In recognition of Black History Month, take a moment to appreciate the career of Vicksburg native Ellis Burks, arguably the best all-around player the Magnolia State has ever produced. His 1996 season with the Colorado Rockies might be the best single season any Mississippi native has put up in the big leagues. Born in Vicksburg in 1964, Burks also lived in Jackson for a time before his family moved to Texas. He was drafted out of Ranger College, a Texas juco, in the first round of the 1983 January draft by Boston. He debuted in MLB in 1987 at age 22 — amid Willie Mays comparisons — and batted .272 with 20 home runs as a Red Sox rookie. The 6-foot-2, 175-pound outfielder’s career ended in 2004, when injuries limited him to a handful of games, none in the postseason, for the Red Sox in their historic World Series-winning campaign. In between, he made two All-Star games, won two Silver Slugger awards and received a Gold Glove. He is now a scout for San Francisco. In 1996, as one of Colorado’s Blake Street Bombers, Burks batted .344 with 40 homers, 128 RBIs, a league-leading 142 runs, 45 doubles, 211 hits, 32 stolen bases and a 7.9 WAR, earning third place in the National League MVP voting. Among Mississippi natives, Burks is first in career homers (352), second in runs, RBIs and hits and fourth in stolen bases and batting average. And note that injuries curtailed several of his 18 seasons. On the career WAR chart, Burks is second among Mississippi-born position players with a 49.8; Jackson native Chet Lemon had a 55.6, aided considerably by his defense. Surprisingly, Burks lasted just one year on the BBWAA Hall of Fame ballot, getting just two votes in 2010. But make no mistake: He had an impact, on and off the field. In 2004, when the Red Sox arrived back in Boston after winning the World Series in St. Louis, it was Burks — at the suggestion of Pedro Martinez — who got the honor of carrying the championship trophy off the plane. P.S. Mississippi State alum Ethan Small has landed with San Francisco, traded for cash by Milwaukee which had DFA’d the left-hander last week. … Mississippi College product Blaine Crim has received a non-roster invite to Texas’ spring camp.
The last day of September was eventful, to say the least, and the MLB postseason picture is settled. Well, sorta. Five teams clinched the remaining playoff berths on Saturday, and six Mississippians took part in those celebrations. Start with Nathaniel Lowe, the ex-Mississippi State standout who has been running cold at the plate of late. In Texas’ 6-1 win at Seattle, Lowe knocked in the first run with a single and scored the third in a four-run third inning that launched the Rangers into the postseason for the first time since 2016. Former MSU star Chris Stratton did not pitch for the Rangers on Saturday but did get to take part in the muted party. The American League West title remains unsettled because Houston also won, 1-0 at Arizona, and remained a game back of first-place Texas. MSU product Kendall Graveman notched a wobbly hold for the Astros, loading the bases with one out in the seventh before Hector Neris bailed him out. Fellow former Bulldogs pitcher J.P. France, who was scratched from a scheduled Friday start because of a “family emergency,” was available in the Astros’ bullpen Saturday but didn’t get in. Neither did ex-Ole Miss star Grae Kessinger, a versatile bench piece. (The AL wild card seedings are also up in the air; Toronto clinched a spot, either second or third, despite losing to Tampa Bay.) In the National League, Miami clinched a wild card spot with a 7-3 victory against Pittsburgh. Ole Miss product Nick Fortes, a platooning catcher for the Marlins, didn’t play in the clincher. Miami’s win eliminated the Chicago Cubs and former George County High star Justin Steele, who is slated to pitch today’s finale. Despite losing to the Astros, Arizona clinched a wild card because Cincinnati lost. (The NL wild card seedings are also unsettled. Depending on today’s results, Miami may have to return to New York on Monday to complete Thursday’s suspended game against the Mets.) … A total of 12 Mississippians are likely to be on postseason rosters, with Adam Frazier (Baltimore), Jordan Westburg (Orioles), Matt Wallner (Minnesota), Austin Riley (Atlanta), Brandon Woodruff (Milwaukee) and Lance Lynn (Los Angeles Dodgers) having previously celebrated division titles. The postseason begins on Tuesday.
Flash back a hundred years, if you will. In 1923, on Sept. 17 to be precise, Guy Bush made his big league debut for the Chicago Cubs, launching a decorated career that saw the Aberdeen native win 176 games, still the most by a Mississippi native. Fifty years ago, in 1973, seven-time All-Star Dave Parker of Grenada and five-time All-Star Frank White of Greenville broke in with Pittsburgh and Kansas City, respectively. Ten years ago, Taylorsville’s Billy Hamilton first appeared on an MLB field and took off on a path that made him the all-time stolen base leader from the state. Those are just a few of the significant anniversaries of significant Mississippians in the majors that warrant celebration in 2023. In 1913, Reb Russell, a Jackson native, made his debut as a pitcher for the Chicago White Sox and threw three shutout innings. An arm injury forced him to become a position player in 1922 with Pittsburgh; he homered in his final game in 1923. Russell is one of just four players in MLB history to win 10 or more games in a season and hit 10 or more homers in a season. Also in 1913, John Howard “Lefty” Merritt, from Plantersville, got into one game (no at-bats) for the New York Giants; he had a long minor league career thereafter but never got another look in the majors. In 1963, Mickey Harrington of Hattiesburg got into one game as a pinch runner for Philadelphia. He never got into another. Seventy years ago, Dave Hoskins, a pioneering black pitcher from Greenwood, made his big league debut for Cleveland at age 35. Forty years ago, Al Jones, a Charleston native, became the only Alcorn State alum to play in the majors when the White Sox called him up. Twenty years ago, Greenwood native Matt Miller debuted for Colorado. He might be remembered by some for getting the final out, as a pitcher for Tulsa, in the final game of the Jackson Generals era at Smith-Wills Stadium in 1999.