Give That Fan A Contract

Earl Weaver had one sign in the Orioles’ clubhouse and he said he got it from Mr. Rickey: "It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts." Every clubhouse could use one of those.

Mr. Rickey never claimed to know it all. He often started a speech: "If anybody says they know baseball, they don’t know what they’re talking about. I’ve been in it all my life. There’s a fascination in baseball, and I am trying to learn this game every day."

Rex Barney’s Thank Youuuuu, Rex Barney with Norman Macht (1993), p.47

It’s a consolation to me to hear Branch Rickey, one of the most knowledgeable baseball men of his era, say that he never learned all of baseball. I spent the first 40 years of my life as a casual fan, believing all the tropes and reciting numbers of wins, saves and clutch hits. Only recently (I’m 44) have I attempted to learn the game more seriously and it feels like everything I learn shows me twelve things I don’t know. Me and Branch Rickey. Okay.

Reading Barney’s autobiography showed me another catalogue of my ignorance. First, I knew nothing of the career of Rex Barney. I grew up on Rex as the voice of Memorial Stadium. We imitated his voice as we stepped to the plate in wiffleball games. If you made a nice grab of a foul ball at a game, Rex became your agent. Once, I think, my older brother said that Rex had been a ballplayer back in the day.

Turns out, back in the day Rex had an ascent to the majors that is stunning to imagine today. In 1943, with WWII drawing down the MLB talent pool, Barney was scouted in high school by the Yankees and Dodgers. Both approached his parents as soon as he graduated, with Rickey coming personally to seal a deal with Brooklyn. He went to the Piedmont League, where he played briefly for Buzzie Bavasi’s Durham Bulls and roomed with Gene Mauch. He was wild, wild, wild but he threw smoke. Demand for credible wartime pitching pulled him quickly to Montreal and then Brooklyn. March – playing for your neighborhood Catholic HS in Omaha. August – Ebbetts Field.

It didn’t last. Rex couldn’t control his power. He spent ‘44 & ‘45 in the war and struggled with the big club in ’46 & ’47, mostly relieving and starting the tail end of doubleheaders. But Rickey couldn’t give up hope on the promise of that wicked fastball and kept him on the club. Like Weaver would later, Rickey intuited what we now follow statistically. He asked Rex:

"Do you know how to gauge a pitcher?"
I said, "Sure, earned run average."
"Wrong,’ he said. "If you can give up fewer hits than innings pitched and strike out more than you walk, you’ll be up here a long time." (p.50)

Rex put that together for one year in 1948: 246.2 IP and 193 hits. 136 K vs. 122 BB. That’s still an eye-popping number of walks, but it was the one time in his career that the ratio leaned the right way. He turned that into 12 complete games, 4 shutouts, 15 wins and a 3.10 ERA in 34 starts. One of the shutouts was the pinnacle of his career – a no-hitter against the rival Giants. Again, it didn’t last. In ’49 & ’50 he returned to his struggles and then left baseball when they wanted to send him all the way back to the Piedmont League to start over.

I was twenty-seven. I was finished. I get weepy thinking about it now. It’s a part of my life I cannot forget, ever. When you have to face yourself with that memory every day of your life, it’s not very pleasant. (p.156)

But the Dodgers kept him restricted until 1960, fearing someone else would pick him up and somehow fix him.

The broadcasting and announcing story that followed Baltimoreans know. But the book is a study of a question that haunts the Orioles now and for the last decade. Why do incredibly gifted pitchers not turn out? In Rex’s case there are several explanations floated around.

Did the wartime rush ruin him? If he had a steady development through the minors and arrived at Ebbets field in three years rather than three months, maybe it could have been different. Was it a failure to focus? Rex confesses he loved the NY nightlife, making the scene at Toots Shor’s to hang with DiMaggio and movie stars. Was it the pressure of the media? The photo section reprints one of the half-page cartoons the papers carried of ‘Borneo Barney.’ That would be hard to take. Did too many people try to fix him? Everyone had an idea to help to him – throwing programs on flat ground, against fences, through string targets, etc. Rex, desperate, tried all of them.

It’s impossible to tease these things apart 60 years later, and surely all of them had some effect. But my sense is that the lack careful instruction early and the haphazard instruction late was the one-two combination that knocked Rex Barney down. Having a relationship with one pitching coach who could work steadily and incrementally with his delivery may have been the difference maker. As the Duquette O’s say the right things about player development, I’d like to tell them this story to underline it. The other direction is really sad:

…once in a while something with jar me and I’ll think, "Why couldn’t I do it? Such an easy thing, to throw the ball over home plate. … It was all such a big part of my life, how can I just discard it? I wouldn’t even try. I relive it all, the nightmare and the good times. And one of those good times was the last half of that 1948 season, when I didn’t believe anybody would ever beat me. Ever.

Sometimes I dream that I am fifty years old and I’m making a comeback…. I know it’s goofy. But I still have that dream. (pp.253-254).

Another thing I learned is how little I know about SABR. I knew it as the first two syllables in sabermetrics and assumed it was entirely a group of statistical analysts. Then I saw that the co-author here, Norman Macht, is a member of SABR. I was puzzled. Turns out they also have a baseball biography project ( listing 1710 bios to date: "The primary goal of the Baseball Biography Project is to enliven the people behind the statistical records that are so readily available." This book, as an autobiography, doesn’t count but Macht is on the list of authors associated with the project. Talk about uncovering your ignorance – over 1700 books I haven’t read.

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