“FENWAY'S BEST PLAYERS”
When looking back at the career of Rick "The Rooster" Burleson, the fiery, intense shortstop of the Boston Red Sox, California Angels and Baltimore Orioles from 1974 to 1987, a quotation from former teammate Bill Lee perhaps sums it up best: "Some guys didn't like to lose, but Rick got angry if the score was even tied. He was very intense and had the greatest arm of any infielder I had ever seen." Burleson excelled as a Red Sox player for seven seasons, both at bat and in the field. His participation in both the 1975 World Series and the 1978 playoff against the New York Yankees has secured his place in Boston Red Sox baseball lore. He was especially liked by Boston fans because of his burning desire to win and his constant hustle on the field.
Richard Paul Burleson was born on April 29, 1951 in Lynwood, California. He was selected by the Boston Red Sox in the first round of the 1970 amateur draft, with the fifth overall pick, during the January secondary phase. He played for the Winter Haven Red Sox in the Florida State League (Single-A) in 1970, and split 1971 between two other Class A teams - the Greenville Red Sox (Western Carolinas League) and the Winston-Salem Red Sox (Carolina League). Rick moved up to the Pawtucket Red Sox in the Eastern League (Double-A) for the 1972 season.
In 1973 Burleson went to spring training with the Red Sox, but was optioned prior to the season to Pawtucket, the Red Sox Class AAA farm club. Burleson's manager at Pawtucket was Darrell Johnson, who became manager of the parent Red Sox in 1974, and one of his teammates was Cecil Cooper, a stalwart on the 1975 Red Sox World Series team. The Pawtucket club finished second to the Rochester Red Wings during the regular season, but in the playoffs they dispatched the Tidewater Tides and Charleston Charlies to win the International League championship Governors' Cup. This victory qualified them to meet the winner of the American Association championship, the Tulsa Oilers, for the Junior World Series title. In a best-of-seven series, the Pawtucket team defeated the Oilers to win the championship. In Game 2, Burleson drove in four runs with two singles and a two-run homer. In the third game, he had the game-winning hit, and in Games 4 and 5, he played a key role offensively.
By spring training of 1974, it was apparent that Burleson was ready to make his move up to the parent club. Darrell Johnson, now the manager of the Red Sox, termed him "one winnin' sonavagun." During the winter, Rick played in Venezuela for the veteran Luis Aparicio, who, along with Mario Guerrero, represented his main competition to win the starting shortstop job. Guerrero won the job outright, though, while Burleson was sent to Pawtucket so that he would able to play every day. While at Pawtucket, Burleson played well enough to earn a call up to Boston. After an injury to second baseman Doug Griffin, Burleson got more playing time, platooning with Dick McAuliffe at second, and, by mid-July, when Griffin returned, Johnson felt confident enough in the Rooster's .306 batting average to play Burleson full-time at shortstop. By August, in the middle of a pennant race, Burleson had earned the admiration of teammates and coaches. Coach Don Zimmer remarked, "He hits pretty well because he hits like he plays. He's a little bulldog up there." The 1974 season ended in disappointment for the Red Sox, as they collapsed during the September pennant race. However, Burleson hit .284 for the season, playing in 114 games, earning the club's rookie of the year award. He finished second to Bucky Dent for the shortstop nod on the Topps major league rookie all-star team.
As spring training of 1975 approached, Burleson expressed a desire to play shortstop, although he felt that as long as he played, he would be happy at short or second and batting anywhere in the lineup. By the end of May, though, Burleson was firmly in place as the Red Sox starting shortstop. His fielding was consistently good, and
he was learning how to play hitters better. As the 1975 season progressed, Burleson, at shortstop, along with Denny Doyle, acquired from California, at second base, formed a slick-fielding double play combination. In addition, his hitting earned him the second spot in the batting order. The Red Sox clinched the American League East
title by 4 ½ games over the Baltimore Orioles. In the ALCS, their opponents were the Oakland Athletics, the three-time defending world champions. The Red Sox swept the Athletics in three games.
Good things seemed to be on the horizon for both Burleson and the Red Sox in 1976, as outfielders Fred Lynn and Jim Rice had established themselves as young sluggers. Yastrzemski, Evans and Petrocelli were returning veterans, and Burleson, Fisk, and Doyle gave the Red Sox a hustling, aggressive presence up the middle. Lynn, Fisk and Burleson all had contract disputes, however, heading into the season, which ended up as a disappointing one for the Red Sox, with manager Darrell Johnson being replaced at mid-season by Don Zimmer, and the Yankees replacing them as A.L. East champions.
In 1977, the Red Sox presented a lineup that emphasized hitting the long ball. During a 10-game homestand in mid-June, the Sox hit 26 home runs. Burleson had a 13-game hitting streak in April and May and, by the beginning of June, was hitting .341, as well as providing steady infield defense complimented by his rocket arm. This performance earned the Rooster a starting berth on the 1977 American League All-Star team, along with teammates Carlton Fisk and Carl Yastrzemski.
The potent batting order returned for the 1978 season, but Burleson started slowly, and was hitting only .194 after 35 games. However, after getting untracked, Burleson finished third in the shortstop voting for the American League All-Star team, and he was chosen as an alternate. An injury forced Burleson out of the Red Sox lineup until mid-August and a once seemingly insurmountable Red Sox lead of nine games in the American League East had been reduced to 5.5 games by the beginning of August. Burleson's worth to the team became apparent when he immediately went on a 17-game hitting streak upon his return. The Red Sox and the Yankees finished in a tie for the American League East title to force a one-game playoff on October 2. Burleson batted .248 for the season in 145 games, and it was clear that his absence during July and August was the difference that swung the balance towards the Yankees in the tight battle for the division title.
After a vigorous off-season training program with teammate Lynn, Burleson and the Red Sox began 1979 with high hopes. The fiery side of Burleson's personality was shown on May 16th when he was ejected and suspended for three games after he bumped an umpire while disputing a strike call. On June 4, Burleson hit the first grand slam home run of his major league career in a Red Sox win over the Rangers. Despite a season which was disappointing for the Red Sox because of injuries and lack of key run production, Burleson again made the All-Star team for the American League. After the season, Burleson was awarded a Gold Glove for his fielding prowess and received the Thomas A. Yawkey Award as the team's most valuable player.
Burleson arrived early to spring training in 1980, but soon began to suffer from a sore shoulder. Additionally, the contract he signed in 1976 after so much rancor was coming to an end. In May, his frustrations with the team in his contract negotiations became apparent; as he told the club to trade him and that he would not play without a contract in 1981. At the end of May, Burleson had a torrid batting streak, raising his average from .203 to .277 in a six-week period, batting in both the leadoff and second spots in the lineup. He had also played in every one of Boston's games through August 26th and led the team in putouts, assists, chances and double plays. He was quoted as saying that he would test the free agent market if the club did not sign him by the winter meetings. Haywood Sullivan said that if he did not know that he could sign Burleson by World Series time, then he would trade him to avoid any more disruption to the team. The Sox were offering about $2.1 million over six years, while Burleson was asking for about twice that amount. Adding to the confusion in Boston was the fact that Lynn and Fisk were in similar contractual situations with management. Finally, on December 10, the Red Sox traded Burleson and Hobson to the California Angels for infielder Carney Lansford, pitcher Mark Clear, and outfielder Rick Miller. Prior to a grievance hearing regarding some contractual issues, Burleson agreed to a lucrative six-year, $4.65 million deal which made him the highest paid shortstop in baseball history.
Burleson's reputation as a hard-nosed, aggressive player can be supported statistically, especially in the years 1975-1980, when he averaged over 150 games and over 600 at-bats per season, despite an ailing shoulder. His clutch performances in 1975 against Oakland, batting .500, and Cincinnati, batting .292, provided the spark for the Red Sox that almost broke their long championship drought. But perhaps the greatest compliment that has been given to Rick Burleson came from teammate Jerry Remy, when Remy was asked to read the starting lineup that day for a network broadcast. When he got to Burleson's name, he said, "Batting second, the heart and soul of the Boston Red Sox, Rick Burleson." To Red Sox fans of the 1970s, no better words could describe his contributions to those teams.