Ernest Burke spent three years in the Negro leagues with the Baltimore Elite Giants and three years in organized ball, playing in the minor leagues until 1951.
Last summer, a statue of Burke in his Elite Giants uniform was unveiled at Millard Tydings Park in Havre de Grace, Maryland, where he spent part of his youth.
Not bad for a man who never even played baseball before serving in the Marines in World War II.
Burke, born in Perryville, Maryland, in 1924, moved to Havre de Grace as a young child until his parents died. At age 10, he was sent to Canada to live with a family in a small town in Quebec. There, he does odd jobs for the family grocery store and goes skiing. He didn’t know what baseball was.
With the outbreak of World War II, Burke returned to Havre de Grace and joined the Marines, becoming one of the first black members of the Corps. He served in the Pacific theater, rising from private to corporal, while seeing combat in Gaudalcanal, Okinawa and Guam.
It was while stationed in Okinawa that he joined a segregated black baseball team that played against other white units on the island. A natural athlete, he quickly acquired a reputation as a powerful pitcher and was told by Johnny Rigney, an opponent who had pitched for the Chicago White Sox, that he should join the black leagues when he left the service.
Burke had never heard of the Negro Leagues.
Upon his release in 1946, he returned to Havre de Grace to live with his brother, joined a local team, and came to the attention of the owner of the Baltimore Elite Giants. Burke signed with the Elites and spent the next three seasons with them, pitching and occasionally playing in the outfield. Among his teammates were two future National League Rookie of the Year winners, Junior Gilliam and Joe Black.
Beginning with the signing of Jackie Robinson with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946, the previously all-white minor and major leagues began recruiting black players from black leagues. In 1949, Burke signed to play for the Poughkeepsie Chiefs, a Class B Colonial League team, and spent three years in the now integrated minor leagues, finishing with St. Jean in the Class C Canadian Provincial League in 1951. .
His playing days over, Burke returned to Havre de Grace and then to Baltimore, where he drove a dump truck for several years, playing recreational baseball and playing a little tennis. After taking early retirement to care for a grandson with juvenile diabetes, Burke was encouraged by some of the local tennis pros to earn his certification to teach the sport.
He went to a tennis school in Hilton Head, SC and received his instructional certificate, later returning to Baltimore where he became a tennis instructor at a local club for over 20 years.
Burke had the most joy, however, as a motivational speaker, speaking in schools and to civic groups about what it was like to play in the black leagues. He was the keynote speaker at the 50th anniversary celebration of Jackie Robinson’s “Breaking the Color Barrier in Baseball” presentation sponsored by the Smithsonian Institute.
He died of kidney cancer at age 79 in 2004.
On June 26, 2021, on what would have been his 97th birthday, the Ernest Burke statue was dedicated after a decade of planning and fundraising led by Havre de Grace resident Camay Murphy, daughter of Cab Calloway, the famous jazz singer and bandleader. . More than 600 people, including former Orioles Al Bumbry and Ken Dixon, attended the celebration.
Burke’s statue sits just to the right of the Tydings Park war memorial, befitting a man who proudly served his country.