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Yanks' top '65 pick had big shoes to fill

Yanks' top '65 pick had big shoes to fill

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For Bill Burbach, being drafted by the New York Yankees in 1965 was as much a surprise to him as to everyone else in the ballpark.

Burbach was attending a Chicago Cubs game at Wrigley Field when his name flashed on the scoreboard as the Yankees' first-ever draft pick, No. 19 overall and next to last in the first round.

"I just said, 'Well, OK. What do I do now?'" Burbach said. "I expected to be drafted high, but not that high."

The 6-foot-4, 17-year-old Wisconsin flamethrower was supposed to carry on the Yankees' pitching excellence. But Burbach toed the rubber in the Major Leagues for the last time only two years and 13 days later.

When Burbach was drafted, the Yankees had appeared in the past five World Series, winning two. But, as Burbach surmised, the Amateur Free-Agent Draft, as it was called then, was to the Yankees what revenue sharing is now; a measure installed to level the playing field.

The Amateur Free-Agent Draft meant that the big-budget Yankees could no longer sign any amateur player they wanted. Now, teams could draft a player and have the first rights to sign him.

Burbach initially held out, unpleased with the Yankees' offers, and he seriously considered attending the University of Iowa. He eventually accepted the Yankees' $50,000 offer and took four years to earn his pinstripes, making his Major League debut on April 11, 1969, the same year Thurman Munson began his 11-year career behind the plate.

The right-handed starter had his best season in his rookie year, going 6-8 with a 3.65 ERA in 24 starts. Burbach's fondest memory came on June 8, 1969, when he notched a complete-game win over the White Sox on the day the Yankees retired Mickey Mantle's No. 7. Burbach also recalled coming within a foot of a home run in that game, something in which the admittedly poor hitter took great pride.

Burbach averaged 5.25 strikeouts and 6.53 walks per nine innings during his rookie season. The fastball pitcher confessed that he had a bit of a control problem, and it was a major factor in his brief Major League career. Burbach was moved to the bullpen in July 1969, and he was replaced in the rotation by Al Downing.

The next spring, Burbach caught mononucleosis and never told his coaches, attempting to play through the ailment. He lost a substantial amount of weight and "never really came back from that."

"It was hard," Burbach said. "Of course [as] a stupid kid, you don't tell anybody, you just keep going. That was one problem."

The other was continually getting behind hitters in the count. Burbach started only four games in 1970, surrendering 19 earned runs in 16 2/3 innings for a 10.26 ERA and 0-2 record. He made only two appearances his next and final year. In his final appearance, on April 24 against the Twins, Burbach tossed one inning, surrendered three runs and picked up the loss.

Then 23 years old, Burbach finished his three-year career with a 6-11 record and a 4.48 ERA. He bounced around with several other teams in the next few years, never making another Major League appearance, and he eventually left the game instead of taking a demotion.

Now 58, Burbach is "halfway retired" as a part-time golf course employee in Johnson City, Tenn. He went back to college to get an education degree and was a salesman of industrial lubricants for about 20 years.

"I probably gave up too quick," Burbach said. "I should have bit the bullet and went to the lower Minors and maybe tried to work my way back. That was my only regret."

Ryan Mink is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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