SABR

Jim Barbieri

This article was written by Dan McHale.

Baseball fans remember Game One of the 1954 World Series for New York Giants center fielder Willie Mays’ spectacular over-the-shoulder catch of Cleveland Indians slugger Vic Wertz’s towering eighth-inning drive. For 13-year-old Jimmy Barbieri, however, it was the first pitch of this fall classic that was most memorable – not Giants starter Sal Maglie’s opening toss to the visiting Indians, but his own ceremonial first pitch, an honor bestowed upon the youngster for captaining his Schenectady, New York, team to the Little League World Series title. A dozen years later, a grown-up Jim Barbieri would make his second appearance at an “adult” World Series – this time as a player for the National League champion Los Angeles Dodgers. This was the pinnacle of Barbieri’s 11-year career in professional baseball, which took him from the East Coast to the West Coast, and finally to Japan.

Born on September 15, 1941, in Schenectady, James Patrick Barbieri was the second son of Joseph and Stella Barbieri. In 1949, when Jimmy was 7 years old, Little League baseball debuted in New York’s electric city, as it did in many other working-class American cities and towns during the Baby Boom years following World War II. At age 9, Barbieri began his Little League career on the General Electric team; two years later, he was the center fielder for the team of Schenectady all-stars that made it all the way to the final game of the 1953 Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, losing a 1-0 heartbreaker to a squad from Birmingham, Alabama. The following year, again under the guidance of no-nonsense manager Mike Maietta, Schenectady returned to Williamsport and this time captured the crown, defeating a team from Colton, California, 7-5.

As captain of the championship team, Barbieri became the public face of Schenectady's young hardball heroes. In addition to receiving the squad’s trophies, the 4-foot-9 outfielder appeared on The Perry Como Chesterfield Show and The Today Show, and was interviewed on national radio by baseball announcer Mel Allen. He also received congratulatory kisses from singer Dinah Shore and the Albany Tulip Queen.1 Most famously, Barbieri received the honor of tossing the first pitch of the 1954 World Series. He later commented that in every city he played with the Dodgers, “there would be a story in the local newspaper that I was the kid who threw out the first ball at the ‘54 World Series and now I’m a pro ballplayer myself.”2

Unlike many of his Schenectady teammates, Barbieri’s Little League accomplishments were not the high point of his athletic career. He progressed from Babe Ruth ball onto the varsity team at Schenectady’s Linton High School, twice leading the Blue Devils in batting and topping the team in home runs his senior year. In all three of Barbieri’s varsity years, Linton won Class A League titles. He also played summer ball in the Schenectady Twilight League, which included some former minor-leaguers. Graduating from high school in 1959, Barbieri had one goal in mind: to play professional baseball. He placed a phone call to his old Little League coach, Mike Maietta, who was a bird-dog scout for the Dodgers. Maietta called Dodgers regional scout Joe Thomas, and together they offered Barbieri $1,000 to sign a contract with Los Angeles’ Class C farm club in Reno, Nevada, which he accepted in September.3

Barbieri’s professional career began at the Dodgers’ spring-training camp in Vero Beach, Florida, in March 1960. Though he inked a Class C contract, he was assigned to the Class D Panama City Fliers of the Alabama-Florida League, where he impressively hit .300 with eight homers and 68 RBIs.4 Upon season’s end in Class D ball, Barbieri was sent north to Wisconsin and finished out the year with the Class B Green Bay Dodgers, batting .261 in 11 games. The Green Bay club folded after the 1960 season, so in a lateral move he was shipped to Oregon play for the Salem Dodgers in 1961. Barbieri’s only season in the Northwest League was a triumph. At 19 years old, the teenage outfielder was the youngest man on the team. Barbieri was also Salem’s top batter: He hit .312, made the league all-star team and was named the squad’s most valuable player. The following year, the upstate New York native was promoted to Triple-A ball. Not only did he enjoy another successful campaign (he batted .265 for the Omaha Dodgers and fans selected him as their favorite player), he also married his Schenectady sweetheart, Elaine Fairlee, in August.5

At 5-feet-7-inches tall and weighing just 155 pounds, Jim Barbieri was the smallest player on almost every team he played for. His stature was the subject of frequent clubhouse ribbing, but Barbieri took it all in stride: “Guys called me Mighty Mouse and Rat and Dingle for years; everybody had a nickname in baseball, but they weren’t meant to be offensive, they were part of the game. I always figured as long as guys were getting on you, they liked you.” Sportswriters, too, joined in on the act. He was often compared Albie Pearson, the notoriously diminutive (5-feet-5) California Angels outfielder. One columnist even wrote that Barbieri was “approximately the size of a fungo bat.”6

It was Barbieri’s reputation as a hard-playing, undersized underdog that endeared him to fans, especially those in Spokane, Washington, where he played for the hometown Indians from 1963 to 1969. In four of his seven seasons with the Dodgers’ Pacific Coast League affiliate, Spokane fans voted Barbieri the team’s most popular player. Kids sent him letters telling him he was their hero and inspired them.7 “Jim Barbieri was a fan favorite in Spokane, and my favorite Spokane Indian,” wrote blogger Mark Hinton. “I remember him playing hard, or at least I remember my dad and my uncles telling my brother and cousins that we should watch how hard and smart he played.”8 In addition to his tenacious style of play in the field, Barbieri was also known in Spokane for his skills at the plate. He hit .279 in 789 career games with the Indians, and had some pop in his bat too, smacking 60 home runs.

The hustling outfielder’s finest season was 1966, when he hit .357 with a PCL-leading 14 triples. Throughout that season, rumors abounded that Barbieri would be called up by the Indians’ parent club, the reigning world champion Los Angeles Dodgers. The long-awaited phone call from Dodgers general manager Buzzy Buvasi came on the morning of July 5. At 6 P.M. that evening, Barbieri signed his major-league contract. An hour later, Los Angeles manager Walt Alston started him in left field in the team’s game against the Cincinnati Reds. Not only did Barbieri have to borrow another player’s glove, but his number 17 uniform was too large.9 Barbieri went 0-for-2 in his first game, although he drew a walk, stole a base, and threw out a runner.

The Boys in Blue eked out a 1-0 victory in Dodger Stadium that night behind the brilliant pitching of their ace, Sandy Koufax. It was the Dodgers’ starting rotation of Koufax, Don Drysdale, Don Sutton, and Claude Osteen that carried the team throughout the 1966 campaign. Although their pitching was the best in baseball, Los Angeles’ lineup was, in the words of author Tom Adelman, “a pop-gun offense.”10 Coming into the season, outfield was, on paper, a strength for the Dodgers, but ineffectiveness and injuries plagued the team’s top four outfielders, Tommy Davis, Willie Davis, Ron Fairly, and Lou Johnson. These factors allowed Barbieri to play his way into Alston’s outfield platoon. Barbieri, who hit left-handed (though he threw righty), started 17 games that summer, and in these contests the Dodgers went 13-4. Despite his .309 batting average at the time, Barbieri started only one game after August 8. “[Alston] said, ‘Don’t worry about not playing, you did a good job for us; but I gotta give these other guys a chance. ... I said, ‘You’re the manager.’” Barbieri said he believed his passive response to his skipper’s decision was a big mistake: “I think that finished me with Alston; he never said too much to me after that.”

Barbieri continued to contribute to the Dodgers’ pennant drive, by coming off the bench as a pinch-hitter. The team was engaged in a fierce battle for the National League lead with the San Francisco Giants and the Pittsburgh Pirates. Los Angeles leapfrogged both teams in the standings the weekend of September 10-11 and took sole possession of first place, but the pennant would nevertheless come down to the season’s final day. Needing one win in a doubleheader against the Philadelphia Phillies to clinch the crown, the Dodgers lost the first game 4-3, but held on to a 6-3 victory in the second behind a herculean effort from Koufax.

Awaiting the 95-win Dodgers were the American League champion Baltimore Orioles, who won 97 games and secured the AL pennant by nine games. The 1966 World Series, like most significant sporting events, had a number of compelling subplots, including one involving Barbieri and Orioles slugger Boog Powell. In the 1954 Little League World Series, Powell’s Lakeland, Florida, team was one of the clubs Barbieri’s Schenectady squad defeated on its way to the title.11 Together the two men became the first players to participate in both the Little League and big-league World Series. Powell, Baltimore’s starting first baseman, played in all four games of the 1966 fall classic, while Barbieri made an appearance in just one. In what would be the final at-bat of his major-league career, Barbieri was called upon to pinch-hit for pitcher Joe Moeller in the bottom of the fourth inning of Game One. He was struck out by Orioles pitcher Moe Drabowsky, becoming the first of the reliever’s World Series record six consecutive strikeouts. “I worked him to a three-two count and he threw me a high, hanging slider,” recalled Barbieri. “It was a ball, but it looked so darn good that I swung at it. I missed.”

Barbieri was not the only Los Angeles batter who failed at the plate. In their four-game sweep at the hands of the Orioles, the Dodgers hit for a paltry .142 average and did not score a run in the final 33 innings of the Series. They established World Series records for fewest hits and runs, and never led in any of the four games. During the team’s postseason exhibition tour of Japan, a physically broken-down Sandy Koufax announced his retirement from the game. The Dodgers were entering a rebuilding phase.

Club brass, meanwhile, did not include their 25-year-old, New York-born utility outfielder in their future plans. To his surprise and dismay – and, despite his .280 rookie-season batting average – the Dodgers sold Barbieri’s contract back to Triple-A Spokane. “Once you get a taste of big-league life, nobody wants to go back down to the minors; I hated it,” said Barbieri, echoing the sentiments of scores of similarly situated ballplayers. He spent three more years with the Spokane Indians, in the last of which he hit .300 and stole a career-high 25 bases. Though he hoped for another promotion to the majors, the Dodgers never came calling back. There was, however, interest in Barbieri’s services from an unexpected source. Prior to the 1970 season, the Chunichi Dragons of Japan’s Central League offered the outfielder a two-year contract, which he promptly signed. Although the money was good, the experience was a disaster. Barbieri hit under .200 in 93 games with the Dragons and had spats with the team’s manager, Shigeru Mizuhara. “It rained. He got hurt. He didn’t hit. He came home after the season and never came back,” wrote one Spokane sportswriter of Barbieri’s time spent overseas.12 Chunichi bought out the remaining year of his contract, and in February 1971 Barbieri announced his retirement from baseball. Upon learning of the news, the Schenectady Gazette struck a decidedly melancholy note: “And so, an era ends in a way. The last of the Little League champions is quitting the game.”13

Barbieri’s life after baseball centered around family and work. After coming to Spokane to play minor-league ball in 1973, he never left. He and Elaine bought a house in suburban Spokane Valley and settled down there to raise four sons, David, Steven, Daniel, and Kyle. Shortly after his return from Japan, Barbieri worked in sporting-goods sales, followed by a longer stint working for a friend’s beer distribution company. Retired, he began to spend time in his garden, growing vegetables for another of his passions: Italian cooking.14 He also took up advocating for conservative political causes in the local press. He is remembered fondly by the Indians organization and Spokane fans. In 2003 he was voted onto the club’s All-Century team as a starting outfielder.15 It was in the Schenectady Little League, however, that Barbieri was taught the fundamentals for success in sports, and in life: “I learned how to win, and that carried me throughout my whole career.”16

Last revised: July 20, 2015

 

Notes

1 Martin Ralbovsky, Destiny's Darlings: A World Championship Little League Team Twenty Years Later (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1974): 63; Ogdensburg (New York) Journal, August 16, 1970.

2 Quoted in Ralbovsky: 62. All subsequent quotations from Jim Barbieri on his playing career are from Ralbovsky's book Destiny's Darlings, unless otherwise noted.

3 Ralbovsky: 65-66; Schenectady Gazette, September 21, 1959.

4 All minor-, major- and Japan-league statistics were obtained from baseball-reference.com.

5 “Omaha Area Marriages & Anniversaries,” Greater Omaha Genealogical Society, omahamarriages.wordpress.com.

6 Houston Post, October 8, 1966. This article was included in Jim Barbieri's player file from the Giamatti Library at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

7 Spokesman-Review (Spokane), August 22, 1999.

8 Mark Hinton, “Poem: Jim Barbieri (Topps 1966),” Montana Writer, montanawriter.com/?p=1071.

9 Ralbovsky: 71-72.

10 Tom Adelman, The Golden Arm, the Robinson Boys, and the 1966 World Series That Stunned America (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2006): 91.

11 Although Barbieri and Powell were the only members of their respective Little League squads to play in a MLB World Series, they each had a teammate who made the major leagues. Billy Connors from Schenectady and Carl Taylor from Lakeland also played at the sport’s highest level.

12 Spokane Chronicle, June 26, 1985.

13 Schenectady Gazette, February 11, 1971.

14 Spokesman-Review, August 22, 1999.

15 Spokesman-Review, August 23, 2003.

16 Times Union (Albany, New York), August 25, 2011.

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