One of the most collectible genres of baseball card has been what Beckett Vintage magazine termed in the November 2002 issue as “Black Gold,” collecting cards of players involved in the 1919 Black Sox scandal.
The most collected are the obvious “eight men out.” However, in this collector’s opinion the most captivating card within this genre belongs to former player, turned gambler, turned state’s star witness against the eventual eight men out, “Sleepy” Bill Burns.
Burns was a former major league pitcher whose major league career spanned 1908-1912, played for five teams, and finished with a bland 30-52 record. As a pitcher outside of the major leagues, mostly in the Pacific Coast League, Burns was only slightly better with only one real flash of potential early in his career. As a pitcher for the 1907 PCL champion Los Angeles Angels, Burns turned in his best professional season going 24-17. He ended his professional career at the age of 37 in 1917 pitching for the Oakland Oaks in the PCL collecting a 4-5 record with a 6.22 ERA in 19 appearances.
Burns however gained eternal infamy after his career by being one of the key figures behind the scenes of baseball’s darkest moment, the fixing of the 1919 World Series. Burns, who was a former teammate of some of the White Sox acted as a gambler and go-between for the players and other gamblers paying off the players involved. Later in 1921 he was the state’s star witness against the players in the trial that ended in their acquittal.
Bill Burns does not have a large checklist of baseball cards. He did make it into the famous T206 set, with a glove on the wrong hand, which is probably his most famous baseball card. He is also in the 1910-11 Turkey Red T3 and 1911 Pinkerton T5 sets. Often overlooked is the fact that Burns has two cards in the Zee-Nut catalog appearing in the 1915 and 1917 sets.
Zee-Nut baseball cards were a product of the Collins-McCarthy Candy Company based in San Francisco that featured PCL players and was the longest running baseball card company prior to Topps, producing cards from 1911-1938. There are Zee-Nut cards of four of the eight men out (Weaver, Risberg, Williams, McMullin) as well as Joe Gedeon the “ninth man out” who was also banned for knowing about the 1919 World Series fix from his friend Swede Risberg. All are amazing cards and will command a premium price when they come to market, especially Fred McMullin’s 1915 card which sells between $5,000-$10,000 as his only mass produced baseball card. However, Bill Burns’ two Zee-Nut cards are often overlooked by “black gold” collectors.
Of Bill Burn’s five baseball cards the one I think deserves a place at the table in the discussion of best “black gold” cards is his 1917 Zee-Nut card.
Looking at the card I have to imagine that the candy company photographer tasked with capturing the images of the Oakland Oaks players back in 1917 had to be disappointed with his picture of pitcher Bill Burns once it was developed. By some mistake through the combination of placement and position of the pitcher, posed at the peak of his windup, the positioning of the sun in the sky, and the set up of photographer and camera, the identity of the subject was rendered impossible to discern as the pitcher’s face was completely obscured in a dark shadow. If a photographer made such a mistake today the picture would be discarded instantly, another photo taken and ultimately used.
Nonetheless, the image of Bill Burns with his face hidden in a shadow was used, and the photographer, we can imagine, was probably disappointed in his careless error once the 1917 set of Zee-Nut cards was printed. He had no way of knowing just how much that image of a failed, washed up, former major league pitcher in 1917 would turn out to be a poetic depiction of one of the most shadowy figures in Baseball’s darkest hour just two years later.
It is this very reason why I consider it my favorite card within the realm of the Black Sox scandal. A photographer’s mistake that cast a shadow on the face of a man who would himself help cast a shadow on the national pastime.