1892 : Leander Burnett, Ottawa Indian and MAC’s First Bona Fide Athletic Hero

June 4, 2018 all-day

Baseball player Leander Burnett, an American Indian from Harbor Springs, completed an extraordinary four year athletic career at MAC by providing the winning hit in a game against Olivet College on  June 4, 1892.

The final game of the 1892 Field Day tournament between MAC and Olivet was a true pitchers’ duel.  The crowd, included a smattering of ladies and some of MAC’s most distinguished professors, wore various shades of green and yelled out shouts of “Rah Rah Rah” and “Boom-de-dah”.    When the fans got really excited, their yell of “Aggies’ even made the grandstands quiver.

Just as the game seemed destined for extra innings, the Aggies’ William Bernart was perched on third in the bottom of the eighth.  (According to a recap by the Lansing State Journal, Bernart had singled, stolen second, and reached third on a passed ball.)     Leander Burnett then displayed why he was recognized as MAC’s premier athlete of the time by slashing out what proved to be the game-winning RBI single.

According to the Lansing Republican newspaper, following the game the fans — the largest turnout ever by MAC –went wild as “Hats, canes, umbrellas, chairs, anything that could be got hold of were thrown in the air.  The first man caught was Bernart, then came Burnett, the telling scorer, and then every man on the team was carried around on the one-fifth-mile track, followed by two hundred students yelling, blowing tin horns, floating green flags and ribbons and yelling for kill”.

The rest of the story:

According to MSU sports historians Lyman Frimodig and Fred Stabley, Burnett earns the honor of being MAC’s “first bona fide athletic hero” for his efforts in baseball (1889-1892) and track (1888-1892).  He was born of an Ottawa Indian mother on December 14, 1868 in Little Traverse (now called Harbor Springs) Michigan.  Following his graduation from Harbor Springs High School in 1887, he entered Michigan Agricultural College to study agriculture.

At the time MAC was a charter member of the MIAA along with Olivet, Hillsdale, and Albion.  It was in this competitive atmosphere that Leander excelled as a baseball player (pitcher, third baseman, outfielder) and shined as a track and field star in the annual MIAA spring  Field Days.  These were the only two sports offered at the time.   Although many of his Field Day Gold medals were in unheralded events such as the backward broad jump, the fact is that he won 37 events in a span of five years. His feat of June 6, 1890 is particularly noteworthy.   Of the 20 events contested that afternoon, Burnett completed in 12, winning 10, and finishing second in the other two.

Sources :

David Thomas, “Fans Took Baseball Seriously in 1892“, Lansing State Journal, July 23, 1989

Jack Siebold, “Spartan Sports Encyclopedia : A History of the Michigan State Men’s Athletic Program, 2nd edition, 2014.   Note: the 2003 edition is available in print.  Pictures of Leander Burnett and his baseball team are available in the encyclopedia.