Fulton County

Discovered: 1917 newsreel featuring Gloversville ballplayer George Burns

This is a story about baseball spanning generations.
Historical items of baseball player George J. Burns in the Fulton County Museum.
Historical items of baseball player George J. Burns in the Fulton County Museum.

This is a story about baseball spanning generations.

It’s about a baseball great from a century ago — who made his home in Gloversville — coming alive again, not through some cornfield in Iowa, but from beneath an old hockey rink in a Klondike Gold Rush boom town.

Gloversville’s Michael Hauser, a baseball fan and historian has long taken an interest in that player: his great-great uncle. Last fall Hauser got to see his ancestor for the first time in motion, thanks to a cache of old news-reel footage interred for decades in the permafrost of Canada’s Yukon.

For Hauser, the footage showing 1910s-era major leaguer George Burns is a link to his past.

“It’s only a five-second snippet of him, but it’s him in the flesh,” Hauser, 46, said of the clip. “It’s him smiling. It’s him throwing a ball. It’s really him and what he looked like, so it was a real thrill for me.”

Hauser was talking about a news reel from 1917 celebrating the National League champion New York Giants. Having researched Burns over the years, Hauser had never seen film footage of his relative, who died two years before Hauser was born.

Then last fall, he came across a New York Times article on the filmmaker who is producing a movie documenting the story of the Klondike cache’s discovery.

For Hauser, the thrills continued this past week, as the film discoveries continued. The Sunday Gazette learned the filmmaker had a second news reel, which also included Burns, from the same frozen find.

That second clip shows Burns in action in the 1917 World Series, leading off games with base hits. Hauser was delighted.

“But to see him actually at bat, in the batter’s box, take a swing,” the married father of two said, “and to watch how quickly he ran to first and make the turn at the bag — that’s just incredible. This is ‘Field of Dreams’ stuff to me.”

Burns is set to be inducted this July into the Fulton County Baseball & Sports Hall of Fame, in a ceremony planned for July 11 at Gloversville’s own Field of Dreams, Parkhurst Field.

Opened in 1906, the field once hosted exhibitions of barnstorming major league teams, including Burns’ 1923 Cincinnati Reds. Multiple baseball Hall of Famers are recorded to have played there in such games.

The grounds are now regularly used for Little League games. July’s induction ceremony will be between innings of the annual Fulton County Vintage Baseball Game.

The Fulton County Hall of Fame was started in 2012 by locals David Karpinski and Andy Fusco. Fusco passed away last month at the age of 62.

“We’re beside ourselves when we can find a picture of a game that happened, let alone actual footage of it,” Karpinski said.

Burns grew up in Utica and made it to the majors with the Giants in 1911 at the age of 21. He went on to play in 15 seasons, was in the 1913, 1917 and 1921 World Series and led the National League in various years in runs scored, stolen bases and walks.

At the Giants’ old home, the Polo Grounds, left field was known as “Burnsville.”

On road trips, Burns made other left fields his home, including Chicago’s Wrigley Field, where the new baseball season kicks off tonight as the Cubs take on the St. Louis Cardinals.

As an adult, Burns moved to Gloversville, where he ran a pool hall and later worked as a payroll clerk. He died in 1966 at 76, and is buried in Johnstown’s Mount Carmel Cemetery.

‘Frozen time’

The Burns baseball film clips come from a large find of news reels uncovered in Dawson City, Yukon, about 4,000 miles by car from Burns’ adopted hometown.

They were found there in 1978 as the city was building a new recreation center on the site of an old hockey rink, which itself was on the site of an old swimming pool, according to New York City filmmaker Bill Morrison.

That work uncovered some 500 films that had been interred there essentially as fill to make the ice rink. They’d made their way to Dawson City as part of the distribution chain and the film companies didn’t want them back.

The film stock itself was volatile and prone to fires. That meant few copies survived. This cache survived by being buried in the cold Canadian ground for 50 years.

The find was preserved and archived. Morrison is making a documentary on the find itself due for completion later this year, “Dawson City: Frozen Time.”

The significance of the individual films have been realized over the years. Morrison found footage of the 1919 World Series, famous for the gambling scandal that turned the White Sox into the Black Sox.

And last year, Morrison came across the 1917 World Series footage, which included some of those same White Sox taking on Burns’ Giants.

“As a White Sox fan I was thrilled to find both of them,” Morrison told The Sunday Gazette.

The New York Times wrote about the 1917 find during last year’s World Series, embedding the close-ups film in the online article, but not the second reel.

The second reel identifies Burns twice, showing him leading off both Games 1 and 2 with singles.

Information available in the reel can be used to identify him in two other clips. Shown is a double play from Game 1. Burns hit into the only double play of that game. The Giants’ left fielder — Burns — can also be briefly seen far away running toward center field after a White Sox Game 2 run-scoring single.

When Hauser first found the film footage through The Times story, the first person he went to was his grandfather Earl Way, now 92 and living in a local nursing home.

As a child, Hauser had learned about Burns and the other local baseball greats through the stories Way told.

Hauser was happy to return the favor.

“I went up to the nursing home where he’s at, fired up the computer and showed it to him,” Hauser said of the film clips. “He just smiled and said, ‘Yup, that’s him.’ ”

Categories: News, Sports

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