Marty Niland: Harper’s shot harkens back to another phenom’s first homer

At 19 years, 211 days old, Bryce Harper wasn’t even old enough to buy a beer to celebrate his first major league home run this week. The more than 400-foot blast off San Diego’s Tim Stauffer, in Harper’s 15th major league game and 54th at-bat, not only added to his lore but evoked memories of another vaunted prospect’s first homer, almost 41 years earlier.

Like Harper, Jeff Burroughs was the first overall pick in the amateur draft when the Washington Senators selected him in 1969. And like Harper, he was an expensive project. Former Atlanta Braves general manager Paul Richards told the New York Times’ Red Smith in this 1975 interview that Burroughs might have been the first million-dollar “bonus baby” had the Senators not secured his exclusive rights through the draft, instituted a few years earlier.

While Burroughs never saw even proportionally the same kind of money that Harper is getting from the Nationals ($3.65 million over five seasons), he was stuck with the label of “can’t miss prospect.” Senators manager Ted Williams even said Burroughs might be his successor as baseball’s most recent .400 hitter.

The team rushed Burroughs to the big leagues for a failed six-game stint in 1970, in which he collected just two hits. But a year later, Williams thought it was time, and on Aug. 2, 1971, at cozy Tigers Stadium, Burroughs would start to live up to his potential.

Burroughs was 20 years, 128 days old and playing in his 14th major league game when he stepped to the plate. His 28th career at-bat would be against left-hander Ron Perranoski, who had just relieved Tigers starter Joe Coleman. The Senators trailed 7-4 after Coleman gave up two runs in the inning and issued a two-out walk to put men on first and second.

Williams played the matchup, pinch hitting the right-handed Burroughs against the lefty, and it paid off in a big way. Burroughs stroked one into the right field stands for his first career homer, a three-run shot that tied the game at 7-7. The Washington bullpen and defense would blow the game, but Burroughs had earned his reputation. He became a starting outfielder in the team’s season in the nation’s capital, finishing at .232 with five homers and 25 RBIs in 59 games.

Once the team moved to Texas, he was destined for even bigger things. Burroughs won the American League MVP award in 1974, when he hit .301 with 25 homers and led the league with 118 RBIs. In 16 major league seasons, he would amass 240 home runs, including 30 in 1973 with Texas and 41 in 1977 with Atlanta. He would twice drive in more than 100 runs in his 882-RBI career and make the All-Star team in each league.

Some people’s expectations for Harper are at least that big, if not bigger. Whether he will live up to them remains to be seen, but he’s already achieved more success, at a younger age, and with only a bit more big league experience than Jeff Burroughs, the Senators’ final “can’t miss prospect” before moving to Texas.

Marty Niland blogs about the Nationals for D.C. Baseball History. His thoughts on the Nationals will appear here as part of’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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