Memo To: Website browsers, fans, clients
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: The passing of Rex Barney, fireballer
On May 30, 1946, my Uncle Vince (my mother’s younger brother) and Aunt Marie took me and my brother Terry to our first major league baseball games -- a doubleheader at Ebbets Field between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Boston Braves. I was two weeks shy of my 10th birthday, Terry 8˝. It was the first Memorial Day after WWII and the ballpark was packed, the biggest crowd of the year. We made our way to the upper deck in left field and said hello to my Uncle Julian deLaRosa and Aunt Blanche, my mother’s younger sister, who would the following year give birth to Ronald, my colleague here at Polyconomics. We thought they might have saved us seats, but no such luck. There was not a seat to be had by the time we arrived. My uncle lived only a block from the ballpark on Bedford Avenue, but he had decided to teach me how to play chess that morning, and we lost track of time. So we had to make do with standing room, the four of us elbowing our way to a position in the lower deck, right behind and not more than 50 yards from home plate.
It was a great place to be for our first games, and in those days there was no fooling around. The first game took 2 hours, four minutes, with Kirby Higbe of the Dodgers twirling a 5-0 shutout of the Braves. He became an instant hero of mine, and pitched well that year, but soon was traded to some other team, the Pittsburgh Pirates as I recall. The only other player who made an impression on me in that first game was the right fielder, Dixie Walker, “the People’s Cherce,” as he was called. He had two hits in the first game and three in the second and I was in love with Dixie. Alas, the following year, 1947, Dixie refused to play with a rookie named Robinson, and he was traded away to another team, also the Pirates I think, and I didn’t love him anymore.
The only other player who made a great impression on me that day was a kid pitcher named Rex Barney, who came in to relieve the starter, Hank Behrman, in the second inning, with men on second and third. Behrman had been clipped for two runs in the first. My uncle was excited about seeing this rookie Barney in person, “a fireballer,” he called him, and I was excited to be seeing “a fireballer” too. He’d pitched in a few games in 1943, just 18 years old and right out of high school, and the fans were eager to see his 100 mph fastball again. This was his first appearance after coming out of the service, and I was privileged to be there. As Roscoe McGowan of The New York Times reported the following day:
The Dodgers went from the sublime to the ridiculous yesterday before the largest Ebbets Field crowd of the season, 36,854, and still wound up the day holding tight to their lead over the second-place Cardinals.
Kirby Higbe, making his sixth start and pitching his second compete game, blanked the Boston Braves in the opener on five hits, to win by 5-0.
The nightcap went to the Braves, 10-8, but the Brooks might have won that one too, except for a horrendous second inning during which the Braves scored seven runs on only three hits.
Leo Durocher will have to take the rap for that inning -- and he was thrown out of that game by Umpire Al Barlick while it was running its disastrous course -- because he chose to insert young Rex Barney as a relief pitcher and leave the youngster in until he had walked four men and three runs across the plate.
That’s right. The box score records, as I remember well, that Barney pitched to only four men and walked them all. Over the last five decades, as I think about those opening games, I even imagine how painful it was for me to see Barney throw those blazers into the mitt of Don Padgett, nowhere near the plate. I somehow identified with him, feeling his anguish, as the restless crowd began to boo, and Durocher sat there, stone-faced, watching one pitch after another going wide of the mark, the Braves trotting around the bases. It was a baptism of fire for the fireballer.
Barney died August 12 at his home in Baltimore, where he had for the last 25 years been the public address announcer for the Orioles. The NYTimes obituary ran the next day with this opening graph:
Rex Barney, whose no-hitter for the Brooklyn Dodgers against the New York Giants in 1948 was the crowning point of a baseball career shackled by his inability to get the ball over the plate consistently, died yesterday at his home in Baltimore. He was 72.
I wasn’t at the 2-0 no-hitter, a night game at the Polo Grounds, but as it turned out I watched that game standing up too. In the summer of 1948, almost nobody had a television set, but the neighborhood saloons would allow kids in to watch the games, if they behaved. I watched the last several innings at a corner saloon on Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens, a few blocks from my grandparents’ apartment building on 74th Street, where my grandfather was the “super” -- as in superintendent. So it was that I saw Rex Barney at his worst, his most trying moments in baseball, and at his best. That most painful inning in 1946 is the most vivid in my memory of him. In addition to Padgett behind the plate and Walker in right, the team behind him on that Memorial Day long ago consisted of: Ed Stevens at first, Eddie Stanky at 2nd, Pee Wee Reese at shortstop, Billie Herman at 3rd, Gene Hermanski in center, and Augie Galan in left. Rest in peace, Rex.