Edmund Michael Burke truly was the most interesting man in the world.
After graduating from Penn, Burke became a spy, a movie consultant, and the president of the New York Yankees at different points in his life. Some of the people whom he counted among his friends include a notorious British traitor, the founder of the Office of Strategic Service (the precursor to the CIA), the most famous author of the 20th century, and the most influential sports owner of the 20th century. Burke led a life which took him all around the world and allowed him to integrate himself into the highest levels of government, business, and sports.
Born in a small town in Connecticut in 1916, Burke played football, baseball, and basketball growing up. After a successful high school football career, Burke received many scholarship offers but ultimately chose to play football at Penn, where he played halfback on offense, played safety on defense, and returned punts for the Quakers during a time when most players played on all three sides of the ball.
The highlight of his career occurred in his final game for the Red and Blue, which was the final game of the 1938 season. The Quakers were playing heavily favored Cornell, who was ranked No. 10 in the country. Burke managed to snag two interceptions, helping the Quakers battle the Big Red to a scoreless tie. He was offered a tryout with the Eagles in 1939 and made the team, but he eventually decided that the $125 weekly salary wasn’t worth it and instead moved to New York to sell maritime insurance after graduation.
A year after he began his job in New York, the United States entered World War II, and Burke enlisted in the Navy. One day, while visiting Washington, D.C., he ran into a football fan from Philadelphia who recognized him and invited him to a dinner party, which would change the course of his life. While at this party, he met “Wild” Bill Donovan, the head and founder of the OSS, the United States’ first spy agency and a precursor to the CIA. Donavan, himself a Columbia alum and football player for the Lions, recognized Burke and recruited him to join the fledgling agency.
Burke decided to join the OSS and started work in Italy. His most important overseas mission occurred in 1943, when he managed to smuggle anti-fascist Italian Vice Admiral Eugenio Minisini out of Italy. Minisini was in possession of torpedo technology vital to the U.S. war effort and turned himself in to the Allies instead of working with the Germans. Burke was awarded a Silver Star and a Navy Cross for his efforts on the mission. He spent the rest of the war working with the resistance in France, helping the allies while befriending Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway, who affectionately referred to him as “kid,” remained friends with Burke for the rest of his life.
Following the war, Burke moved out to Los Angeles to work as a consultant on the Gary Cooper-led spy movie "Cloak and Dagger," which was partly based on Burke's experiences during the war. Burke's movie career fizzled out after that, and he decided to move back to New York, unsure of what to do next. He said that, at that point in his life, he only knew about two things: football and guerrilla warfare. Considering his lack of desire to play football, it seemed as though he had one path left: going back to his old job at the OSS, now known as the CIA, which was recruiting spies for the upcoming Cold War.
While at the CIA, Burke organized dangerous missions in Albania and Russia. One particular mission involved dropping rebels into Albania, but it soon became clear that they had been caught and killed. It was later revealed that Kim Philby, a notorious British traitor who Burke considered a friend, had given up the rebels' location and had gotten them killed.
After working with the CIA for a few years, Burke realized he needed another change, so he called up his friend from the OSS, John Ringling North, of the famous Ringling family. At this point, John was running his family’s Ringling Brothers circus, and he offered Burke a job as executive director of the circus. While running the circus, he encountered another famous 20th century character, notorious gangster Jimmy Hoffa. Burke refused to pay off Hoffa’s teamsters and was also fed up with the drug and gambling rackets in the circus, which led him to quit within a few short years.
This decision turned out to be for the best, as he used his connections to get an interview at CBS. Due to his knowledge of Europe from the time he spent there, he was immediately appointed president of European operations for the television company. The corporate environment turned out to be a much better fit for the notoriously straitlaced Burke, and he remained in Europe running the company's operations for a number of years.
Around this time, CBS bought the New York Yankees, the most successful team in sports at the time and American League pennant winner 26 of the previous 36 AL pennants. Unfortunately for the television company, the Yankees' success wouldn’t continue while they owned the team, as the period between 1965-1972 saw the Yankees win zero pennants and have a winning percentage below .500.
Originally, CBS Chairman William Paley ran the team, but after two miserable years in 1965 and 1966, he decided to step down and let Burke take over running the Yankees. Burke was immediately well-respected by the other owners, despite his outsider status and the Yankees' lack of success. This became evident on Dec. 21, 1968, where, in a meeting to decide who would replace William Eckert as MLB commissioner, all the AL owners backed Burke as their choice to head the league. The National League owners, led by Walter O’Malley, famous owner of the Dodgers who started West Coast baseball by moving his team to Los Angeles, steadfastly opposed his appointment. Eventually, after seeing the intense disapproval of O’Malley, Burke withdrew his name from consideration, later writing that he “couldn’t imagine working for 25 O’Malleys, or even one.”
Burke continued working for the Yankees until 1973, when the team was sold to businessman George Steinbrenner for $10 million. Burke had a hand in the sale, as he was anxious to continue working with the team, even after CBS informed him of their intent to sell the Yankees. Through Indians general manager Gabe Paul, Burke was connected to Steinbrenner and convinced CBS to sell to the group headed by Steinbrenner. In exchange, Burke would be allowed to keep his role as team president.
Things quickly soured, as Steinbrenner reneged on his promise to Burke, making Paul the team president. Burke decided to leave the team after just three months, as working with someone who broke promises was not something the honorable Burke found palatable.
Following his unceremonious leave from the Bronx, Burke continued to work in sports, taking over as president of Madison Square Garden, a position he worked for eight years before retiring at age 65 in 1981. He moved to a farm in Ireland in his retirement years and passed away in 1987 at the age of 71.
Burke was a man who was involved in many different industries over the course of his life, bouncing from one to the other while maintaining an upstanding reputation. Not everyone who does that can have the same level of success he did, but not everyone is Edmund Michael Burke.