SABR

Dick Barrett

This article was written by David E. Skelton.

The 18-year-old righty dubbed 1925’s “sensation of the [New York-Pennsylvania L]eague”1 seemingly appeared from nowhere. Advanced to the Eastern League four years later, the youngster known as Dick Oliver was “ranked as one of the pitching mainstays of the [Albany Senators]”2 and a bright future beckoned. The problem was that no such pitcher existed. Hints emerged in 1931 that the promising hurler was in fact former collegiate star Tracy Barrett, though the ruse mysteriously continued into the major leagues in 1933. He spent five years in the majors and eventually carved a unique, albeit dubious, distinction. Since 1920, only two pitchers have concluded a major-league career with a 20-loss campaign. The hurler eventually known as Dick Barrett is one of those pitchers.

The name given to the boy born September 28, 1906, in the tiny borough of Montoursville, Pennsylvania, was not Dick or Richard – this name appears to have stuck from the self-adopted moniker. He was christened Tracy Souter Barrett, the eldest of four children born to Lincoln Scott Barrett and Frances Jeanete (Souter) Barrett (She descended from German immigrants.) The Barrett family had roots in Lycoming County (north-central Pennsylvania) dating to at least 1831 when his great-grandfather on his father’s side moved from Massachusetts. Barrett’s prep school athletic achievements earned him a spot in the rotation for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It wasn’t long before he was enticed into the professional ranks. (Barrett’s youngest brother, Drew, also realized diamond success in the semipro ranks.)

Tracy’s blazing fastball was spied by New York Yankees scout Paul Krichell, a former catcher who signed Lou Gehrig and Tony Lazzeri among others. Barrett was flattered by the attention but feared jeopardizing his scholastic standing. A bargain was struck with Krichell that, unbeknownst to many, allowed Barrett to continue pitching in the collegiate ranks while performing for the Williamsport (Pennsylvania) Grays under the name Dick Oliver. Barrett left the university after 1926, but the fictitious name stuck until 1933, when Commissioner Kenesaw Landis ordered him to use his correct name.

Mixed success followed as Barrett bounced around the minors. Becoming a personal favorite of manager Mike McNally, he won 20 games (despite a league-leading 108 walks) for the McNally-led Binghamton Triplets in 1928, and rejoined the former major-league infielder two years later as the pair contributed to a last-to-first championship season in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania – factors that accounted for Barrett’s spring-training tryout with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1932. (Though he was signed by the Yankees, the team apparently severed ties to him in the late ’20s.) Barrett achieved his success despite a June 1931 suspension (reason unknown) and a 3-16 campaign in 1931, the likely result of overuse of the 24-year-old’s arm. Over a four-year period (1927-30) Dick logged 950 innings. He suffered a blood clot in his right arm in the 1932 season that nearly resulted in amputation, with overwork the likely culprit (further health concerns surfaced in the winter after that season when Barrett was shot by a relative in a hunting accident). The clot contributed to a mere 13 innings pitched in 1932, and when the Cardinals tried to cut his salary, Dick balked and was released.

Barrett reemerged in Philadelphia in June of 1932, pitching among the semipro ranks. A remarkable string of 22 wins in 26 starts during a six week period made him a local celebrity but also resulted in another hospital stay because of his overtaxed arm. Among his few losses was one for the storybooks when Barrett’s Wentz-Olney squad faced off against its bitter rivals, the North Phillies. Manager Eddie Glennon employed a heckler to rattle Barrett, but when he returned the favor, the heckler – a butcher by trade – went after him with a cleaver. Thoroughly shaken, Barrett was knocked out in the fifth inning. That night, with a sense of guilt likely overwhelming him, Glennon sent a quart of ice cream to the Barrett residence.

Taking note of the ongoing success playing out on fields less than four miles from Shibe Park was Philadelphia A’s owner-manager, Connie Mack. What may have particularly caught Mack’s attention were the crowds attending Barrett’s outings – as many as 9,000 spectators at a time, while the A’s were attracting less than 4,000 per game. When Barrett opened 1933 with eight consecutive victories Mack began aggressively pursuing the 26-year-old righty.

Barrett is generously listed at 5-feet-9 and 175 pounds. Various hints indicate that he was perhaps shorter and certainly much stouter, a presence that earned him the nickname Kewpie.3 Mack’s idea of an athlete was somewhat much taller; He objected when 5-foot-8 infielder Charlie Engle reported to Shibe Park in 1925. “[H]e told his scouts not to send him any more players of small size, no matter what positions they play,” a scribe wrote.4 But with Barrett, the potential economics of spinning turnstiles from fans following the local celebrity appear to have won out over Mack’s prejudices. Mack may have known the true identity of the hurler he’d just inked. Conversely, despite published reports from 1931 reflecting otherwise, Philadelphia scribes blissfully continued in the descriptions of Dick Oliver’s shining debut. It was late August, with the A’s out of contention and eyes turned to a hopeful future, that Dick Barrett (thank you, Commissioner Landis) and Lefty Grove were acclaimed the nucleus of the 1934 staff. As events transpired, Barrett’s next appearance in Shibe Park would be as a visiting player.

In November 1933 Mack acquired pitcher Joe Cascarella from the Jersey City Skeeters (International League) for Barrett and cash consideration. The abrupt transaction was the result of Mack having spotted a picture in a Philadelphia newspaper of Barrett playing professional football. Harsh as this appears, Mack had previously lost a considerable investment in two players injured on the Duke University gridiron. Like all player contracts, Barrett’s stipulated no athletic activity outside of baseball without the club’s permission. Two months later the Skeeters released the righty, though this move was likely precipitated after Barrett told them he planned to retire. Dick was poised to return to the semipro circuit, but was snapped up by the Boston Braves as a “bright prospect … [whose] main trouble to date has been lack of control.”5 Signing with the Braves, Barrett insisted on a provision that the Braves would release him rather than send him to the minors. He reasoned that he could make more on the semipro circuit than in the minors. For reasons unknown, he soon rescinded this clause.

The 1934 Braves had a strong pitching staff (the year before they were among the major-league leaders in ERA and complete games), and this same mound corps remained essentially intact in 1934. Twenty-four games into the season Barrett had been called upon for a scant five innings and on May 15 the club released him to Albany of the International League. Barrett performed swimmingly in the International League (6-4 record, 2.64 ERA in a largely offense-oriented circuit), earning a return to Boston after a month. But his return did not proceed as smoothly; he was 1-2 with a 7.42 ERA in 11 appearances and didn’t pitch after August 1. On November 24 Barrett was part of a four-player swap with Seattle of the Pacific Coast League. The trade set in motion a brilliant career in the PCL, with Dick “on intimate terms with the win column.”6 Barrett spent 17 seasons in the Pacific Coast League, a stretch interrupted by three wartime seasons (1943-45) in the National League.

A 1935 preseason forecast said Barrett “figure[d] to win in (the Pacific Coast League),”7 and the pitcher proved it true. Pitching for seventh-place Seattle, he placed second in the league in wins (22) and strikeouts (191), and earned consideration for the PCL’s Most Valuable Player award (though he eventually fell well short of the winner, Joe DiMaggio). He pitched the Seattle team into pennant contention while earning All-Star selections and MVP consideration. (In 1939 he lost the MVP award to Joe’s brother Dom, in 1942 to his former Boston Braves roommate, Ray Mueller, by one vote.) Excepting 1938, in which he won “only” 18 games, Barrett met or exceeded the 20-win mark each year through 1942. One such season presented its own drama.

Assured of at least a $250 bonus (another source indicated twice as much) if he won 20 games in 1937, Barrett was two victories shy entering a season-ending doubleheader against Sacramento. After he won game one of the twin bill, Dick’s teammates rallied around his appeal to manager John Bassler to be allowed to pitch the nightcap. Meanwhile, team president Bill Klepper entered the clubhouse and instructed manager Bassler to use another pitcher in a bald attempt to spare the bonus payment. Bassler ignored the directive. Catcher Hal Spindel later recalled how “we all [fought] to put him over [the 20-win threshold].”8 The team’s efforts succeeded, earning a bonus for Barrett and a pink slip for Bassler.

Barrett’s success in the Northwest did not go unnoticed. After he posted a 22-13, 3.36 mark in 1936, the Cincinnati Reds picked him up in the offseason draft. At spring training in Tampa, Florida, the competition was stiff, including The Sporting News’s Minor League Player of the Year, Johnny Vander Meer, but Barrett inexplicably – he’d pitched in few, if any, Grapefruit League games – survived the cuts. He was still with the team when it broke camp and began playing its way north. Inserted into those games, he experienced the control problems that plagued throughout his career: 12 walks in five innings (a second report indicates 10 walks in two innings). On April 11 he was released. He returned to Seattle and within a year moved his still-growing family there. Except for the war years when he worked in a defense plant in the Philadelphia area during the offseason – and when he ran a gas station in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, in 1945 while the owner, his brother-in-law, underwent emergency surgery – he habitually returned to Seattle.

But before 1938, Barrett’s winter abode was Broome County in south-central New York State, not far from his native Montoursville, Pennsylvania. Dick had another reason for making Broome County home. He’d fallen in love with Dorothy May Foley, a Johnson City native, presumably sometime during the two years he played in nearby Elmira. They married in April 1933 and Dorothy bore four children – Donald (the eldest) and three girls. Dick supported his growing brood by converting his incredible gift for gab – he was described as a “word-slinging pitching ace”9 – into a successful offseason and post-career occupation selling life insurance.

After Barrett’s unprofitable stint with Cincinnati in 1937 spring training, the Reds returned him, as required, to the Seattle Indians (soon renamed the Rainiers). Though at 30 he was far from the oldest player on the team, his teammates turned to him as the leading spokesman when they threatened to strike over a plan by the front office to change their pay schedule. That issue resolved, Barrett threw a one-hitter in his next start and followed with a 14-strikeout game against Sacramento on September 14.

Barrett led Seattle to three consecutive championships (1939-41) as the team established minor-league attendance records (a matter that appears not to have gone unnoticed when he held out for a better contract in 1941). When professional baseball celebrated its “centennial” in 1939 (commemorating the “invention” of baseball by Abner Doubleday in 1839), Barrett (in 19th-century garb with fake beard and mustache) on August 10 gave a rendition of “Casey at the Bat” at Seattle’s Sick’s Stadium. In 1941 he was named Man of the Year in Seattle sports. Long a fan favorite in the Northwest, “[t]he spirited Kewpie struts and strides and puffs … [c]olor and showmanship fairly ooze from him.”10 But disappointment was soon to follow.

In early 1942, after the US entered World War II, major-league clubs hurriedly scanned the minors for replacement of players drafted into military service. As a husband and father of three children, Barrett’s 3A draft classification made him an unlikely candidate for induction and a seemingly perfect candidate for promotion. When no calls came from the majors, Barrett swallowed his pride and predicted a 25-win campaign for himself in the 1942 season. The prediction turned out to be a low bar.

The PCL’s single-season ERA record entering the 1942 season was a remarkable 1.43 posted by Jack Quinn in the Deadball days of 1918. In July 1942, with two near no-hitters under his belt (the second ruined by a scant infield dribbler), Barrett’s 1.42 midseason log appeared poised to shatter the 24-year-old mark. Though Quinn’s record remained intact (Barrett finished with 1.72), Dick compiled one of the finest seasons in PCL history by posting league-leading numbers in wins (27), innings pitched (330) and strikeouts (178). Losing out on the MVP award by one vote, he was named the Minor League Player of the Year by The Sporting News. Again sportswriters in the Northwest challenged major-league clubs to pick him up. Their campaign was rewarded when the Chicago Cubs drafted the balding veteran.

A rumor arose in early 1943 that Barrett would not report to the Cubs but would play instead for a semipro shipyard team in Seattle (a team his brother may have been playing for at the time). “Not report to Chicago?” Kewpie exclaimed. “Why, that’s all I’ve been dreaming of for years – a real chance to make good in the majors. This is my big opportunity. I’m sure going to make the most of it.”11 On March 13, their furniture placed in storage, the Barrett family set out by automobile and trailer on the 2,200-mile journey to French Lick, Indiana (the Cubs’ spring training site in the travel-restricted war years). The crossing was chronicled in great detail, with readers learning of the ham and three chickens consumed en route, the deer they ran over, and the boulder they hit. The adventurous odyssey was worth the effort when, on April 25, Barrett took the mound in Wrigley Field.

Barrett made two relief appearances (three innings) without allowing a baserunner. This performance earned him a starting nod on May 2 in the second game of a doubleheader in Pittsburgh. Barrett threw seven innings of one-hit ball in a heartbreaking 1-0 loss, the only run unearned, on a fourth-inning error. Barrett absorbed another heartbreaker in Philadelphia on May 20 (one run allowed in seven innings in a 2-0 loss) and, entering the last day of the month, had a record of 0-3 with an impressive 1.78 ERA. This level of performance did not last. On June 27, with his ERA at 4.80, Chicago moved to return Barrett to Seattle.

At that point, perhaps because of Barrett’s fine mid-May outing against the Phillies, Philadelphia manager Bucky Harris stepped into the fray. He engineered a trade for Barrett by way of Seattle, sending catcher Tom Padden to the Rainiers, and, when Padden refused the assignment, replacing the player with cash. Barrett drove 27 hours from Chicago to Philadelphia to take on his recent teammates on Independence Day in Shibe Park. Eight innings of five-hit ball resulted in yet another agonizing loss, but served as a springboard for a profitable second-half campaign. Excluding two bad outings against St. Louis, Barrett made 20 appearances (15 starts) and compiled a 9-7, 2.03 record for the 90-loss club. The Phillies hosted a Dick Barrett Day on August 24 at which he was presented with a proclamation by the acting-mayor and a bouquet of flowers by the daughter of his 1933 Wentz-Olney manager. When the Phillies later discovered they’d absorbed a bonus contract negotiated between Barrett and the Cubs (meaning they owed him more money than they thought), the team sought to bargain away the bonus. Team president William D. Cox admitted failure, saying Barrett “had a personal demeanor the like of which was hard to find. … I not only award him the badge for being the best personal salesman among ballplayers. … [h]e was successful in talking me into giving him credit for 28 innings that he had pitched for the Cubs.”12 The innings applied allowed Dick to keep the bonus.

The Phillies plummeted to last place in 1944, with Barrett’s numbers suffering accordingly. A decent 3.86 ERA (league average: 3.61) translated to a 12-18 mark for a team with the fewest runs scored in the league. Barrett’s value was recognized when other teams souight to trade for him– the Brooklyn Dodgers most aggressively – but nothing came of this. Meanwhile, Barrett’s 12-18 record far outshone his results the following year.

In Philadelphia during the war years, a pitcher losing 20 games in a season was not unusual. From 1942 through 1945, five pitchers wearing the uniform of either the Phillies or Athletics suffered this misfortune, including Barrett’s league-leading 20 losses in 1945.

Twenty losses appeared unlikely when the season began. A dreadful spring training conducted in Wilmington, Delaware, yielded to a profitable, team-leading three wins and three complete games through May 24. But in the midst of this success were some ominous signs. The control problems that afflicted Barrett’s early career returned and he would conclude the campaign among the league leaders in walks allowed, batters hit by pitch and wild pitches (pacing the majors in the latter category). The still-anemic Philadelphia offense was unable to overcome these challenges as the losses continued to pile up. In mid-July Barrett’s ERA hovered close to seven as he found himself in the throes of a ten-game losing streak (halted by a 3-2 victory over his namesake Red Barrett and the Cardinals on August 17). Dick made his last appearance on the final day of the season with an impressive three-inning relief outing, but his fate had already been sealed.

Earlier in September it was reported that Barrett would be part of a multiplayer swap with the Portland Beavers of the PCL, the transaction to be consummated before the following spring. The source of this information was Portland’s Bill Klepper, who eight years earlier, when he was the Seattle team’s president, sought in vain to foil Barrett’s $250 bonus. When the news broke, Barrett announced that he would not go to Portland, and after the season he joined a barnstorming squad competing along the East Coast against a Negro League all-star team.

However it happened, Barrett changed his mind and reported to Portland in March 1946. Though a second consecutive 20-loss season (8-21) ensued –the result of anemic offensive support from the last-place Beavers – Barrett earned another all-star selection in the PCL. At his request he was traded to Seattle in 1947 to be close to his family. On May 15, 1948, he hurled the second perfect game in PCL history. On August 19 the Rainiers hosted a Dick Barrett Night where among the many gifts presented were a blond toupee from the umpiring crew and a glass arm from the visiting San Diego Padres. The Rainiers were no longer the dominant team of the past and in 1949 Barrett requested his release and signed with the Padres. He concluded his long passage in the PCL with the Hollywood Stars in 1950, having recorded at that point the most career strikeouts, the most walks, and the second-most wins. Through 2013 Barrett remained the league leader in walks and strikeouts.

Barrett, by now 44 years old, resurfaced in the Western International League in 1951. He made an impressive show in 17 appearances for the Yakima (Washington) Bears and the Victoria (British Columbia) Athletics while serving as manager for the latter. Two cameo appearances with Vancouver in 1953 finally brought an end to his 29-year career (35 wins and 58 defeats in the major leagues but 317-251 in the minors). Asked to explain his success over such a long period with few serious injuries, Barrett responded, “I make my leg, back, and shoulder do most of the work. Secondly, I stick pretty much to the old routine – same form, rhythm, and pitches. And last, but not least, I like it out here” [referring to the Pacific Northwest].13

Barrett was inducted into the PCL’s Hall of Fame in 1951 and the Seattle Rainiers Hall three years later (the same year he was hired by the team as a part-time coach). Among his Pacific Coast League achievements, he took the greatest pride in his contributions in the 1941 playoffs: four victories in two weeks, including the championship clincher (a close second was the honor of delivering the first pitch in Seattle’s Sick’s Stadium). Barrett’s popularity extended beyond Seattle, and he was invited to a 1948 Hollywood Stars celebration that included many of the big names from the entertainment industry (among them Jack Benny, George Burns, Jimmy Durante, and the Marx Brothers).

On November 7, 1966, Tracy Souter Barrett (a.k.a. Dick (Kewpie) Barrett, Dick Oliver, and Richard Oliver Barrett) died in Seattle at the age of 60 after a prolonged illness. He was survived by his wife, Dorothy, and their four children. Dorothy died in 1989 and was buried next to her husband of 33 years in Seattle’s Holyrood Catholic Cemetery.

Eighteen-year-old Tracy Barrett was coaxed into professional play by a scout seduced by his ability to throw a blazing fastball. Their ploy of “Dick Oliver” ushered in a 27-year playing career. The inability to tame his lively arm resulted in a pedestrian major-league career, including the dubious distinction of losing 20 games in a season. (Barrett and Athletics right-hander Gordon Rhodes (9 victories, 20 losses in 1936) have been, as of 2014, the only pitchers since 1920 to lose 20 in a season and never pitch in the majors again.)

Short, plump, and balding in his later years, Barrett would easily be mistaken on the street for something other than an accomplished athlete. But gifted he was, and will remain one of the most successful hurlers to have climbed a mound in the Pacific Coast League.

 

Acknowledgments

The author wishes to thank SABR members Carlos Bauer, Steve Steinberg and Dick Beverage for aid in sorting through the PCL records. Further thanks are extended to Len Levin for editorial and fact-checking assistance.

 

Sources

Baseball-reference.com

ancestry.com

sabr.org/bioproj/person/d85f37e8

milb.com/content/page.jsp?sid=l112&ymd=20110422&content_id=18115930&vkey=league3

 

Notes

1 “Natural for Williamsport to Talk in Pennant Terms,” The Sporting News, March 4, 1926, 2.

2 “When Albany Steps Out There’s Trouble Ahead,” The Sporting News, May 30, 1929, 3.

3 Other less than flattering appellations that appeared in The Sporting News over the years included “Midget Strike-out Star,” “bald-headed bantam right-hander,” and “Little Round Man”; conversely, a child-like cast and infectious smile earned the oft-used tag “cherub-faced.”

4 “No More Pygmies for Connie Mack,” The Sporting News, September 24, 1925, 2.

5 “Boston Braves Add Two More Pitchers,” The Sporting News, February 22, 1934, 3.

6 “Stop-Gap Morrissey Proves More Than That to Seattle,” The Sporting News, May 25, 1939, 6.

7 “Ruether Working Self Into a Pennant Sweat,” The Sporting News, March 21, 1935, 1.

8 “Hal Spindel, Brown Rookie, Strong for Selective Draft; It Blew $50,000 Price Tags Away and Got Him a Job,” The Sporting News, May 4, 1939, 3.

9 “Seattle Out to Uphold Its Hold on Gate Marks,” The Sporting News, April, 18, 1940, 2.

10 “Kewpie Barrett, ‘Big Leaguer of Minors,’ Piling Up Another String of Victories,” The Sporting News, July 9, 1942, 5.

11 “Dick Barrett Will Report,” The Sporting News, March 4, 1943, 6.

12 “’Best Salesmanship Among Ball Players’” The Sporting News, January 20, 1944, 2.

13 “Barrett, Coast League’s All-Time Whiff King, Still Fooling ‘Em at 40,” The Sporting News, April 21, 1948, 23.

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