Lockport great Kevin Burdick is elected to the Western New York Hall of Fame on the first ballot
By John D'Onofrio Lockport Union-Sun & Journal
OLCOTT — Kevin Burdick’s innumerable diamond memories aren’t simply a collection of ecclesiastic apparitions dreamed up by a former baseball great embellishing his glory years in the Erie Niagara Suburban League.
No, Burdick visits his real-life “field of dreams” at Krull Park on a daily basis as a long time employee of the Niagara County Parks Department — wishing every second of every minute of every hour of every day that he could go back and do it all over again.
One of the most respected ball players in Lockport history, Burdick, a fleet-footed outfielder, lead-off hitter, dugout cheerleader and base-stealing threat, has been elected to the Western New York Baseball Hall of Fame on the prestigious first ballot. He will be inducted on Sept. 18 at the Lake Erie Italian Club’s Banquet Center, 3,200 South Park Ave., Lackawanna.
“Buslines was the center of my baseball life for so many wonderful years,” said Burdick, who has competed on baseball diamonds over the years with and against not only the Lock City’s greatest players ever, but professional greats including World Series MVP Bucky Dent and Super Bowl quarterback Ron “Jaws” Jaworski.
“I work on the same field at Krull Park today that I played ball on all those years,” Burdick said. “Today it’s a football field for the New-Wil-Ran youth organization.”
A 1969 graduate of Lockport High School, Burdick was a star basketball point guard for the LHS Lions, under head coach Dick Crossett. Ironically, he never played a minute of scholastic varsity baseball.
“I was just 16 and I already knew that I wanted to play in the Suburban League. If I played high school ball, I wouldn’t have been able to do that,” said Burdick, now 62 and residing on Walnut Street with his wife, Marilyn, on the city’s east side. They have two children, Kevin James and Patricia Ann.
“I could have played high school baseball, but Buslines were better. I always wanted to play with the best,” he said. “There used to always be three Suburban teams from Lockport back then because there were so many good players from Lockport.”
During the 1970s, Buslines was one of the most feared teams in Western New York with speed to burn in both the top and bottom of the order and plenty of power in the middle.
“I was blessed with God-given talent and speed,” said Burdick in a typical understatement. Burdick was one of the most respected offensive and defensive players of his era, stealing more than 200 bases in the first 15 years of his Suburban career. In his prime, he stole 62 consecutive bases and featured an impressive on-base percentage of about .500.
Burdick played 23 seasons in all for the “Busmen,” longer than any other player.
Among his greatest memories are a catch he made of a ball off the bat of Jaworski, the famed former “Polish Rifle” quarterback of the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles.
“We were playing against Lackawanna at Lackawanna High School and the bases were loaded,” said Burdick, the Buslines left fielder. “Gene O’Byrne gave up the pitch. Jawowski hit the ball well over 450 feet to deep left center field. I can’t remember how far I had to run, but I caught the ball at full stride. By the time two relay throws were made — I caught it and threw it to Johnny Moran and he threw it to Lou Valery who threw it to first — the runner who was on first when the ball was hit and was nearing third base was able to return safely all the way back to first.”
“Kevin wasn’t a quiet guy. He made his opinions known and wasn’t afraid to express them — loudly,” Valery fondly recalled.
“At first I thought he was a little crazy, but after I got to know him, I knew he used that rambunctious spirit on and off the field to do great things. Off the field, he used it to encourage, coach and inspire. On the field, he used it to do one thing — play. He knew the game inside and out and shared his knowledge with all of us.”
In another early Suburban League game, Burdick tracked down two bombs off the bat of Hall-of-Famer Bob Robbins that would easily have cleared the outfield fence.
“We were playing against Akron one night — a good team on a hot winning streak — and a guy got a hold of a pitch (with a guy on second) and I watched it sail straight over my head at shortstop and straight over Kevin’s in left field,” Valery said. “But with the speed, grit and determination of Willie Mays, Kevin caught that ball 300 feet away from me at short, threw it to me and I threw it to second and we doubled up the guy. It was one of the best catches I’ve ever seen.”
While attending Miami Dade Junior College in Florida, Burdick played college baseball for one semester with Russell Dent — better known to most baseball fans as “Bucky,” a future all-star shortstop with the New York Yankees.
“Russell was a great player. He could do it all,” Burdick said.
After serving his country honorably in the U.S. Army from 1970-72, Burdick got a knock on the door from eventual long-time teammate Renny Stoll urging him to play again, which he eagerly did.
“Renny and John Greco were my teammates for a number of years,” Burdick said. “Because of them and other great players I had the privilege to play with, I was able to reach my potential as a player. Baseball is a team sport and without togetherness, there is no success.”
Greco said that in Burdick’s prime, he was, “as good a left fielder as I ever played with,” garnering applause from opposing teams’ fans for some of his greatest defensive plays. He was also quite a hitter.
“He was the epitome of a lead-off hitter,” Greco said. “He possessed blazing speed, but his unselfish approach at the plate is what separated him from others. He took just as much pride in walking, bunting or getting hit by a pitch as he did ripping a line drive base hit. He was a base stealing terror and rarely was ever thrown out, continually setting the table for his Buslines teammates.”
Stoll said Burdick’s many ways of manufacturing hits, walks, etc., was incredible.
“From day one, it was evident that a special player had graced us,” Stoll said. “He was full of personal talent and that natural ability was augmented by an absolutely positive attitude that settled for nothing less than winning,” Stoll said.
Besides Stoll and Greco — both WNY Hall of Fame members — and others mentioned above, among the other many other Lockport players Burdick fondly recalled are Phil Rosenberg, Pete Kagels, Jim Ulas, Jimmy Smith, Mike Sobieraski, Fred White, Mike Ritz, John “Tate” Pitrello, Ed Spoth, Jamie Sullivan and the late great David O’Byrne.
“He could always be counted on to give you all that he had — all of the time,” Pitrello said. “He had great foot speed, was always on base and was never intimidated by any pitcher at any level. Friendship came after the game — never during.”
Burdick’s managers over the years included Joe Kibler and his brother-in-law Joe Moran.
“Joe Kibler was my manager for 15 years. He not only helped me develop as a player, he also encouraged me to become an umpire,” Burdick said. “I umpired high school and junior college baseball for 29 years. In 1990, I was chosen to umpire the state high school baseball finals in Syracuse, Utica and Herkimer.”
Buslines, under the faithful ownership of Tom Weeks, celebrated its most successful season in 1977 when it won the first of three all-around championships with a combined record of 34-2.
“Tom was a one-time Buslines first baseman. I can’t thank him enough for sponsoring this great team for so many years,” Burdick said.
Weeks recalled Burdick’s pre-playing days as a bat boy.
“Kevin ate and slept baseball and was key to the success of Buslines for nearly 25 years,” Weeks said.
In 1985, Burdick took over as Buslines manager and two years later, returned to the all-arounds. He hung up his spikes for the final time after the 1991 season.
“My children started playing sports, so I chose to retire,” Burdick said. “When my daughter Patty started playing Travel Fastpitch Softball for the 12-Under League, I began coaching the Lady Express with Al Cavagnaro and his daughter, Rosie. Two years later and we became the WNY Lady Mustangs in the 14-U Division. Today, many of those girls are playing Division 1 to Division 3 college level softball.”
Valery said Burdick was tough and never minced words.
“His main objective was to help the team,” Valery said. “He talked the talk — and man could he talk — but he also walked the walk. He was at your side on and off the field as a teammate, mentor and friend.”