Whispering Bill Barrett was a Cambridge, Massachusetts, man through and through: born in Cambridge (May 28, 1900), died in Cambridge (January 26, 1951), and buried in Cambridge (Cambridge Cemetery, 7113 Chapel section). He’s also one of four Cantabrigians who played major league ball for the Boston Red Sox; the other three are Fred Mitchell, Carl Sumner, and Wilbur Wood. Barrett played for the Bosox for parts of the 1929 and 1930 seasons.
Barrett was born to William Joseph Barrett, a teamster, and his wife Flora, who lived at 8 Ninth Street in East Cambridge. Both parents were the children of Irish immigrants. They had two daughters older than Bill Jr., Mary (born 1896, who became Sister Mary Florentia of St. Joseph’s Order) and Catherine (born 1898, who became an operator for the telephone company.)
Early in 1921, the Boston Globe deemed him a “product of the sand lots of East Cambridge” who “first played ball with the Sacred Heart team of that section.” A 1924 Globe story claimed that he’d played truant from school as early as age 11 to practice with the Boston Red Sox; at one point he “carried a black and blue spot on his body as the result of a line drive from the bat of Harry Hooper during practice at Fenway Park one day.” Hooper was his boyhood idol.
After attending the Thorndike School and Cambridge Latin, he enrolled at Rindge Technical School, where he became a star athlete and from which he graduated in June 1917. As a pitcher at Rindge Tech, he was a selection for the All-Interscholastic nine. He played basketball, but it was his baseball pitching which “attracted wide attention in baseball circles” according to his obituary in the Cambridge Chronicle.
Bill was active on Cambridge diamonds, usually playing third base for playground teams like the Lincoln Parks and the Summits. He played amateur and semipro ball for teams like the Sacred Hearts and the Pinehursts, even foregoing one year of play at Rindge Tech to play with the Pinehursts. He played almost every position on the field, and in a 1919 game for the Pinehursts pitched against the St. John’s Council Knights of Columbus team of East Cambridge. In 1918, and again in 1920, he was captain of the St. John’s team and in an October 10 game at Thorndike Field shut out the South Boston All-Stars, 5-0, in front of some 6,000 people. Barrett threw a five-hitter, striking out eight. He batted third in the order and had a 2-for-4 day, including a double. Three days later, St. John’s beat the Harvard scrub team at Soldier’s Field, 7-5. Barrett played left field, and was 3-for-4 with a double, a triple, and a home run. Earlier that year, he’d played semipro ball for the Claremont, New Hampshire, team in the Twin State League and for Plattsburg, NY, as a pitcher and outfielder. When he pitched for St. John’s in October, a news story explained that he’d recently been signed by Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics.
Barrett made his major league debut on May 13, 1921. It was inauspicious: Philadelphia’s starting pitcher Bob Hasty lasted one inning and gave up three runs to the St. Louis Browns; Barrett pitched the second and surrendered four more. Mack moved Barrett to third base to take over for Jumping Joe Dugan, and Bill was 0-for-3 at the plate. Hasty was charged with the loss. Barrett only had one decision as a major league pitcher — a win on June 21, when he threw a hitless top of the 15th (despite a walk and a wild pitch) and saw his team win over Washington, 7-6. Barrett appeared in four games as a pitcher that year – his only four appearances on the mound — with a 1-0 record facing 25 batters in five innings of work. He walked nine, struck out two, and had a 7.20 earned run average. It was not as a pitcher that he made his mark.
In 1921, Barrett also appeared in eight games at shortstop, two at third base, one at first, and caught part of the July 14 game in Detroit. He hit .233, with three RBIs in 30 at-bats before being injured in an exhibition game. He was then packed off to play for Connie Mack’s son Earle, manager of the Moline team in the Three-I League. Moline won the league flag, and Barrett batted .269 playing shortstop, with 29 RBIs to his credit in 171 at-bats.
In May 1922, Barrett signed with the Reading ballclub in the International League. He played second base, shortstop, and a little first, batting .317 in 80 games. The following year, Barrett hit .337 in 105 games at both second base and outfield, with 70 RBIs, before being purchased by the White Sox on July 14 for what the Boston Globe called “one of the highest prices ever paid by the major league for a Class AA player.” The price was not indicated, but the purchase came at the recommendation of White Sox scout Ted Flaherty. A report said that Washington’s Clark Griffith had offered $20,000 but had not won out. The first game of his “comeback” was on August 22, 1923. He played center field, and was 2-for-3, his eighth-inning hit driving in the tying run against the Yankees. He scored the go-ahead run shortly afterward. His first homer came on September 4, providing all the runs in a 5-2 loss to the Tigers. He homered and doubled as part of a 3-for-5 day against the Yankees on September 14. Barrett batted .272 in 162 at-bats for the White Sox, and earned himself a spot on the team, playing alongside his childhood idol, Chicago’s right fielder Harry Hooper. Barrett played for Chicago for the next five years and part of a sixth. During the off-season, Barrett continued to reside in Cambridge with his parents and was active playing basketball, a star center and guard for the Boston Whirlwind team as well as teams in Weymouth, Amesbury, and South Kingston, Rhode Island. The Globe dubbed him “a magnificent physical specimen, graceful in every movement, and a splendid all-round athlete… a natural ball player” and added, “He is ambitious, has no bad habits, and gives every indication of a brilliant career on the ball field.” [Boston Globe, January 28, 1924]
Barrett covered every position in the infield and outfield over the next three years, despite a report out of spring training in 1924 that “all attempts to make an infielder of Barrett have been abandoned.” [Chicago Tribune, March 7, 1924] His very versatility seemed to cause managers to keep trying him out in the infield, often to his detriment. An unnamed correspondent in The Sporting News had written in late February that “Barrett is too good a prospect to be ruined by [Frank] Chance or any other manager. He is a great outfielder.” Yet just before the season began, Chance said, “I have in mind trying Bill Barrett in the infield.” [Chicago Tribune, April 12, 1924]
Bill’s best day in his first full season came on May 1, when he hit three singles and one double, and stole three bases — including two steals of home in the same game, in the first and ninth innings, tying the major league record. He played much more in the infield than the outfield, as the season developed, hitting a solid .271. With a league-leading 39 errors at shortstop, though, there weren’t many more games in store for him at that position.
In 1925, knowing that he had a number of good shortstops, new manager Eddie Collins asked Barrett where he preferred to play, and Barrett selected center field. Nonetheless, he wound up as more of a utility player, and worked more than half the games in the infield. He had a superb season, despite only appearing in 81 games, batting .363. The Sporting News noted at year’s end that Barrett “was a bust” in the infield and “anyway he is too good a man offensively to keep in a place that he knows he can’t play. Bill belongs in the outfield where there is nothing to worry him.” [November 5, 1925. The writer felt that Barrett would inherit right field from his childhood hero Hooper in 1926 — which he did.]
Barrett had also begun to earn a nickname. Just as a very large man sometimes attracts the nickname “Tiny,” Barrett’s nickname “Whispering Bill” grew from his loudness and loquaciousness. A Washington Post story in November 1925 began, “Bill Barrett’s chief difficulty in life is to remain quiet. He doesn’t succeed very well.”
Barrett had another excellent year in 1926, almost exclusively as an outfielder. Though he was taken out of the lineup for a while during a mid-season slump, by the time the year was over, he had hit .307 with six homers and driven in 61 runs. On July 22, his bases-loaded triple beat the Yankees, but baseball humbles players, and five days later he dropped a 10th-inning fly ball and Philadelphia won a 6-5 game. Barrett’s big day came against the Red Sox on August 4, driving in two runs with a sixth-inning double, then scoring the tying run–and breaking the game open in the seventh with an inside-the-park grand slam. He’d accounted for all of Chicago’s runs in the 7-3 win. The Chicago Tribune game story led with the comment that Barrett “can at least be quiet while asleep.” In post-season “city series” play against the Cubs, Barrett accounted for all the runs in the 4-0 White Sox win on October 3. Will Anderson, in his book The Lost New England Nine, wrote that “Barrett was one of the game’s great bench jockeys… so adroit at this secondary calling that a Chicago sportswriter of the day advised White Sox fans — not completely tongue-in-cheek — to wear earmuffs to Comiskey Park when the Yankees came to town. That was because Whispering Bill’ especially loved to voice his views to the Yanks’ home run duo, the Babe and Lou Gehrig. And he had a voice that resounded. And resounded. And resounded.”
Irving Vaughn, writing in The Sporting News after the season was over, declared that Barrett had become a “star”: “He was a dashing fellow defensively and hit like a mad man.” He added, “Bill seems to be one of those performers who enjoys playing the game, but who doesn’t disturb his mental faculties by taking the affair seriously.” [The Sporting News, October 14, 1926]
In 1927, Barrett drove in a career-high 83 runs, with a productive .283 average, while appearing in 147 games and accumulating 556 at-bats, also career bests. One remarkable game came at home in Chicago. With the game tied 6-6 in the bottom of the ninth, Bill singled. He stole second base, and scampered to third when Boston’s catcher threw wildly to center field — where the center fielder fumbled the ball, allowing Barrett to score the winning run. In 1928, while the White Sox visited Boston, as many as 3,000 fans turned out at Fenway Park for Bill Barrett Day, and Cambridge Mayor Edward W. Quinn presented Bill with a watch. Bill hit .277 in 235 at-bats, splitting his playing time between second base and the outfield. Another White Sox manager, Ray Schalk, once again had tried to move Barrett to the infield, playing him in 25 games at second base. When he did, the team suffered. “Experiment Fails to Work” was the subhead in a May Sporting News article that concluded, “Barrett is an outfielder… as a result, the infield looked bad. After bouncing into last place, Schalk decided to abandon the experiment, so Barrett was moved back to right field, where he is more at home.”
Barrett apparently let people know how he felt about the moves. Chicago correspondent Vaughn called him “Babbling Bill Barrett” and said he “might have been a favorite hereabouts had he conducted himself properly. He has shot off his face about baseball writers, his manager, fellow players and about everybody else until he has alienated himself. Even the fans give him the bird… until he ceases to think he is bigger and better than the game itself, there will not be much room for him in the majors.” [The Sporting News, October 18, 1928] Despite his successes with the White Sox, Barrett apparently had been hoping out loud to be traded for a few years. On May 23, 1929, after having just one at-bat all year for Chicago, he was traded straight up to Boston for outfielder Doug Taitt. Vaughn took a parting shot at the departing Barrett: “The White Sox finally are rid of Bill Barrett, and not many regrets are being expressed… his constant jabbering and whining against his employers left him out on a limb.” [The Sporting News, May 30, 1929]
For Barrett, it was a welcome chance to play in his own hometown, albeit for the perennially last-place Red Sox. Both Barrett and Taitt featured in the August 2 game in Boston, which saw a 1-1 tie between the two teams after nine full innings. In the top of the 10th, Taitt — playing for the White Sox — doubled and scored the go-ahead run. In the bottom of the 10th, Boston’s Barrett doubled in Russ Scarritt to tie it back up and then scored on Regan’s single. Boston had Bill Barrett and Russ Scarritt, but also another unrelated Barrett, infielder Bob Barrett.
Barrett was Boston’s regular right fielder and hit .270, though with only 35 RBIs. After the season, his thoughts turned to another pursuit when both he and Boston right-handed pitcher Ed Morris attempted to get licenses to box professionally. On January 18, Commissioner Landis ruled that “any ball player engaging in the so-called manly art of boxing would be considered retired from baseball.” [Chicago Tribune, January 19, 1930] The edict was aimed at White Sox first baseman Art Shires, who had already taken on five opponents, been challenged to a match by Hack Wilson, and reportedly anticipated booking as high as $50,000 in future matches. Landis suggested that having baseball players engage in boxing didn’t reflect well on either sport and was tantamount to taking money under false pretenses. Both Barrett and Morris had asked Red Sox President Bob Quinn for permission to box Shires at Boston Garden, but Quinn told them on January 13 that he would not consent, that heading into the ring without proper training would make them “look foolish and cause untold anguish to their wives and families” — not to mention the chance of an unfortunate injury to an untrained man. [Hartford Courant, January 14, 1930] The head of the Benevolent Association of Boxers, Jim Mullen, retaliated by banning boxers from playing professional baseball.
After appearing in only six games for the Red Sox in 1930, Bill Barrett was traded to the Washington Senators for right-fielder Earl Webb — an excellent trade for the Red Sox, as Webb batted .323 in 1930 and .333 the following year, while setting the all-time doubles single-season doubles record. Barrett had a total of four at-bats for the Senators, and those were his last in major league ball. In 718 major league games, he had batted .288 with 23 HR and 328 RBIs.
On June 4, Barrett was sold outright to the Minneapolis Millers. In August, he moved on to Kansas City. Between the two American Association teams, he hit .266. In 1931, Barrett was with Reading in the International League; he hit .278 in 144 at-bats, was returned to Kansas City (but saw no action) in July, and then to New Haven in August, where he hit .263 in 156 at-bats. He was back on the Kansas City roster in September, on Shreveport’s in March 1932, and was then released. He played no organized baseball in either 1932 or 1933, but remained active in independent ball. Bill played for Roslindale in the Greater Boston area, and in July played a coupe of times for the Hartford-based Savitt Gems team. He was 0-for-7 in his Independence Day doubleheader debut, against the Philadelphia Colored Giants.
Barrett returned to organized ball for one final season as player-manager of Watertown (Northeastern League) beginning in July 1934. He hit .261 in 207 at-bats.
After baseball, Barrett worked for a while for the Civilian Conservation Corps as a camp foreman. He returned to Cambridge and took up work as a district claim superintendent with the Massachusetts Unemployment Compensation Commission. In 1938, he testified before a legislative investigating committee that he had applied for the job routinely and was hired “not because of political influence.” After characterizing himself as a “finished ball player” he declared, “I think I am intelligent, and that is all the job needs — good common sense.” [Hartford Courant, May 10, 1938] Bill also took up work as a sales promotion manager for Seagram’s Distillers, but not at a particularly high level — he was a member of Distillery Workers Local No. 8. Barrett also served on the Recreation Commission of the City of Cambridge, and was its second chairman. From 1946 until his death in 1951, he served as a scout for the Red Sox.
Only 50 years old, Barrett collapsed at his Huron Avenue home and died on January 26, 1951, leaving his wife Margaret and a 13-year-old son Richard. He was survived by his parents and two sisters, and is buried in Cambridge Cemetery, where he shares a grave with his sister the nun, who herself lived to be 100. Attending Bill’s funeral at St. Peter’s Church were Joe Cronin, Eddie Collins, Hugh Duffy, Johnny Pesky, and a number of other figures from the Red Sox and from the world of baseball.
Anderson, Will. The Lost New England Nine (Bath, Maine: Anderson & Sons, 2003)
The Sporting News
United States Census records
Thanks for assistance to Rod Nelson and Ray Nemec