Monday, May 18, 2015

197. Rex Barney: Trying To Find His Way Home

WDNC Radio Broadcast of the June 4, 1943 game between the Durham Bulls and Norfolk Tars: on the mound for the Bulls making his professional debut this afternoon is Rex Barney. Just weeks ago the 18 year-old was in his senior year in high school back in Omaha, Nebraska. As soon as he had that diploma in his paws he was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers organization who sent him here to our Durham Bulls. Barney fires a few warm ups in to catcher Jack Phillips. The Dodgers scouts all praise his blazing fastball and the velocity at which this kid can throw. Before the game this afternoon Bulls manager Bruno Betzel was already comparing Rex Barney's speed to the great Bob Feller. Now folks, that's some good company to be in! Ok, Barney is finished with his warm ups and Grady Dunlap steps into the box to lead it off the 7th inning for Norfolk. Barney looks in for the sign from Phillips. Big sweeping windup and high leg kick - here's the pitch...

(Sound of a thump followed by paper shuffling and muffled yell)

Sorry about that folks - Barney's pitch sailed 5 feet over Jack Phillip's head and came right through the chicken wire of our radio and press booth. Right through it! The ball hit old Bill Parker of the Herald-Sun square in the noggin', but the rest of us are all ok, shaken but ok. Bill, are you - ok, he's ok. The umpire puts a new Spalding in play and Barney again looks in for the sign. Look out folks, this kid's pitching style is of the compass variety - he throws in the general direction of the plate...

That was Rex Barney's first pitch in organized baseball. 

Throughout the course of the summer of 1943, Barney went from the Durham Bulls to the Montreal Royals and finally on August 18th he made his big league debut at Ebbets Field. With the exception of precious few moments, Rex Barney' major league career echoed that first pitch in Durham. Try as he might, he never could get that heater of his over the plate. 

I had heard about Rex Barney many times as a kid from my Grandfather. As most of you already know, Grandpa Joe was a Brooklyn Dodgers man going back to the 1920's. When ever there was talk of a young pitcher with tremendous speed my grandfather would bring up Rex Barney. The old man loved to mention how Barney no-hit the hated New York Giants in '48. Grandpa never tired or retelling that one. But, like Karl Spooner and Pete Reiser, Rex Barney embodied the notion of unfulfilled expectation - the big "what if?"

As an 18 year-old in 1943 Barney went 2 and 2 before he was drafted into the service. He drove a tank across Belgium and into Germany and then returned to the Dodgers in 1946. Barney was wild as hell, but his speed captivated the Brooklyn management - besides he was only 21, there was plenty of time for him to learn control. Barney went 3-5 for 1946 then 5-3 in '47. Still the wildness remained. One minute he'd be burning them in over the plate and the next he'd throw a ball 20 feet over the catcher's head and into the box seats. The first thought was he simply wasn't concentrating or bearing down. It was true, Barney was a husky good-looking guy who loved the broads. He was a clothes horse and as the most heavily-touted pitcher in the Dodgers organization he held virtual movie star status throughout the borough of Brooklyn. 

Nineteen forty-eight looked like the year he figured it all out. The big Nebraskan won 15 games including a no-hitter against the Dodgers hated rivals, the New York Giants. The home plate umpire for that No-no said later that Bob Feller, at the time recognized as the fasted man to ever pitch, had nothing on Barney's fastball. The season's totals showed his ERA was the fifth best in the National League and he'd finally recorded more strike outs than walks. 

The Dodgers organization was pleased with his progress - there was only one problem. In the last week of the '48 season Barney slid hard into second base breaking his ankle. It wasn't thought to be especially worrisome - he had the entire winter to take his time and recover. 1949 was going to be Rex Barney's breakout year.

Only it wasn't.

No one, not even Rex himself could pinpoint why he lost his control again. Barney often said that his pitching motion was altered after the broken ankle. The Dodgers brought teams of specialists, both of the physical and psychological variety, in a search for answers. What ever it was, Barney began a quick and merciless decent out of the majors. 1949 ended in a 9-8 record followed by 2-3 in 1950. The minor leagues followed and then a rung lower into the semi-pros. All the while Barney sought help from any source trying to regain his control. There was a heartbreaking article in the April 1954 edition of Collier's Magazine entitled "Can't Anybody Help Me?"

Unfortunately no one could. 

Years later Barney told author Peter Golenbock that after he found himself without a job or career he contemplated suicide. Rex Barney had never thought of a life without baseball. After bouncing around for a decade Barney broke into radio. By 1965 he was in Baltimore hosting his own sports talk show. It was there in Charm City that Rex Barney made the majors again, this time at the Orioles PA announcer. For over three decades Rex called out the pitching changes and public announcements. The Baltimore fans fell in love with his rich voice intoning "Thankyoooooooou!" after every announcement. His his catch phrase of "give that fan a contract!" after a spectator made a great catch of a foul or home run ball made him a local legend as big as Brooks Robinson and Earl Weaver. 

It was in this later capacity that I got to meet Rex Barney. I was 21 and had been one of the designers of the graphics at the new Oriole Park at Camden Yards. I was having a lunch meeting with the Orioles VP who drove the whole Camden Yards project, Janet Marie Smith, when in walks Rex Barney. Now I have been fortunate in my life to have met many big name ball players and entertainment personalities. Names that would make your head spin and a paparazzi cameraman get the shakes with expectation. But very few could compare to the glee I had in meeting old Rex Barney. When Janet Marie Smith realized that I knew who the old man limping into the restaurant was, she happily introduced me to the ballplayer. Rex gave me a warm handshake and listened politely as I mumbled something about my grandfather telling me about his no-hitter against the Giants. In a game full of so many lousy characters, Rex was a class-act and I couldn't wait to call my grandfather and tell him that.

Dogged by declining health, Rex Barney passed about four years later. The city of Baltimore, which gave Rex Barney a second chance at the big leagues, mourned the passing of its adapted son. As a tribute to his tremendous speed, to this day coaches in the Dodgers organization describe a pitcher with blinding speed but no control as possessing a "Rex Barney Fastball".

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