Richard Wesley Burnett, oilman and baseball entrepreneur, was born on January 13, 1898, in McLennan County, Texas. When he was two years old the family moved to Gladewater, and the small East Texas town became his lifelong home. After he graduated from high school, Burnett joined the United States Navy and served during World War I. Afterward he returned to Gladewater, where he pursued several business ventures and jobs. He married Dale Jeter on January 6, 1924, and alternately operated a hardware store, a sawmill, an ice cream plant, and other ventures with only modest success; but when the East Texas oil boom occurred, Burnett found his niche in the business world. He began buying and trading oil leases and in 1932 drilled a well, struck oil, and soon became moderately wealthy. After his successes in East Texas, he became involved in a risky oil-exploration program in Illinois and suffered a ruinous financial setback. Then, in 1944, he discovered the Wesson field in Ouichita County, Arkansas, where he struck oil and gas.
Burnett was an ardent baseball fan. In 1935, shortly after his first success in the East Texas oilfield, he bought the Shreveport, Louisiana, franchise in the Class C East Texas League and moved it to his hometown. The Gladewater Bears won a pennant in 1936 and whetted Burnett's appetite for further baseball adventures. Between 1935 and 1948, in a addition to the Gladewater team, he owned minor-league franchises in Gainesville and Texarkana, Texas, and Monroe, Louisiana. He enjoyed his association with professional baseball in the low minor leagues, but he had greater ambitions.
In 1948 he drew national attention when he purchased the Texas Rebels of the AA Texas League for $550,000. A few weeks later, Burnett also purchased the Oakcliff ballpark, where the Rebels played their home games, for another $265,000. He promptly renamed the Rebels the Eagles and the park Burnett Field. Burnett intended to make the Eagles a pennant contender in the Texas League, and he hoped to attract a major-league franchise to Dallas. In 1952 the Eagles won the Texas League pennant for the first time since 1936; they won the league the next year and defeated the Nashville team of the Southern Association in the Dixie Series. Between 1948 and 1953 Burnett turned a lackluster franchise into a powerful force while he pioneered changes in the league. In 1952 he brought David Hoskins to the Eagles and integrated the Texas League five years after the major leagues had ended segregation. He became a noted baseball owner, as he constantly labored to improve his team, his ballpark, and the entertainment value of an evening at Burnett Field.
In 1953 Burnett funded a conference of minor-league owners and operators to discuss the decline of minor-league baseball. Attendance was dwindling in minor-league parks, leagues were collapsing, and the major leagues were uprooting established leagues with their emerging franchise-relocation program and expanded broadcast policies. Burnett, who realized he might negatively affect his chances to acquire a major-league franchise in the future, wanted to reform the business practices in which the interests of minor-league baseball were nearly always considered as secondary to those of the major leagues. But his reform movement failed to make headway against a united and intransigent coterie of major-league owners and executives. Nevertheless, because of his successes as owner of the Eagles and his efforts to improve the conditions of minor league baseball, the Sporting News declared him the Minor League Executive of the Year in 1954. On June 1, 1955, Burnett, who was in Shreveport, Louisiana, to see his Eagles play a weekend series against Shreveport, suffered a heart attack and died. He was buried in Hillcrest Cemetery, Dallas.