Remembering Jim Burns on His Birthday

Burns and Vertlieb at Sardi’s

[Steve Vertlieb pays tribute to his friend and prolific File 770 contributor, the late Jim Burns.]

By Steven J. Vertlieb: James H. Burns was a professional writer, film historian, sports enthusiast, actor, and fan. More importantly, however, he was my friend. I guess he was one of my very best friends. This becomes more apparent, perhaps, with the passage of time. Jim is no longer with us. He died, sadly, almost two years ago on what would have been my mother’s birthday, June 2nd, 2016.

James H. Burns

Jimmy was a character. He was handsome, charming, smart, and funny. All of the ladies loved him. I loved him too. He could be cantankerous, irascible, and opinionated. Jimmy didn’t like to be wrong. It didn’t matter much because he was usually right. Jim appeared often on Broadway as an actor. He also became a popular guest on New York radio stations as a joyously zealous baseball critic, and loyal supporter of the city’s sports teams.

Jimmy loved life with an uncommon exuberance and passion. He embraced every fragment of his life with uncommon reverence. He was also among my biggest supporters. Whenever I’d feel down, unworthy, and unimportant, Jimmy was always there to remind me of my accomplishments over half a century, and offer himself as a one man cheering section. When I won a “Rondo” Hall Of Fame Award for lifetime achievement two years ago, it was Jimmy who pushed, shoved, and lobbied for me to finally win the trophy. When I told Jimmy that there was no way that I’d ever be remembered or recognized for my work, he enthusiastically telephoned me at an ungodly hour, waking me from a deep sleep on a work night, to inform me that I’d won. I think that Jimmy was as happy as I was about the win.

Jimmy was the picture of health and robust masculinity. The only problem was that he smoked. He smoked every day, morning, noon, and night. He couldn’t give it up. He always had a cigarette dangling from his lips. It was a part of his character and personality. It was a part of him. Jimmy took the train down from New York on December 15th, 2015, in order to be a part of my seventieth birthday celebration. I got him a room at a local motel, and cherished the hours that he spent with us in Philadelphia. We laughed, we talked, and we hugged. I think that it meant a lot to Jimmy to come down to Philly, and to be so surrounded by animated conversation and camaraderie. My brother, Erwin, was visiting from Los Angeles, and both he and Jimmy really hit it off. We spent a day and a night together, and Jimmy was in his glory. He told stories, listened, laughed, and shared reverent hours of conversation and hilarity.

That was the last time that I ever saw Jimmy alive. Several weeks after cheering me on for the Rondo Award in April, 2016, Jimmy began to develop and become cognizant of alarming health issues. He grew sick quickly. On the morning of Saturday, June 4th, 2016, I was walking through the corridors of our hotel in Louisville, Kentucky. I was there with my girlfriend Shelly to accept the Rondo life achievement award that Jimmy had lobbied so hard over so many years for me to win. I bumped into David Colton, organizer of the annual awards and Editor In Chief of USA Today. David smiled, shook my hand, and asked me if I’d heard the news. I stopped, and asked “What news?” It was then that David informed me that Jimmy had passed away two days earlier on Thursday, June 2nd. I hadn’t heard. I’d been busy working, packing, and arranging for my journey to Louisville. David told me that he’d seen a notice on Jimmy’s Facebook page that he’d succumbed to his illness. I went back to my room and told Shelly what had happened. We were both stunned and speechless. Jimmy had become so much an integral part of both of our lives.

That evening as I accepted my award from David, and offered my impromptu speech, recalling a lifetime of memories and friends, I broke down and began to cry. If it wasn’t for Jimmy, I probably wouldn’t have been there at all. I dedicated my hour of personal triumph to Jimmy. David, in turn, dedicated the ceremony to Jim. He was my friend, and he was my brother. Today, April 10th, would have been his birthday. Happy Birthday, Jim. Happy Birthday, dear friend. There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t think of you, and miss the sound of your mischievous jokes, and sweet voice. Happy Birthday in baseball Heaven, Jimmy. I miss you. We all do.

[Editor’s note: Here are links to all the posts Jim wrote here in his last six months of life.]


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