Oct 6, 2021

Q&A: Britt Burns talks Tito Landrum, Great Danes and Tony La Russa in 1983

Q&A: Britt Burns talks Tito Landrum, Great Danes and Tony La Russa in 1983

This interview was originally featured in Midway Minute, a daily Chicago sports newsletter. Get it for free in your inbox: Sign up here

White Sox fans of a certain age cannot possibly forget left-hander Britt Burns, the top AL rookie pitcher in 1980 who also was known for being on the short end of Tito Landrum's infamous home run in the 10th inning of Game 4 of 1983 ALCS. Burns, who stood 6-foot-5 and weighed about 220 pounds, had a violent delivery that knocked his cap off his head, until he affixed it to his hair with bobby pins.

Burns also was born with a hip condition on both sides that forced him to cut short his career at age 26 while also preceding multiple surgeries and joint replacements. Burns later became a long-time minor-league coach in the Sox organization who now enjoys the early days of retirement with his dog and fiancé on his property in rural Alabama, near Birmingham, where he was raised. We got True Britt on the phone to talk about the good old days with Tony La Russa and the gang, and what he thinks of the contemporary Sox and their playoff return.

Midway Minute: So, anytime you're interviewed, do you brace yourself for the topic of Tito Landrum?

Britt Burns: Yeah, I feel like I've been married to him for the last 40 years. Just kidding. That was one of those days where you go, "Man, that was a great day — until it wasn't."

MM: You reportedly threw 150 pitches and the home run was the 150th. Do you remember being tired?

Britt: No, not in that moment. No, not at all. You were so immersed in the moment you don't feel fatigued. Later, obviously. But during the game, the adrenaline was going. It was obviously such an important day. I didn't have the best regular season, so that was a big game for me to even have the opportunity to pitch in. I was highly motivated to say the least.

MM: Do you remember the pitch he hit?

Britt: I think it was a 1-0 fastball, probably middle-middle. This is an ongoing, never-ending debate battle with people. You're trying to get ahead, you're trying to throw strike one. You've got to be aggressive in the zone. You live by that, and you die by that. This is also why people say "anything can happen in the short series." An abundance of strikes serves you well in the long run, but in a short series, it can come back to bite you in the butt. So as I recall, it was a fastball and it was probably middle middle. Credit him for being aggressive and swinging the bat.

MM: We talk about winning the Tito Landrum game and having LaMarr Hoyt ready for Game 5, but the Sox still would have needed to hit a little bit to win. Why did the bats go cold in the ALCS?

Britt: We had momentum, and we were on a roll, up until we clinched the division. We finished 99-63, but we clinched with two weeks remaining in the season. We just kind of waited for the playoffs to come, and when they started, we were just flat. Teams get hot and they get cold. I think that I think that two weeks of nothing to play for had as much to do with it as anything. And you have to give credit to some pretty good Baltimore pitching as well.

MM: Do you look back at '83 and that era as a success for the Sox, even though you didn't win the World Series or go back to the playoffs with that group?

Britt: Once you get a taste of that, yeah, you want more of it. But just to get a taste of winning, and being able to be in that position to have a chance to do it, you have to look back on that with a feeling of success. Could it have been more successful? Certainly. But there's a lot of players who don't get that opportunity. We at least got to that place. We felt like we could play with anybody that year. There was certainly tremendous chemistry, it was a lot of fun. My being young at the time, I probably didn't appreciate it as much as I did in the years later, and certainly by now. At least we got a taste of it.

MM: We will circle back to the '80s, but how do you spend most of your time these days?

Britt: I have a home out in the middle of nowhere in rural Alabama, just outside of Birmingham. There's always something outside to take care of. I live with my 5-year-old female Great Dane named Betsy. I have a fiance and we get together every chance we get when she's not busy with her job, family and life. We do some bass fishing. Work with some kids from time to time doing some pitching lessons.

I've only been retired now for two or three years. I don't think I've got it down pat yet. It's kind of weird, like, "OK, I'm retired — I don't really have to do anything" and it takes some getting used to it. It's nice and peaceful and no drama on the one hand, and then sometimes it gets a little boring.

MM: So all dogs are great, but you've had Great Danes throughout your life. How did you get into them?

Britt: I was maybe 10. One of my mom's co-workers had a Great Dane and we went to her house and she had a Great Dane by the name of Hercules. And it blew me away. I mean, I had to have one. So, probably within the next few months, my mom and I went out and we found a black male puppy. We named him Samson. And that was my first Great Dane. I bought a fawn for my kids to experience and now Betsy is my third one.

MM: Is she a show dog?

Britt: She's a couch potato. Right now she's just sitting at the top of steps on the porch and surveying her kingdom.

Britt and Betsy share a slobbery selfie (Britt Burns)

MM: You grew up in Alabama and you got an offer to play at Auburn before you signed with the Sox. Does that make you a Tigers fan or do you roll Tide?

Britt: The baseball team, yes. I follow them and have had friends' kids play there. But largely due to my fiance going to Alabama, I have become a pretty big Alabama/Nick Saban fan.

MM: What is it about Nick Saban that makes him so successful?

Britt: His ability to recruit, but also his ability to develop young talent and win games at the same time. It's remarkable. I would compare him to Tony La Russa. He is very similar in that he just gets the best out of his players. They both demand perfection and intensity and it's about the process — it's not about the result. It's about things you have to take care of in order to get the result. It's obviously been amazingly successful.

MM: How crazy is it that Tony is back with the White Sox after all this time?

Britt: Tony has stepped in here, once again. I didn't appreciate it, didn't fully understand it, was too young to really get it back then. But looking back on it now I can see that Tony had that quality and still has it. I think you can look around at any successful program, and you're gonna find a lot of those similarities.

It was a pleasant surprise that Tony came back. I certainly didn't see that coming. I mean, the last time that I had any conversation with Tony, he seemed content to be off the field and ready to move on with something a little less demanding and a little more peaceful. But I suppose like all of us at one point or another, you start to miss it. And I'm happy that he took it. Obviously it captured my attention, following the Sox all year long. I'm very happy that they've won their division again and are going to the playoffs. It'll be something fun to watch.

MM: What else do you like about the Sox?

Britt: Tony would talk about, back in the day, the three phases — pitching, hitting and defense — and how you've got to do at least two of them well to win. It seems like they've got the hitting and the pitching to win. They've got (Jose) Abreu and Tim Anderson was here playing for Birmingham. I was tickled to death to see what he's become. He was a very aggressive, solid kid who to came to the ballpark with intent to play hard every day with the Barons. It's great to see him proving himself in the big leagues. I remember having Dallas Keuchel from the Astros organization. He was always a strike-thrower who had a touch and feel for pitching.

There's been a lot of turnover with the Sox since I was in the organization, a lot of new talent, but another thing that Tony does is facilitate the chemistry. There's got to be chemistry within a ball club irrespective of talent. And I think that's one of the things that Tony also brings to the table. He's able to pull guys together and he's part of that as the leader.

MM: You mentioned enjoying being retired, but do you miss coaching?

Britt: I started coaching with the Marlins. .. I was hired in '92. So I left home for spring training every year after that until, like, 2017. It is a grind at some point. It gets to be hard to leave home, be away from your family and live that lifestyle. I enjoy sleeping in my bed every night. It's fun when you're younger, there's the adventure of it. But again,  there comes a point in time where it really gets tough to say goodbye to your kids at spring training. You're not going to get to see them very much, certainly not on a day-to-day basis. I don't miss that part of it. I miss the competition, the part of the game that brings the competitor out of you. But the rest of it, the travel and being away from home and all that, I don't miss any of that.

MM: Did you get into coaching with the intention of making it through the major leagues as a coach?

Britt: Yes, I did. That was a goal to get back to the big leagues as a pitching coach. And for whatever reason, the good Lord didn't see fit for me to go back to that, and it didn't work out. I'm at peace with that, pretty much moved on from it. I find that the coaching bug, or the teaching bug that I've enjoyed is satisfied with working with young kids. And mostly helping parents understand what's normal and what's not normal, so that they can kick back and enjoy watching their kids develop without putting too much pressure and undue expectation on their kids. I've seen a million games of catch and I have yet to see one where a ball isn't thrown away. Don't get upset over your kids making mistakes, throwing balls away, or whatever. Just let it go. That's not something to get upset over. I've had a good time helping some of these parents and, in turn, helping some of these kids just make their high school team, or allow them to stay involved in baseball and fit into a group. I like helping kids stay involved in sports instead of maybe some of the other things that kids can fall into.

MM: I read a story that Bob Verdi in the Tribune did on you near the end of the '85 season. You didn't know it yet, but your career was almost over, and you talked about the next phase of your life, how you'd like to help other people in some way. Did coaching help make that happen? Does it still?

Britt: It did and it does. You can never learn enough. I mean, it's very satisfying to take the wealth of knowledge that I've acquired from all of the wonderful coaches and teammates and guys I played against, to have information, and be able to break it down in its simplest form, and pass it along to these kids and these parents. And it's enjoyable to see some of their abilities, even at 9 or 10 years old. Some of these kids are a lot of fun to work with, watching them work hard with determination and a lot of reps, actually get better. It's very satisfying. There's definitely a learning curve with coaching. It's hard to step off the field as an athlete and then use what you've learned to help someone else. It takes time to figure out how to do that. It's one thing to have information and it's a whole 'nother thing to know how to use it. It might be just a different way of saying the same thing that becomes the thing that lights a fire under a kid.

Britt: Were you with the Sox organization in 2005 when they won the World Series? Did you get a ring?

Britt: I didn't come back until 2013, so I did not get a ring, but if Jerry Reinsdorf has an extra laying around and wants to send it to me, that'd be great — hahaha. But I'd take it.

MM: How are you doing physically? Do you have any artificial hips or any other joints?

Britt: I have had nine hip surgeries all total. Right now, I'm doing fine. The right one it's been replaced and repaired twice. The left one once. I'm in need of a shoulder replacement. I've had a couple of opinions from orthopedic guys and one wanted me to go ahead and do it and the other said "You're way too young. This is not a good time. Shoulder replacements don't hold up like hip replacements." So I declined on the shoulder replacement. They did take out a lot of calcium deposits because I went through a period of a lot of pain with it. But all that's under control. I've been taking decent care of myself and physically, right now. I'm OK.

MM: Is it getting harder to do routine things?

Britt: There are things I can't do, but there are things that I don't necessarily need or want to do, so it all works out. I don't know of very many people my age who have played sports that don't have something going with the knees, hips, back, or whatever. They'll have something going on that is a challenge and you just you just keep rolling.

MM: Have these surgeries been covered by your baseball-playing insurance?

Britt: At the time, yes, our baseball insurance — whatever organization I was with at the time — that insurance took care of that thankfully. The next time, it will be a Medicare thing for sure. I'm almost that age (62). I started out in my 30s with the first hip replacement. It's more than likely that the day is coming when I'm gonna have to go through it one more time. I'm trying to take good enough care of myself, getting off my butt and do something. I have a stationary bike and I like to stay on my feet to stay active. I'm overweight but not terribly. And this is prosthesis is engineered to last a 160-pound man 20 years.

MM: How do you think your style of pitching would play today? With the bigger strike zone, the emphasis on strikeouts for pitchers, the emphasis on hitting in the air for batters?

Britt: I think I had one game against Baltimore where I had 12 strikeouts, and I remember thinking that was for me that was a lot! I was a good strike-thrower and that plays any time, but I probably would have to come up with another pitch after my fastball-slider-splitter repertoire. I never did catch on to figure out how to throw a changeup. But that would have been the one thing to do, probably — have a little more separation from fast from fastest pitch to slowest pitch.

MM: Who came up with the bobby pin solution to keep your cap on your head?

Britt: Roland Hemond's mother. He was the general manager in the early '80s. My hat falling off didn't bother me, but I think that Roland and maybe some others were afraid it was gonna fall down over my eyes or my face, and I was gonna be hit with a line drive and be blinded after being subject to taking a line drive off the coconut.

MM: Were you disappointed that you didn't do better in AL Rookie of the Year voting in 1980? If you look at how you compared with the others, like Joe Charbonneau who won it, you had WAY more WAR than anyone else. You had better numbers than Steve Stone, who won AL Cy Young. You pitched better than everyone except, like, Steve Carlton.

Britt: I had absolutely no idea until you just mentioned it, haha. It was an honor to walk away with anything that was bestowed upon me. I enjoyed my time there, I enjoyed the opportunity, it was all a blessing to be able to just go and play with a bunch of great guys, to stand beside Tom Seaver, Carlton Fisk, Greg Luzinski and those guys. To play for Tony and that coaching staff, which turned out to be one of the best ever to do it. There's a lot there to be thankful for. I think it was Dizzy Dean who said: "I wasn't the best but I was among them. On a given day, I could compete with anybody. I felt like, and still do, like I took my God-given ability and worked at it and got the most out of it. Nick Saban has a thing called a "capability gap" that he shared with his players. And he said: "Where are you now, versus what are you capable of?" And I think I was closing that gap pretty good by the time my career was over.

MM: Who do you keep up with from those times?

Britt: Ron Kittle. I mean, it's hard not to keep up with him, because he's that kind of guy. But I have become a fan of what he is doing with his life. And the things he contributes to his charities and whatnot. He is an absolute riot. Super guy. So we keep up with each other a little bit. We were roommates in the minor leagues for a while. So we'll tell some stories once in a while, back and forth as we remember them. I talk to Vance Law, too. He was a minor-league field coordinator for the Sox. Facebook really, for all of its negatives, has some positives, and one of them is kind of being able to keep up with people a little bit like that.

MM: Do you know how LaMarr Hoyt is doing?

BB: The last time I talked to Kitty about that about a month ago, and Kittle said he was doing OK, he was hanging in there. He's still not doing as well as I'm sure he wants to be. But he's hanging in.

MM: There's this YouTube video that some random Sox fans did. And the theme was basically "Searching for Britt Burns." So they jumped in a car, filmed their road trip and tracked you down. But the interview with you was basically unusable because they had audio issues, and you couldn't hear what you were saying. Do you remember these guys showing up?

Britt: Somebody else pointed that out to me, and I have seen the video. But I have absolutely no recollection of it happening. I was at a construction site building my house. I was a little bit over my head trying to contract it myself, which I didn't know how to do, really. And I think I was going through a divorce. So I had some things happening in my life. We ended up finishing the house — but I never moved in, haha.

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