Editor’s note: The 23rd Schenectady City School District Athletic Hall of Fame & Reunion Dinner takes place Monday at Glen Sanders Mansion. Inductees are Ed Alger, Al Burnham and Joe Zelezniak, while the undefeated 1969-70 Linton boys’ basketball team earned the legacy tribute. Today’s story is the second in a four-part series recognizing this year’s induction class.
Alonzo ‘Al’ Burnham made his mark at Nott Terrace High School as a star football player on two undefeated teams and as a catcher who was good enough to be drafted by the Brooklyn Dodgers organization.
The 2021 Schenectady City School District Athletic Hall of Fame inductee could wrestle some, too, and as a junior he lost only one match. Several years later, he even pinned a near-seven-foot, 400-pound bear in an exhibition match at the Schenectady Armory.
“He was a great athlete,” Nick Ronca said of his lifelong friend and teammate on the 1953 and 1954 Nott Terrace football squads that went a combined 12-0. “He could have played anything.”
Burnham played football for one of the most successful teams in Section II annals in 1953, starting as a defensive halfback and alternating among the rushers for the 7-0 Blue Devils that outscored their foes by a 277-6 margin.
“My junior year, the team we had was a dream team,” Burnham said of the cast led by SCSD Athletic Hall of Fame coach Pete Shulha. “We scored 277 points and our opponents scored six. That’s not counting the seven or eight touchdowns that were called back. I’m honored to be part of that team. We had everything. We had offense and defense. We had five or six guys who could score any time.”
Burnham took on a lead offensive role as a senior on the 1954 team that went 5-0 and finished with a 193-33 scoring advantage. The 5-foot-10, 165-pound All-County selection scored nine touchdowns that fall (he had four in a win over Troy) while turning in another super season as a tackler.
“I talked to guys who played for Mont Pleasant in those days,” SCSD Athletic Hall of Fame chairman Bob Pezzano said. “They said there were two guys you didn’t want to get hit by. They were Burnham and [NT star Bob] Czub.”
“I made a lot of tackles,” said Burnham, who retired as a Schenectady police officer in 1990 after a 31-year career. “I liked to hit.”
Czub, a SCSD Athletic Hall of Fame member, and several other key players on the 1953 team were gone by 1954.
“We really didn’t know what we had,” Burnham said. “We had JV guys, but we ran off five wins in a row before the polio hit us.”
Players on Nott Terrace and Mont Pleasant came down with polio in the fall of 1954 and the two unbeaten teams never got a chance to square off. The season before the Blue Devils notched a 19-0 victory before an Election Day crowd of 10,000 and ended a lengthy losing streak against their fiercest rival.
“We were devastated,” Ronca, a linebacker and fullback, said of the 1954 game’s cancellation which marked the end of the season for both teams. “You dream of playing Mont Pleasant. Fortunately we played them the year before.”
That did not erase the sting Burnham felt.
“I had a couple of disappointments in my athletic career, and that was one of them,” Burnham said. “That stuck with me for a while.”
Burnham said another difficult time was when he was let go by the Dodgers after playing parts of two minor league seasons in 1957 and 1958.
“I opened my mouth and told the guy [his manager] I wanted to play more,” Burnham said. “I said, ‘Play me or trade me,’ and I got released. That was the second disappointment. Everything else was gravy.”
Burnham began his pro baseball career with a bang, homering on the first pitch he saw in an Appalachian (Rookie) League game as a member of the Bluefield Dodgers.
“That is something amazing,” Burnham said of his homer that cleared the centerfield fence. “I have thought about that a lot. How many guys can say they did that?”
Burnham was a catcher on two Nott Terrace teams that won Class A League titles, and as a senior the 1955 Junior Chamber of Commerce Senior Athlete of the Year batted .500. He would later compete in the Albany Twilight League before shifting to fastpitch softball in the early 60s, and his hitting prowess drew the attention of Eddie Feigner of “The King and His Court” fame.
“We played them three of four times and I always had luck hitting him [Feigner],” Burnham said. “After one of the games I did get an offer to join them and travel around the country, but I stayed home to focus on my job and my family.”
Burnham is a big stock car racing fan and from 1968-72 he competed at Albany-Saratoga Speedway.
“You race one night and spend the next six days fixing up the car,” Burnham said. “I didn’t win any money. It was for sport.”
The competitiveness came out in Burnham in 1969 in a much different arena, when he grappled with that big bear by the name of Victor at a Capital Newspapers-sponsored outdoor show, and was the only challenger to pin him.
“He was on top of me and I escaped,” Burnham recalled. “I tripped him up and got on top of him.”
Burnham laughed when asked about those several minutes of grappling.
“People would ask me why I did it,” the 84-year-old Burnham said of his bout with Victor. “I don’t know why. Why not?”
Burnham will have his second wife of 41 years, Lois, as well as his children Mark, Robin and Amy in attendance when he is inducted into the SCSD Athletic Hall of Fame Monday evening at Glen Sanders Mansion.
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