCormack is the sports editor of the Star Beacon. Reach him at