[Editor’s note: 2007 will bring several new contributors to Bronx Banter. I want to further complement what Cliff and I already provide for you. Bruce Markusen, author and historian, is not a new name to longtime readers and I’m pleased to report that each month, Bruce will run a “Pastime Passings” post that formerly appeared in his “Cooperstown Confidential” column. And that’s not all he’s gonna do…I’ll have more on the new contributors and what they’ll be up to shortly. Cliff and I are still going to be holding it down as usual, but my hope is to give you guys even more of a good thing. I love the idea of having additional voices. The spirit of this blog to generate conversation and community, you know, banter, baby. And that’s word to Big Bird.]
By Bruce Markusen (Guest Columnist)
For many years, The Sporting News filled a vital role by providing obituaries from the sports world. For fans in the pre-internet era, it was often our first notice that someone significant had passed away. Throughout the 2007 season, I’ll try to take on the task once done so ably by The Sporting News by providing regular updates on baseball figures who have departed us. Some of the obituaries will be straight-laced and fact based; others will include some of my own personal commentaries.
Through the first two months of 2007, the baseball world has already lost several significant and influential figures. The list includes former Yankee players Steve Barber, Hank Bauer, and Lew Burdette, and former pitching coach Art Fowler.
Steve Barber (Died on February 4 in Henderson, Nevada; age 67; pneumonia): A hard-throwing but erratically wild left-hander, Barber won 121 games over a 15-year career that began with the Baltimore Orioles in 1960. During his tenure in Baltimore, Barber went 95-75 and became the first 20-game winner in the history of the franchise. He was later inducted into the Orioles’ Hall of Fame.
Commentary: Steve Barber. I always thought that was a great baseball name for a pitcher, in a Sal Maglie kind of way. When I was growing up in the early 1970s, Barber was just finishing up a long career. I remember him mostly as a middle reliever—like a lot of veteran pitchers of that era, that’s where he ended up—but it was as a fireballing starter that Barber created some lasting imagery during much of the 1960s.
Barber was considered one of the hardest throwers of his era, though his radar gun readings look relatively unimpressive by today’s standards. In 1960, Barber was clocked at 95 and a half miles per hour, which was actually the third-fastest mark on record at the time, behind only Hall of Famers Walter Johnson and Bob Feller. Most hitters who faced Barber in his prime would tell you that he threw harder than the mid-nineties, just as old-timers would have said the same about Feller and “The Big Train.” I think it’s probably safe to say that the 1960s devices used to clock Barber were somewhat slow, in contrast to the ballpark readings of today, which are generally on the high side.
Not only did Barber throw hard, but he threw a sinking fastball that darted and dipped, and was very heavy on a batter’s hands. Ellie Hendricks, who caught him with the Orioles and later faced him as an opponent, said hitting Barber’s fastball was akin to swinging at a “ball of iron.” Barber could also be about as wild as Mitch Williams, at least on some days, making it very uncomfortable for opposing hitters to stand in against him.
It’s too bad that Barber came down with a bad bout of tendonitis in 1966. He was having a terrific season, appearing to have harnessed his talents after years of sporadic success, and then had to miss the second half of ’66, including the World Series. Barber did have his moments, including that famed no-hit loss in 1967 (when he walked ten batters and threw 144 pitches before giving way to Stu Miller), but any chance of greatness had gone.
In his later years, Barber bounced around as a reliever, pitching for the New York Yankees, Seattle Pilots, California Angels, and Milwaukee Brewers. As a member of the 1969 Pilots, Barber became one of the most notable figures of Jim Bouton’s Ball Four. Unfortunately, Bouton portrayed Barber in a villainous role, suggesting that he was hiding an injury in order to maintain his presence on the roster, thereby denying a younger pitcher of a chance at pitching. I’ve always thought Bouton’s portrayal of Barber was unfair. Like Barber, Bouton had hurt his arm, and like Barber, was doing all he could to preserve a career in the major leagues. Barber may have spent more than his fair share of time in the trainer’s room, but at least he was trying to pitch, rather than just putting in time on the disabled list.
Hank Bauer (Died on February 9, 2007 in Kansas City, Missouri; age 84; cancer): The ultimate hard-nosed ballplayer, Bauer filled an important role as a secondary cog during the New York Yankees’ dynasty of the 1950s. During his 12-year tenure in New York, Bauer contributed to nine American League pennants and seven World Championships. Almost exclusively a pull hitter, Bauer saw significant time in both right and left field, earned All-Star berths in 1952, ’53 and ’54, and compiled a major league record 17-game hitting streak in World Series play. In 1961, Bauer turned to managing, hired by Charlie Finley as the skipper of the Kansas City A’s. In 1964, he became the manager of the Baltimore Orioles, leading them to a World Championship two seasons later.
Commentary: Bauer lived one of the most fascinating lives of any ballplayer, succeeding on three completely different levels: as a player, manager, and American soldier.
First and foremost, Bauer was an unquestionable war hero. As a member of the U.S. Marines during World War II, he overcame a severe bout of malaria to earn 11 campaign ribbons, two Bronze Stars, and two Purple Hearts. Bauer’s heroics reached their heights during the battle of Okinawa, when he served as the commander of a battalion of 64 men. Only six men survived the assault, with Bauer sustaining a shrapnel wound to his thigh. The injury sent him home, but not before Bauer had lost four of his prime seasons to wartime service.
Bauer’s military toughness extended to his physical appearance. He was once described as having a face that looked like a “clenched fist.” He accentuated that look by consistently wearing his hair in a Marine buzzcut, even years after his military tenure ended.
Though not blessed with an array of physical talents, Bauer made the most of what he possessed. He hustled at all times and prided himself on playing the game in a fundamentally sound way, especially in the field and on the basepaths. He also hated seeing younger teammates who didn’t hustle, coining the phrase that became popular with Yankee veterans in addressing a youthful lack of enthusiasm: “Don’t mess with my money.” Younger Yankees like Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford heard that refrain a few times and learned some lessons from Bauer.
A good player in regular season play, Bauer became a larger-than-life force in the World Series. After struggling badly in his first four Fall Classics, Bauer emerged as a terror in the 1955 and ’58 World Series. Bauer batted .429 in the ’55 Series against Brooklyn and then clubbed four home runs in ’58 against Milwaukee.
After winning seven World Championships as a player, Bauer added a world title as the manager of the Orioles in 1966. Bauer was an underrated manager, most likely because his managing days ended rather abruptly. Emphasizing discipline and accountability, he led the 1967 Orioles and 1969 A’s to second-place finishes. Bauer’s tough-guy approach might not have worked with players in the 1970s, but he obtained good results in the sixties.
Bauer also carried on a celebrated feud with Earl Weaver, who succeeded him as Orioles manager. Bauer had refused to hire Weaver as a coach, and Weaver returned the disfavor by not keeping Bauer on the Baltimore staff. Several years ago, one of my relatives approached Bauer and Weaver at a baseball function. Not knowing of the bitterness between the two, he asked the two rivals if they would pose for a photograph. After the photo was taken, Weaver remarked to Bauer: “That might be the only picture in existence that shows us together.” Even though he couldn’t stand Weaver, Bauer still managed to laugh.